Ideas and institutions

[Originally published on LabourList]

In a recent episode of Borgen, BBC Four’s Danish political drama, Birgitte Nyborg, that fictive paragon of principle, debated her old ally Bent Sejrø on the merits of forming a new political party. Bent attempts to dissuade Birgitte, plaintively stating that ‘this is your party’, but is met with the rejoinder, ‘I’m loyal to the idea, not the institution’. This line demonstrates the lengths to which Birgitte is willing to go in pursuit of her principles. It also advances an unorthodox understanding of loyalty, which is typically applied to people and organisations, rather than to concepts. On watching this scene, I thought how altogether familiar this problem is for Labour voters and members.

This is a debate that Labour supporters have had not only with themselves, but also with Lib Dem defectors in the aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan; with those who couldn’t condone the abandonment of Clause 4 and the embrace of the markets that followed; and more recently, with those who despair at Labour’s apparent acceptance of the logic, if not the practice, of austerity, and its refusal to defend the immigration policies of Blair and Brown. Each of these protests present the same challenge to supporters: does this institution continue to embody the ideas that you support?

Although there is something exhaustingly futile about the constant evaluation of the extent to which your principles and the party’s principles coincide, this is in fact the way it should be. Tribalism in any form should be abhorred. It signifies the abandonment of reflection in favour of tradition, and exchanges critical thought for parochial allegiance. We should all, as far as practically possible, be in a state of constant readiness to abandon the institution if it no longer serves to promote the ideas.

Away from the romanticised world of Nyborg’s Copenhagen however, the demarcation of ideas and institution is far more complicated. No political party ever fully represents the views of any one member. That’s not to say that they are unrepresentative, but rather that any collective democratic organisation is formed by compromise, and collective principles need not be unanimously agreed for them to be consensual and binding. You are, in part, committed to the institution because it represents a broad set of ideas, even if certain specific ideas are distasteful. The institution is a vehicle for the collective expression of principles, not for the promotion of any individual’s particular view.

At my first Conference this year, I was struck by the frequency of the use of ‘comrade’ as a, albeit semi-ironic and deliberately nostalgic, form of address. The Labour Party in its present form could not describe itself as a socialist party, if it ever could at all. It would even be a stretch to describe it as a social democratic party. Labour has never gladly embraced either of these labels, and has never followed the ideological delineations of the Continent to which they more clearly apply. Nevertheless, to invoke the idea of ‘comrade’, with its heavy historical and cultural baggage, indicates either the full victory of irony over sincerity, or it suggests a rupture between Labour’s ideas and Labour’s institution. It’s probably a bit of both, the irony emphasising the rupture, and its usage is far from ubiquitous (I can’t imagine many Progress members ‘comrading’ one another). This slightly flippant observation of a conference neophyte, not meaningful in itself, does point to a real sense of confusion amongst Labour supporters about our relationship with the party and its ideas, particularly its status as a party of the left.

In Borgen, for those who haven’t seen it, Birgitte breaks away in opposition to the policy to deport immigrants for legal misdemeanours. If Labour were to do the same, would I jump ship? Possibly, I’m not sure – as ever, it depends. Worryingly, it doesn’t feel like an outlandish policy proposal in the current climate.

For what it’s worth, I actually believe Ed Miliband when he calls himself a socialist. It’s a centrist, focus-grouped, messy, twenty-first century sort of socialism, but the ideas are innovative, appealing and plausible. Borgen, although afforded a luxury of moral simplicity which we can only dream of, still offers a valuable reminder that it is the ideas, not the institution, to which we are loyal, and that Labour is only valuable insofar as it promotes those ideas. Don’t you agree, comrade?

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