The Conflict Within the UK Labour Party and the Need for Mediation

The Labour Party has a conflict that runs deeper than a leadership contest, and it is going to take more than rhetorical punches or another election to get over it.  We are at the stage where everyone is being invited to take a side, if you have not done so already.  Language is being emptied of its normal meanings with calls for a confrontation and resignations alongside calls  to ‘come together’ and ‘work together’ to find an ‘inclusive way forward’.  In the end both, sides are left with a kind of childish self-righteousness of “I’m right and you’re wrong and there is nothing you can do about it.”

As a rule, conflicts are not only complicated, they are complex. One of the challenges with dealing with complex problems is that they just keep generating so much information, information from so many sources, information that is contradictory, and information that rather than adding up – piles up – leaving us none the wiser – and probably more confused.

At risk of reading like a line in a leaflet, the first step towards dealing with such a conflict is acknowledging that you have one. Is this just a natural expression of a fierce political competition within the party, or does that conclusion mask genuine disagreements within the party, its parliamentarians and its membership? Is it only a matter of the right/wrong person in the job? Is this an interpersonal conflict between people with incompatible character traits?

The second step in ending any conflict is to try to understand it.  To really understand it, to engage with its complexity – and to see it from outside the lens of one’s own experience and opinions. Things tended to work in the Labour party, like in most groups and organisations, but then something got in the way.  Are those factors understood?

There is an opportunity here but it is not an easy one. An opportunity to commit to processes to work towards really understanding the problem(s), why they are happening, what are the factors that have led up to them, and what sustains them?  This is a moment to deal with the issues and move beyond them. The challenge is that to put out this fire you have to engage with it directly and constructively.

No one goes into a conflict to negotiate. Sacrifices are made and risks are taken because we are “in it to win it”. But are we – winning? Do we? Have we?

When does irony become tragedy? Anyone working on international development, human rights and conflict issues in parliament for the last two and more decades will remember the unwavering solidarity of the former back benchers Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. Though the Labour party did not have a monopoly commitment to human rights their patience and solidarity with the victims of war, authoritarianism and conflict has been unwavering.

So why not learn from these experiences?  Invest your trust in a good process – trust your colleagues – trust your members and supporters – and commit to understanding what is going on – together, finding options out of the impasse – out of this conflict.  Of course these will involve compromises on all sides, and these will be hard to make.  Finding that common ground is what is needed for contemporary party politics to work – or not. Break the party up, but be sure to do that on the basis of irreconcilable differences of policy – anything less would be confusing for us all. A significant number of people in the UK seem to have an appetite for doing things differently now, and tearing down long established political institutions with all the risks that that entails, though not everyone is in the mood of holding a ‘fire-sale’.

The thing is that we know how to handle and prevent conflict – everyone does. When it gets serious, institutional and intractable, we have professionals – mediators, coaches, advisors, facilitators.  Britain is even one of the world leaders in deploying support to peace and mediation processes worldwide – look behind the peace talks in Syria, Yemen, and Colombia you will see hardworking and talented British professionals, working with the UN and NGOs working directly with the people and the conflict parties

It is difficult to engage in such a process if you are feeling insecure or unsure or stressed – which then becomes part of the problem. Politicians are no different than the rest of us in needing to have clear roles and the trust and confidence of those around them if they are going to face their daily challenges. Take any of these away, and any of us is less able to lead, and less willing to take the risks of engaging with those holding strong views different from our own.

Corbyn and McDonnell are deeply familiar with the knowledge that you resolve differences, not with your friends, but with those who disagree with you. So what can be done?

Democracy may be “the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried” but elections are a really poor conflict resolution mechanism, and as we have just seen. Perversely, they can have a conflict generating effect, creating clear winners and equally clear losers where such distinctions did not exist before. When conducted in environments of insecurity and uncertainty they can bring a certain order, but always at a price for the losers, and always with consequences. We know this, we have just experienced this, but nevertheless policy makers are quick to reach for elections and referenda as the political tool of choice for getting out of conflicts.

Labour’s leadership and their allies can choose to battle it out with their opposition within the parliamentary party, and there will be victors and vanquished and perhaps a diminished party will hold together or not, and we will see the political equivalent of a divorce and a new alignment of political parties.  Other options are available.

The leadership could seek and accept some form of mediation or facilitation. The difference being traditionally understood as when the parties appoint a mediator they give that person or office the authority for the process, whereas a facilitator is there as someone to help, but the parties agree, or not, the agenda and the terms.  Such third parties may be independent or may (like Len McCluskey, General Secretary of Unite) have a declared interest. There are pros and cons of both, and true neutrality in any conflict is rare and difficult for lots of good reasons. What matters at the end of the day is that they have enabled the parties to reach their own agreements.

There are, of course, problems with this model. One question will be who has the legitimacy and the authority to represent those in the parliamentary Labour Party who have lost confidence in Corbyn’s leadership. And, can the elected leadership afford to take the risks of such a process?  And how to handle such a process under the spotlight of a febrile media. Who is “in” and who is “out”?

There is also the question of whether we are expecting too much of the ‘leaders’ and not drawing enough on the social and intellectual capital and experience of the whole of the party, especially it’s elected members who have both the legitimacy and the broader capabilities of identifying creative ways forward.

One approach developed in response to intractable political conflicts around the world has been to convene facilitated dialogues to analyse and problem solve. These have come to be called “Track II” dialogues referring to the fact that they are not roundtables of decision-takers but of groups of people with influence and integrity and the ability and interest to explore ideas and freely ‘talk to the other side”.

In both approaches there is a ‘success risk’ – that is of their identifying a way forward, but it not having the essential support of leadership or their constituencies to put it into practice

Perhaps the most creative, if also most idealist processes around the world today are where such traditionally elite models of doing diplomacy and resolving conflicts are themselves democratised.  Where people are finding ways to get involved. We all know that politics, democratic or otherwise, does not make much of a spectator sport.

Constituency parties could do so much more. They could each take on the challenge of being a convenor and a facilitator of localised dialogue processes. Call on the skills locally available and hold their own workshops – agree their own ground rules and set their own agendas to help members to better understand what the conflict is (and is not) about, and see if they can generate ideas for the way forward that could be useful.

Or we could just watch them fight it out, cast our ballots and hope for the best.