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Tribalism matters only in centrist politics

In Events, Home Affairs, Party politics on August 24, 2010 at 6:01 pm

David Weber

Paul Sagar has written a new post stressing the uses of tribalism. And whilst I don’t think the argument is without merit — on the contrary — but I think that he misapplies it considerably. I’m going to tackle what I think to be the more contentious points of the argument, so if this comes across as unremittingly negative, I apologise. It’s not meant to be.

“First, let’s recall what politics is: competition between two or more groups attempting to secure outcomes which the other side not only opposes, but frequently thinks are morally wrong. Sure, some politics is more consensual; where everyone agrees about what must be achieved, but groups disagree about how to bring it about. But that is the exception, not the rule.”

I broadly agree with the second sentence of this point. Consensual politics is indeed the exception rather than the rule. Whether this is desirable is, of course, another question. But the first point is, I feel, rather limiting. I would go so far as to agree that politics is occasionally about two or more groups attempting to secure outcomes which the other side opposes, sometimes as morally wrong — but I would say that this, too, is the exception. In reality, competition in politics is, and always has been, about two or more alternative groupings opposing each other for power.

This is important, because if it were not true, I see no real reason why Honourable Members should have to divide into absolute parties in the modern climate — barring absolutely huge cultural or ideological differences of opinion that happen to divide MPs neatly. In reality, this is so patently not the case that I don’t feel it necessary to address. Labour is home to socialists but also the most moderate of social democrats. The Conservatives welcome extreme Thatcherites and Red Tories. The only party there’s been much talk about refusing to share a platform with is the BNP, a party which has so far failed to get a single MP elected. It’s clear that most MPs are happy to get along in one way, whether professional, ideological, or personal.

What’s interesting is that we can look back to a time when differences of opinion between members could be far more serious (resulting in duels sometimes!) on a personal and ideological level. But parties themselves were weaker, and certainly less formal; referring more than anything to alliances on various matters — whether governmental or legislative. Take the time of the Slave Trade debate. Here, the abolitionists were members of all sorts of other opinions, who would never have normally associated with each other. Both William Pitt the Younger and Charles Fox, opponents on the question of government, were involved in it. William Wilberforce, famous for heading the abolition campaign, for a long time opposed Catholic emancipation, putting him on the opposite side to Fox.

What has changed since that time? Very little in the way of personal differences of opinion between MPs — even if those have become more moderate in their expression — but very much in the nature of power. Pitt, it should be remembered, was the last Prime Minister ever to survive a vote of No Confidence, due to having the monarch’s confidence. The business of government was a looser and less organised affair, less under the control of the legislature of the time, and certainly less under the control of the people (as a whole).

If  a matter as important as the abolition of the slave trade could unite the most different of MPs back in Wilberforce’s time, then I utterly fail to see how social mobility should not be allowed to unite Labour and Tory MPs alike. And at the end of the day, Paul fails to explain how discussing social mobility with the coalition government amounts to “joining their tribe”, other than his dismissal of the whole exercise as a “stunt”.

But this begs the question: what would the consequences of this “stunt” be for the Labour party if they refused to allow Milburn to exercise his free will in the matter? Almost certainly, they would be worse than the consequences are at present. Far better for Milburn to address his principles to the position, and test the Coalition on their commitment to the process. Either it will backfire on the coalition, forcing it to block proposals it cannot accept (and some of Milburn’s previous proposals, I suspect, would be rather uncomfortable for the Tories), or Milburn will be able to claim positive influence for the Labour party.

Whereas expelling Milburn would merely continue the trend of Labour looking like “Opposition for opposition’s sake”. These stunts are not the type of thing an opposition needs to be fought on. Elections are won and lost on far more prominent events than these.

Moreover, this is exectly the sort of behaviour Labour indulged in while in government. The Tories did not expell John Bercow for his work with the Labour Government, and I suspect that Labour would be ill-advised not to return the graciousness.

Finally, as Tony Blair pointed out, elections are generally won and lost on the same people — the so called centre ground, or “middle England”. There really is no getting round this; as Blair evidently loved to point out less than two months after Labour lost the recent election, “The British people have again elected a centrist government”. The latest election is, if anything, all the proof that is needed: no single party managed to capture the “centre ground”, but one party conspicuously failed to: The Labour party, the only large party to lose both votes and seats. Politics cannot be as a rule about ideological and moral disagreements if it sustains itself by two or more parties appealing to the same margins.

Moreover, what tribal differences really are sufficient to make the coalition “morally wrong” in a way in which the previous Labour government was morally virtuous? I am currently struggling to think of any. They would certainly have to be large ones to override, as Paul points out, “Tony’s Murderous Mesopotamian Adventure, the assault on civil liberties, or the continuation of market-orientated Thatcherite reforms”. I suppose one could take some comfort in the fact that the former and the latter would probably have been characteristics of an alternate reality Tory regime as well. But the middle is a serious charge.

In any case, the point of comparison is to the Coalition now — not a hypothetical Tory government from 2001-2010. And quite contrary to Paul, I do not view the Coalition as equivalent to a Tory government. And I am certainly convinced that when it came to making a choice in 2010, more than ever before, I was quite unable to find a significant divide, ideological or moral, between the two parties. Tribalism is, now more than ever, about power. It seems a pity to confuse it with principle.

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  1. I think there is broadly a point here that, in the UK, political ideologies are quite close, and there is quite a lot of room for consensual politics – and more of this happens that we might think; we just need to consider the number of All Party Groups, or the number of Early Day Motions signed by members of ‘opposing’ parties.

    The definition of politics interests me on at least a semantic level. To take it literally, it is about ensuring the community is successful; different parties have different visions about what ‘success’ is, though at the moment they share many objectives. The division, I would say, is primarily methodological. However, very little is literal, and you are right to observe that there are many people seeking ‘power’ and pretending that they’re doing ‘politics’. This is lamentable to my mind; showing that there really is little sense behind creating tribes within a tribe.

    • On the other hand, power has and will always be something which allures to humans — a primary reason I have for opposing anarchism, because I simply don’t think it is realistic to ignore such a fundamental trait of human nature.

      Also, not all opposition for power’s sake is a bad thing — the difference of opinion between two parties might be professional rather than ideological or methodological.

      I also think it is an irony that democracy wouldn’t really work without division. A government needs an opposition — it needs peopel who have the time to dedicate to scrutinisation that people doing full-time unrelated jobs might not have.

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