13 January 2013

Tribalism is for football fans - not politicians

The catalyst for this post was a Facebook comment by my friend Chris Brooke of Virtual Stoa fame, but the issue has been bugging me for a while, so it's time to get to the bottom of whether political "tribalism" has any place in progressive politics.

Chris's comment referred to a recent post on the soft-left Shifting Grounds blog by a variety of authors including Andy Harrop (director of the Fabian Society), Neal Lawson (director of Compass), Olaf Cramme (director of Policy Network), Linda Jack (chair of Liberal Left) and David Clark (the Shifting Grounds blog editor) as "rubbish". The post was called "Paving the way for an alternative coalition" - some excerpts from it are posted below:

We are now closer to the date of the next election than the last and debate about the shape and composition of the next government is well under way. David Cameron and Nick Clegg have just set out their joint priorities for what remains of the current coalition’s term of office. But progressive politics will be the loser if a renewal of that arrangement comes to be seen as the natural outcome in the event of another hung parliament. An alternative coalition joining Labour and the Liberal Democrats also needs to be on the table for a proper debate about Britain’s future to take place. The British people deserve no less.

We know from experience that creating that option will require courage, care and commitment. The failure of both our parties to prepare the ground before the last election became painfully apparent during the coalition negotiations that took place three years ago. The realities of parliamentary arithmetic made a Lib-Lab coalition difficult in any event, but the climate of mutual suspicion showed how estranged the two parties had become since tentative efforts at co-operation were abandoned in the first term of the Blair government. It would be a tragedy for Britain if the centre-left failed to enter the next election better prepared for the aftermath and the negotiations that may follow.

Looking across the main areas of policy, it is easier to find points of agreement than disagreement [between Labour and the Lib Dems]. But laying the ground for an alternative coalition requires more than policy agreement. It calls for a change of attitudes and working methods...

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats will continue to compete robustly and fight the next election aiming to win on their own terms. That’s as it should be. But both should also prepare for the possibility that the British people once again decline to give a majority to any single party. In that eventuality there will be a number of options to consider and nothing we propose can prejudge what either party may decide. But if we want a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition to be one of those options, the ground will have to be prepared in advance and that process should start soon. The decision about the next government of Britain is too important to be taken by default.

Was this post "rubbish?" I don't believe so. Some background:  I know Chris is one of those people who left Compass because they ceased to be a purely Labour-based pressure group and began to open up their membership to other parties such as Greens and Liberal Democrats (he was not the only one to leave when that happened: the entire Compass youth wing resigned, for example). I think this is a real shame, frankly, as it seems to me that it's ridiculous to claim that the Labour Party has a monopoly on good progressive ideas in this country. Moreoever, given that it's far from certain that Labour will win a majority at the next election, it seems sensible to plan for the possible outcome of Labour as the largest single party but short of a majority. But for Chris (and many others), apparently not. I find this stance hard to understand.

I should be clear, by the way, that I don't agree with all of the Shifting Grounds article. It's not really true that "looking across the main areas of policy, it is easier to find points of agreement than disagreement between Labour and the Lib Dems." After the last 3 years in which the Lib Dems have shamelessly propped up a reactionary Tory govt, it should be fairly clear that the Lib Dem leadership is a long way right of centre - particularly on the economy - and the backbench MPs remarkably willing to comply with that right-of-centre agenda (having campaigned pretending to be a left-of-centre party in most respects). It's not for nothing that I call the Lib Dems the "Fib Dems" loudly and often on this blog. I detest what they've done to this country and I think it would probably be a good thing, all things considered if the Lib Dem party collapsed after the next election after losing all its MPs. They are dissemblers, traitors and collaborationists. And to the extent that there is agreeement between Labour and the Lib Dems on economic policy issues in particular, that is a failing in the Labour Party - it reflects the (diminishing but still far too high) influence of centre-right Blairism, which Ed Miliband has weakened but not completely dispelled.

