On Not Seeing Two Sides

By Rachel Muers / @rachelmuers


Jade Azim’s account of her experience at the Young Labour conference is all too easy to recognise and relate to, even for those of us whose acquaintance with current internal Labour politics comes mostly from the media and online debate. The part of Jade’s story that struck me most forcibly was the image of the conference as “two tables, backs turned to each other”. She and some other delegates were left trying to find a space that wasn’t on either side and wasn’t the middle of the road. Not wanting to be forced to choose, and not happy to be accused of “sitting on the fence”. Because it’s not actually their fault that somebody decided to build that stupid fence, right there.

Now, that bit of Jade’s description probably wasn’t meant literally, but the image of the “two tables” reminded me of an account by activist and academic Siobhan Garrigan of her research on sectarianism in Ireland. She spent many months studying the ways in which churches might be perpetuating sectarianism through their organisations and practices – even when they were trying not to. One of the things Garrigan noticed was that every church she went into had chairs laid out in two blocks with an aisle down the middle. Every church had two sides. Everyone who came in had to choose a side, and stay there.

Of course Garrigan doesn’t think that the layout of furniture causes sectarianism, nor that you can solve all the problems by moving the furniture. But she does think that this is one of many small ways in which people are given the message every day, and absorb it without realising it: there are two sides, you have to join one, and once you’ve joined it you’d better stick with it.

So I have a question for Labour. What’s the equivalent, in party culture, of the layout of church furniture? What are the patterns of behaviour in the party that keep perpetuating the message that there are two and only two sides (and that if you’re in between them, you’re either indecisive or incompetent or both)?

And more to the point – how do you move the furniture? How do you behave if you want to stop people thinking in terms of two sides? I suppose one obvious approach, which I’ve seen widely discussed by Open Labour, is deliberately to focus on discussing issues that don’t currently have two clearly-defined sides. Possibly, that don’t really have any “sides” yet, because they’re complicated multi-dimensional real-world problems that haven’t yet been reduced down to one simple policy idea, for or against. More on the housing crisis, less on Trident. Not because the not-two-sided issues are more important (actually I think Trident’s extremely important) but just to move the furniture occasionally – to break the habit of splitting the arguments, the comments, the people and the party into two. You never know, it could make us better at dealing with issues that look two-sided.

I have a riskier thought, though. We might try to be more critically aware of language that makes us think in terms of sides. Like trying to identify the range of views and convictions within Labour by various versions and modifications of “left” and “right”. I wonder whether, when we repeatedly set ALL internal debates up in terms of left and right, we’re already setting ourselves up for division.

Think about the mental images we set up by using left-right as the main framework, think about what we’re telling ourselves. That the only interesting differences of opinion within the party are in one dimension, stretched out along one line. That the places of greatest certainty and clarity in the party are at its “wings”, the extreme ends of this imaginary line – so also in the places that are furthest apart. That people who’re a long way apart on one issue are really unlikely to be close together on another – because, you know, one’s on the left and another’s on the right. That people who’re not safely located at the “left wing” must be similar to the Tories in all important respects. Or alternatively, that people who’re not prepared to move “right” must be out on a limb, disconnected from the views of most of the electorate. The pictures our language paints for us are more powerful than we know.

Even as I write this, I find the very suggestion of cutting down on left/right language rather uncomfortable. I feel anxious about putting it forward without immediately saying things to demonstrate my “left-wing” and “party loyalty” credentials. But might that anxiety, in itself, be a sign of the problem we’ve got? Might it come from spending too much time talking to each other – in a space in which the “left-right” organisation of everything seems obvious – instead of reaching out? And is it possible to reframe our debates better to reflect the everyday concerns of people we meet outside the political bubble?

Rachel Muers is a lecturer at the University of Leeds and writes here in a personal capacity

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