Communities and Housing//

Change needs unlikely alliances

Written by: Marc Stears on 20 March, 2012
Filed under Communities and Housing, Economy

Truly transformative politics is always the politics of unlikely alliances.

In 1945, Clement Attlee’s Labour Party drew together a fresh coalition of returning soldiers, the industrial working class and middle class professionals by promising to build a new welfare state that would protect the interests of all. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher crafted a new relationship between small and large businesses, the self-employed and sections of the working class who were increasingly disgruntled with industrial strife and a sense of national decline.

In 1997, Tony Blair repeated the trick again, this time forging an alliance between key elements of the business community and the public sector by promising to reconcile the demands of free market efficiency and social justice for the first time. None of these alliances can last forever. The New Labour alliance fell apart as a result of the failures of its core political economy. But they are the essential precondition of reform nonetheless.

Labour could not have been further away from this kind of politics in 2010. Its appeal and its support was, instead, shockingly predictable. The core Labour vote continued to turn out, if not in enormous numbers, but almost everyone else stayed away. And this should not have surprised anyone. Labour’s electoral offer was, after all, squarely focused on those who already find the Party essentially desirable, led by those who work in, or heavily depend upon, the public sector.

What the Labour Party needs more than anything now, therefore, is a sense of where the next set of unlikely alliances will come from. Labour’s leader knows this. Ed Miliband wants to lead a transformative Labour government. He also believes that the 2008 crash and its disastrous economic aftermath provide a rare opportunity for creative centre-left politics.

But the questions of who could be brought together to build such a politics and what will inspire them to put aside their traditional loyalties and join together in a new alliance have yet to be consistently posed in public debate. It is time to put that right. It is time that Labour had a demanding, provocative and open discussion about the alliances that will enable the Party to help transform Britain after the next general election.

As Labour has that debate, it should remember that history teaches us three things about the unlikely alliances of the recent past.

First, it tells us that such alliances can never be built on economic self-interest alone. Everyone looks to politics to advance their own material well-being, of course, and it would be dangerously naïve in the extreme to imagine that they do not.

But even at times of recession and austerity, economic security is not all that people want. To build an alliance across class and status lines, it is essential therefore for a political party to offer more than an account of individualized economic advancement. To forge a new alliance, a party must also advance an account of national renewal, of our shared social identity, of what we used to call the common good. In other words, bringing people together requires bringing people together.

Second, the history of unlikely alliances also tells us that they are constructed on the back of new thinking, not old orthodoxies. Whatever our personal perspectives on the politics of Attlee, Thatcher and Blair, what is entirely clear is that each made Britain think again about what was possible in politics. They did not simply take established beliefs and try to mobilize people around them. They drew on the carefully crafted arguments from outside the political mainstream and transformed them into a new politics of opportunity. Unlikely alliances emerge when people are encouraged to see the world anew, not when they are told to see it in the way they have always done so.

Third, history also tells us that Westminster politicians acting alone can never build an unlikely alliance. Such alliances not only depend on fresh thinking from outside, that is, they depend on fresh activity too. People are brought together when they see the effectiveness of common good politics in their daily lives. Organizational dynamism has thus always been a crucial part of the politics of alliance building, be it the think tanks and business organisations that gave such vivacity to the early Thatcher project or the coalitions of trade unions and professional interests that stood behind the Attlee agenda. There needs always to be pressure from outside the world of Westminster as well as enthusiasm from within to give an unlikely alliance its life.

Reflecting on these three historical lessons does not, of course, tell us precisely who Ed Miliband’s Labour Party’s unlikely alliance will be comprised of nor how precisely he should go about constructing it. But they do get that process started. They tell us that there is no hope for a politics that is focused entirely on either the campaigning against the cuts or crafting a new industrial policy. They tell us there is no hope in an old social democratic orthodoxy. They tell us there is no hope in an old Blairite orthodoxy either. And they tell us there is certainly no hope in a campaign that is focused on the sensitivities of Westminster elites rather than passions of British communities. The path to a new transformative politics will take us away from a narrow economism, away from established thinking and away from an obsession with the narrow Westminster elite.

It is clear, then, where we have to head away from. But where does this analysis take us? Not, as Patrick Diamond and Mike Kenny have recently suggested, back to some imagined past of a “progressive alliance” between liberalism and orthodox social democracy, forged together through a shared interest in constitutional reform. There is no new majority there. Instead, the search for a new unlikely alliance should take us to the paradoxical commitments of many in the British public: worried about a continual decline in their living standards but enthusiastic about a new story of national identity; sceptical about a politics that tells us that “government knows best” but excited about the prospects of a renewed settlement in our public services; desperate for a greater sense of responsibility in our society but certain that such responsibility has to be shown by those more fortunate as well as those who receive public support.

There is a great deal of work to do to make sense of these commitments and to convert them into an effective electoral appeal. Crafting unlikely alliances is never easy. But it is the only way to change our politics.

Marc Stears is a professor of political theory at the University of Oxford.