However, I think we need to think realistically about what's likely to happen at the next election under current boundaries. I doubt there will be a complete wipeout - it's more likely that there will be at least 20 Lib Dem MPs still around after the next election, largely because some of their candidates will probably succeed in fighting a guerilla war against their own party's policies and will pull in anti-Tory votes from the left, particularly in areas where Labour doesn't have a good ground operation. (There is precedent for this in the Labour Party by the way - Bob Marshall-Andrews managed to win in Medway in 2005, when most other Labour MPs in the south-east lost, by running a guerilla campaign against Tony Blair). Given that maybe 20 Lib Dem MPs will manage to hang on, the idea that Labour should just ignore this possibility and act as if the Lib Dems are going to be wiped out after the next election - however much they might want that to be the case - seems stupid to me.

How likely is it that the Lib Dems are likely to be holding the balance of power at the next election? I don't think it's the most likely option - I think that's a majority Labour govt, albeit with a small majority. But I'd say Labour as the largest party but short of a majority is the second most likely option. And in that case, it would be very useful if some bridges were built with the Lib Dems - or at least the more progressive MPs among them - before the election. Otherwise, there is a huge risk that Labour could be kept out of office by another Tory-Lib Dem coalition - even if Labour were the largest single party.

I'd actually go even further than that (again disagreeing with the Shifting Grounds article) and say that where there is a progressive Lib Dem MP with a good record of voting against the current govt, Labour should consider not putting up a candidate in that constituency and advising Labour voters to vote for the Lib Dem instead. And similarly,  in Brighton Pavilion where Caroline Lucas is pursuing a policy platform that's vastly better than pretty much anything the Labour Party has to offer, the Labour party should advise its voters to vote Green. Now, this kind of open-mindedness and willingness to focus on the policies of the sitting MP, rather than the particular colour of his or her rosette, will of course be anathema to many Labour activists but unfortunately, that simply reflects their own bone-headedness and tribalism. I would much prefer it if we had a PR system of elections and everyone could vote their first choice. I think that will happen - eventually - but it's still a long way off at the moment and so we have to do the best to keep right-wingers out of Parliament however we can with the system we have. (This doesn't, of course, do anything about some of the extreme right-wingers in the Labour party - for example I don't know how any progressive could vote for Liam Byrne - but that's probably best handled by Labour constituency associations voting to deselect far-right Blairite candidates - something that, sadly, never seems to happen).

Basically I think the kind of simplistic tribal Labour politics that says "I'll vote for Mickey Mouse (or indeed, Tony Blair) as long as he's wearing a red rosette but give me a left-wing candidate wearing another rosette and I'll try to annihilate them" is boneheaded and infantile. (By the way, Chris is on record as saying he doesn't subscribe to this naive tribalist view either: but in that case I'm a bit puzzled as to why he thinks the Shifting Grounds article is so bad). Of course, it's possible to go too far the other way, and give too much of the benefit of the doubt to nominally 'progressive' parties that are anything but. For example, many people - including myself to an extent - got taken in my Nick Clegg's fresh-faced "New Politics" shtick in the last election campaign and believed there was no possible way he could go into a coalition with the Tories. That was a stupid mistake and I hold my hands up about that. But equally, I don't believe that every single Lib Dem is a dyed-in-the-wool right-wing neoliberal anti-progressive. And to categorically rule out any collaboration with the Lib Dems in advance of the election (which is what Chris seems to be indicating is the best thing to do), that's what I'd have to believe. I can certainly believe that more than half of Lib Dem MPs are like that, but that still leaves many who aren't. Possibly enough to make the difference between a Labour minority govt which achieves nothing at all in the next parliamentary term, and a Lab/Lib majority govt which achieves a hell of a lot.

So let's have a bit less of the cardboard cut-out terrace chant tribalism that characterises so much party political discourse, and a bit more willingness to judge politicians by their ideas and not the colour of their rosette.

UPDATE: there is a good debate on the Labour Uncut blog - the best thing I've ever seen on Labour Uncut, actually - between the aforementioned David Clark and a Labour councillor called Pete Bowyer in which Mr Bowyer demonstrates many of the tendencies I have criticised above. Well worth reading.


Chris Brooke said...

I hope I'll reply to this soon. Bit busy right now.

Hal Berstram said...

Thanks Chris - would be really pleased to hear from you on this.

