This is a follow-up to my previous story on Liberal Democrats and factions, as there were some comments and questions about it that got me thinking and it felt worthwhile to expand on them in a linked post rather than letting them disappear into the Twitter ether.
Why Liberal Democrats need to understand and embrace factions
The party needs better internal debate and discussion — accepting factions exist is a necessary part of achieving this.
One of the main objections and challenges people had to the previous post is that they’ve seen how bad factionalism has been in the Labour Party, and so because of that they don’t want to see any factions in the Liberal Democrats. I do understand where that argument is coming from, but I think it’s taking the wrong lesson from the situation.
Let’s continue the analogy from my previous post, where we look at factions as playing a similar role in the internal politics of a party as the parties themselves play in the politics of a country. To say that the problem with Labour is entirely down to its factions is like saying the problem with British politics is entirely because of political parties. While there may be some problems with the parties, the bigger problems are with the system they operate in, and the same applies to factions at the lower level — a lot of their behaviour is determined by the system they are working in.
Now, I’m not an expert on Labour’s structures, so I’m open to correction here, but Labour’s organisation is very centralised and very majoritarian. Whoever is in control of the NEC has significant power over the party, and because internal elections are done as multi-member FPTP, it means blocs and slates of candidates get elected. Labour’s not a fully democratic centralist party, unlike some on the harder left, but the system means that factions are in a battle for control with each other, because even if none of the factions contain a majority of the members, the structures and institutions of the party make it possible for one of them to win on its own.
Now, you might have noticed some similarities there between how Labour works and how the British political system works, which were entirely intentional on my part. Parties are somewhat shaped by the systems they operate in and both Labour and the Tories are organised very much on the idea that whoever is in control should have significant power. I’m not going to talk about the Conservatives in detail here, but consider William Hague’s description of the party as “an absolute monarchy, tempered by regicide” in this context.
However, just as all political systems don’t have to be majoritarian zero-sum ones, so too do parties have the option to take on structures that encourage more pluralism and I would argue that just as Liberal Democrats argue for greater pluralism in our political systems, we can reflect that pluralism in our internal structures. The good news is that we already do that. Power within the party is dispersed and distributed, not centralised, and when we have elections we use STV to elect representatives, not FPTP, where even the best-organised faction isn’t going to be able to sweep all the seats on a plurality of the vote. Conference is organised on a one member, one vote basis so it can’t be controlled by manipulating the large block votes of unions or constituencies. (Even when conference voting was done by constituency delegates, they voted individually, not one person casting the vote for the whole local party)
What’s more, the ethos of the party is to be pluralist and we’re seeking to reform the political system of the country to make it that way too. I think when you only see the British political system in operation, it’s hard to visualise other ways, but the idea that power should be dispersed and accountable is a fundamental part of liberalism, and while they may not be perfect in this regard, the party’s structures do reflect that. It would be very hard for a single faction to dominate the party in the way people fear, because the only way to do that is by persuading a very large percentage of the party membership to support them on every issue and in every internal election.
Factions aren’t bad in themselves, just as political parties aren’t bad in themselves. The systems they operate in will influence the way they operate, and the internal systems of the party are such that they can be used to encourage factions as way of ensuring a diverse and plural range of voices from within the party are heard, not a fight to the death for control of the institutions.