Why Factions Are Good, Actually

Why can't we all just get along...

The word “factionalism” gets tossed around a lot in Labour circles. Keir Starmer and Lisa Nandy both ran on a platform of ending factionalism. With Labour’s National Executive Committee elections fast approaching, being “non-factional” has become a selling point in it’s own right. Groups like Open Labour have been specifically set up as a “non-factional faction”.

Labour is split between dozens of factions and seemingly hundreds of campaigns. Labour’s tendency to split and factionalise has become somewhat of a meme so much so that a Twitter bot has launched mocking all of Labour’s various campaigns. Some fun examples include the “Labour Campaign for Gay Trains” and “Labour Campaign for Taxing Your Dad”. But why is it necessarily a bad thing?

There is an unfortunate tendency to equate the existence of factions with factionalism. Factionalism meaning the toxic culture that has overtaken and split the party pitting members against members. But in an organisation of more than half a million members, factions are supremely necessary, especially in internal elections. Like political parties in national politics, factions play a role; they allow people with similar ideas to come together to promote their ideas and give vaguely interested voters some basic information.

A similarly worrying tendency is the proposal of an end to factionalism being read as either everyone biting their tongue and following what the leader says, or tossing out those who don’t follow the dominant ideology of the month. Instead an end to factionalism should mean a pluralistic party, with multiple factions working together, forming coalitions and holding each other to account. A separation of powers, where control is distributed amongst multiple poles. With a rich and vibrant internal debate. Pluralism.

No one is completely non-factional. We all have our biases and ideologies. What factions allow is for people to wear their beliefs on their sleeves. Factions mean NEC candidates don’t have to be former MPs or famous comedians, it can be ordinary people. Factions can give those who have good ideas but not necessarily a lot of Twitter followers a chance to reach the top table.

Much has been made of Momentum’s factions within factions and primaries within primaries. Sites like Labourlist followed a bizarre situation where Momentum Internationalists submitted a slate for Forward Momentum’s primary to decide their slate for national Momentum’s committee, who would then pick a slate for the NEC. But that’s democracy, it’s messy and often laughable, but it’s preferable to the closed door selection of other candidates.

If Labour wants to build a kinder, gentler, more tolerant culture banning Momentum and Progress won’t do that. What Labour needs is structural reform; factions without factionalism. The reforms bringing Single Transferable Vote to NEC elections are a great start. No longer are internal elections a fight to the death where the winner takes all and the losers are cast to the cold, instead (I hope) we will see an NEC representing all wings and opinions in our party. First past the post is only fun when you’re winning.

People won’t magically get better or stop being mean to each other because we ask them to nicely. A better culture comes from internal reforms to incentivise coalition building and cooperation. This means more democracy, not less. Reforming NEC elections was a strong start but we need to go further. Factions can be a great part of that. The Labour Party is a blank canvas stretching from Tony Blair to Jeremy Corbyn, it’s up to us to paint it. And working together; whether in factions or Labour campaigns can be our paintbrush.

Pablo John is Co-Chair of Leeds Labour Students.

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