Gramsci in Sussex

Victor Anderson on cross-party thinking 

Lewes Labour Party has developed a reputation for putting on excellent conferences discussing interesting issues without rancour and name-calling. They did it again in November. 

This seems to have started some years ago when Mark Perryman got elected as the Constituency Labour Party’s political education officer. That’s not normally thought of as one of the great offices of state, bearing in mind Labour in Lewes always comes third in general elections. But Mark took that post and turned it into something influential by using it to organise events which now draw in Labour members, Liberal Democrats, Greens and others from across the whole of South East England and, in some cases, further afield. 

The mood is thoughtful and there’s a lot of listening as well as quite a lot of talking. A wide spectrum of progressive opinion is represented, but without apparent factionalism. The events are a model of what can be called “co-operative pluralism” – helping to form a Gramscian-style, potentially “hegemonic bloc” led by Labour while maintaining a Hannah Arendt-style of respect for and positive valuing of different perspectives, including those of other parties. A powerful combination. 

In terms of practical politics under first-past-the-post, that means a willingness to vote tactically, and it was appropriate that the first session of the conference was Tim Bale, probably the nation’s number one academic expert on the Tory party, talking about the “Blue Wall” of Tory-held seats, many of them vulnerable to tactical voting. One of his interesting statistics was that while 69% of people remember which party came first in the previous parliamentary election, only 29% remember which came second. Tactical voting depends above all on people having the knowledge which enables them to know who to vote for. 

The most thought-provoking session was on the problem of England, led by John Denham, an ex-minister who resigned over Iraq who now runs the Centre for English Identity and Politics. He pointed out how, despite all the political and economic changes of the past hundred years, nation states have remained the main focus for political action. The idea that globalisation has made them redundant has simply proved wrong. What I was less persuaded by was the claim that, with the growth of nationalism in Scotland and Wales, we now need to build English political institutions. Wouldn’t an English Parliament be Tory-run? Or would setting it up provide the basis for Labour to renew itself as a patriotic party?  

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