Chris Brooke said...


I think the difference between us is that, as I get older, I get less tolerant of a certain kind of politics, a kind I associate, possibly unfairly, because I don’t actually often read her columns, with the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee. What I’m thinking of here is a style of politics that minimizes the differences between Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Greens, and is prone to making claims that, for example, the twentieth-century was characterized by a ‘progressive dilemma’, or that there is a natural ‘progressive majority’ in this country (often blaming the electoral system for the fact that it is not perpetually in government). Often, it seems to me, it’s people who think like this who are most enthusiastic about the possibility of a Lib-Lab ‘progeressive coalition’ of some kind. When I say, ‘I get less tolerant’, I mean this as referring to a very long-term, drawn-out process. I grew up in an SDP family, and twenty-five years ago, I dare say my politics were basically a variety of this kind of Toynbeeism. And why don’t I like this kind of thing anymore? Partly, it’s to do with the fact that I just don’t like the word ‘progressive’, for various reasons. But I don’t think it’s just about that.

On parts of the politics here, Hal, I don’t think we disagree at all. Obviously, the next election may return a hung parliament, and, equally obviously, that situation may create the possibility of a Labour / Lib Dem coalition government. And, less obviously, but still reasonably obviously, I think, if the kind of people who have signed the Shifting Grounds piece have been talking to one another behind the scenes in the time between now and then, that may indeed help to develop a certain level of interpersonal trust that will lower the transaction costs associated with coalition talks next time around. And if that was all the SG piece was saying, I wouldn’t really have a problem.

Chris Brooke said...

[part 2 of 2]

But there is something that bugs me. Partly it’s the pompous rhetoric. If you’re just making the case that people in and around the world of Westminster politics should talk to each other from time to time (I agree! They should!), you don’t need to be writing things about how ‘The British people deserve no less’, specifically, that there must be a Lib-Lab coalition ‘on the table for a proper debate about Britain’s future to take place’. I’m just massively allergic to this kind of political language. And since my general suspicion is that the politics of Toynbeeism is a politics of wishful thinking—i.e., that it induces people to reshape their beliefs about politics around their desires for politics, and therefore to misunderstand what’s actually going on around them—I’m always on the look-out for rhetoric that seems to downplay serious political considerations in favour of a sort of feel-good ‘let’s all be progressive together’ wankfest. And I think there’s quite a bit of this on display in this piece.

So, for example, the SG piece thinks that ‘The realities of parliamentary arithmetic made a Lib-Lab coalition difficult in any event’, which is true (in fact, it made it impossible, except in a technical, mathematical, ignoring-lots-of-political-realities kind of a way), ‘but the climate of mutual suspicion showed how estranged the two parties had become since tentative efforts at co-operation were abandoned in the first term of the Blair government.’ But if you were going to make a list of factors that actually impeded the formation of a Lib-Lab coalition in 2010, the ‘climate of mutual suspicion’ and abandoning ‘tentative efforts at co-operation’ c. 1998 aren’t really going to crack the top twenty—and so then it’s worth asking why the authors of the SG piece give these feeble reasons, when there are much stronger ones available.

(I’m quite open to the argument, incidentally, that one reason why Labour shouldn’t go round invading other people’s countries, or having super-unpopular leaders like Gordon Brown, is that it will make co-operation with the Liberals less likely in the event of a hung parliament. But there are stronger reasons than that as to why these are bad ideas, and given that it’s always going (rightly) to piss people off in the Labour party if you make this argument, I don’t really see why it’s worth making.)

I’ll stop there, as I suspect you can see where I’m coming from now. If there’s a hung parliament after the next election, what kind of coalition we get (if we get one) will turn on a lot of factors, to do with relative vote share, seats won and lost, individuals returned and not returned to parliament, the strategies and conduct of the election campaign, the content of the manifestos, and the particular blame games being played out from as soon as the polls close. Just as with the current coalition, things people expect to be obstacles to coalition formation will turn out not to be; and so on. There are too many imponderables. People involved in party politics should focus on winning as many seats for their party at the next election as possible. And then we should start talking about coalition when the votes are counted. Not before.

Hal Berstram said...

Many thanks for this Chris - extremely useful and informative. I agree with much of what you say here. I too am suspicious about the "progressive majority" argument - it seems to me that depending on the question that you ask opinion pollsters you can get pretty much any result you want. So for example public anger about 'fat cats' and bankers is used to provide support for the "progressive majority" thesis, whereas polling people on Europe or social security benefit cuts (for example) provides support for the "conservative majority" thesis. (And indeed there is a certain type of right-wing commentator who believes in a natural conservative majority, the most obvious example being Tim Montgomerie, who is kind of a mirror image of Polly Toynbee, if you like.

I think the elections of 1992, and maybe 1987, provide some support for the "progressive majority denied by the electoral system" thesis but they are the only ones, really. In 1983 the Liberals/SDP would have probably rather gone in with the Tories than Labour in the event of a hung parliament and in Feb 1974, as far as I know Labour showed no interest in talking to the Liberals but went for a minority govt instead. Before that it really was 2-party politics as far back as 1945. So yeah, the "natural progressive majority" thing is massively overplayed. I hate the word 'progressive' as well, particularly in the UK where it's so meaningless... the Charities Commission are part of the reason why it's so popular because educational charities such as ippr were told in about 2002 by the CC that they couldn't use terms like "left-wing" or "centre-left" to describe themselves as it implied a politicisation which was incompatible with charitable status, whereas "progressive" was fine, and the main outbreak of the word "progressive" in the UK dates from about that time.

Hal Berstram said...

[part 2 of 2 - what's with this "4096 character" shit?]

I think the reason I'm more sympathetic to the SG piece than you is that I put more emphasis on distrust by certain Labour personnel of the Lib Dems as a factor that would have made coalition difficult in 2010 even if the parliamentary arithmetic had added up. On the Tuesday morning (I think it was) after the election, when it looked for a few hours like Brown was about to stitch a deal together, you had this media offensive by people like David Blunkett and John Reid saying "over our dead bodies will a coalition happen" and also people like Ed Balls and Andy Burnham in the Cabinet had been dead set against it, which really helped kill any faint hope of a Lib-Lab coalition. Now that distrust of LibDems by Labour might well be much less of a factor next time, partly because thirst for power makes people a lot less picky - Balls is a case in point - but it seemed to me to be an unfortunate state of affairs, And also it seemed to me bloody stupid that there didn't seem to be a plan in place for coalition talks and no feelers had been put out beforehand. If Andrew Rawnsley's account in "The End of the Party" is correct, the Labour coalition "charm offensive" consisted of Andrew Adonis ringing up old contacts from his SDP days. Labour's got to be better organised than that next time round (and to be sure, that wasn't the only piece of bad organisation in the 2010 Labour campaign, which was certainly Labour's worst run since 1983 and possibly even before that).

So the way I interpreted SG was as saying to the particularly tribal element of the Labour party, "look guys, there are clear risks in failing to establish contacts with the Lib Dems - you could be cutting off your nose to spite your face". It was also aimed at tribalists in the Lib Dems but of course the difference is that the Lib Dems have never been in a position to govern alone - they could only ever be in coalition because they don't have the votes (or the regional distribution of votes) to win a majority by themselves (even before 2010, and certainly not now). Jeez, that was a long comment(s). But thanks!

Chris Brooke said...

I did not know that about the Charities Commission. That's very interesting (and highly plausible).

Chris Brooke said...

"I think the reason I'm more sympathetic to the SG piece than you is that I put more emphasis on distrust by certain Labour personnel of the Lib Dems."

But Balls, Blunkett, Reid & co. didn't say they didn't want a coalition because they distrusted the Liberals, they said they distrusted the Liberals because they didn't want a coalition, and they didn't want a coalition because (rightly, in my opinion) they didn't think it could turn out at all well for the Labour Party.

Hal Berstram said...

On whether Balls et al's dislike for a coalition was driven by their dislike of the Lib Dems or vice-versa: it's probably a bit of both. Hard to isolate the direction of causality.

On this topic, this article by Andrew Rawnsley is either inspiring or very worrying, depending on your POV.