Tag Archive: tribalism


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It is becoming clearer and clearer that anti-Labour tribalism is swallowing Liberal Democrat activists whole. Now I’m no one to talk, I am a proud and partisan Labour tribalist. But at least I have the self knowledge to recognise it. Lib Dems have pretended to be different and above Left Right tribalism for so long, that picking a side has had an extraordinary effect on them.

Mark Ferguson at Labour List has written excellently  about Labour’s adjustment to being out of power and our recognition of the long hard slog we have ahead of us. There are also often written screeds about how well individual Lib Dem ministers are or aren’t adjusting to power. But what is little remarked on is how poorly the Lib Dems as a party are reacting to being in power – or more realistically, to not being in opposition. And the truth is they are adjusting very, very badly.

What seems to be lacking in the Lib Dem machine is any understanding of medium to long term strategy. This is totally understandable in a party that only ever saw itself as opposition, as there was only ever a need to be reactive. But as soon as it became clear that that a hung Parliament was on the cards there should have been better moves to bring in fresh blood that would understand how to be in power and how to maintain long term equidistant prospects while temporarily forming an alliance. They haven’t and have combined a strategy of there being not a cigarette paper between the Lib Dems and the Tories on policy with a continued policy of vitriolic attacks on Labour at every level from activists like those linked above to President Farron.

This combination – along with the fact that those Lib Dem voters and supporters on the left who can’t stomach the coalition with the Tories are likely to have drifted away from the Lib Dems by 2014/15  – mean that the Lib Dems have permanently readjusted themselves to the right in the minds of both voters and supporters. This isn’t true for all supporters but is a strong enough to be the absolutely dominant narrative of Lib Dem thinking at the moment and for the next few years.

So here’s my marker:

If at the next election a there is a hung Parliament with Labour as the largest party, you will see articles in the Guardian and Independent and pieces on blogs like Lib Dem Voice etc outlining the following argument:

Voters have passed their record on the coalition Government, and as such have returned a coalition majority. While it may be true that Labour may win the most seats/votes they will not have achieved enough to win the full confidence of the Country as the coalition parties have. Therefore, if there is a hung Parliament, the Lib Dems should stick with the Tories as that’s what voters who supported us expected us to do.

Labour needs to do two things to counter this threat.

Firstly – and frankly of course we should be doing this anyway – we should be fighting elections as if we are up against the whole coalition. This means that while the polls at the moment are good, they aren’t enough. We are only rarely beating the combined Tory/Lib Dem numbers. Our strategists (I should be one, me me me!) should be looking seat by seat at our resources to maximise seat gain at the expense of the Lib Dems and the Tories (perhaps at the cost of seats where we might be fighting Plaid Cymru for example).

Secondly, our politicians need to take every opportunity to back the Lib Dems into a democratic corner, where they make a committment (a pledge perhaps? Perhaps not…) that in the event of a hung Parliament, once again they will deal first with the party with the most seats. It won’t stop them from regneging (and when/if they do, expect further David Laws style fairy tales about how unwilling to deal the Labour team were (though our team should have a deal thrashed out that we can be happy with in advance so we aren’t stupidly and pointlessly caught on the hop again)) but it could shame enough delegates to their triple lock conference into not allowing an undemocratic government to stand.

Hopefully, I will never need to pull this post out in a future game of “I told you so”. Hopefully Labour will win a majority and start to undo the damage the Government is doing. But this must be an eventuality we expect and for which we are prepared.

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Remember the “new” politics? It was all about pluralism and parties leaving behind tribalism to work together in the interest of a better way of doing politics. It was – frankly – yet another way that Lib Dems liked to kid on that they are different. They aren’t “tribal” like Labour. Yeah Right.

Huhne and Warsi put the new politics on the critical list in the summer with the Press Conference of Hate. During this conference they displayed quite clearly that tribalism was back with a vengeance, and that the only difference was that they were now part of a joint and bigger tribe.

Yesterday, the life support machine of the New Politics was turned off by Tim Farron, in his refusal to even contemplate working with Labour to ensure that either a future Labour Government would have policies that the Lib Dems had influenced, or that a future Lib/Lab coalition had pre-arranged common ground.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a tribalist. I get where Dan Hodges is coming from when he says that he doesn’t want to be a Lab Dem but political realities involve doing things we don’t like. Ed’s right to say that Labour doesn’t have the monopoly on good policy. The Lib Dems had a few before the election, but they’ve been junked in favour of damaging cuts and ministerial limos. But there are good Lib Dems who want to promote liberal policies on civil and human rights finding themselves very uncomfortable as they watch Government by police baton being carried out in their names.

But yet again, the Lib Dems have proved that the tribe comes first (in fact the best justification for Farron’s actions was that it made the activists feel good – if that’s not putting the needs of your tribe above the needs of a better politics, I don’t know what is!). Equidistance used to be a sensible political positioning for the Lib Dems. It’s obviously been permanently damaged by having to pick a side, and day by day their positioning and what made them unique is further eroded by being used as human shields (and when Channel 4′s Faisal Islam and Today’s Evan Davies are openly discussing this on Twitter, you know the Lib Dems have a real problem) you need something that will give you some distance from the Tories and a space to reassert your social liberal credentials.

Farron’s snapping like a spoiled brat may have given his activists a brief warm glow. But frankly it suits Labour fine. Firstly, we are continuing to reassert the true narrative of the coalition negotiations, and as the Lib Dems are branded more and more as liars, this kind of childishness reaffirms the Labour account of what happened. Secondly, while the offer is genuine and real, it is also generous. It looks good and the Lib Dems can either take it and share in some of that or reject it and continue to look like petulant children. Either way Ed wins.

I think what has been shocking me most since May, and the reason I focus so much more attention on the Lib Dems at the moment than the Tories (wait until the cuts start to really bite) is that I am baffled by just how bad at politics the Lib Dems really are. From a party that ran arguably the best election campaign to this endless shambles in just a few short months is just astonishing. As a partisan I find it amusing, as a political observer I find it fascinating. Just how much more can they mess this up….?

Edited to add: Tim Farron pulled the plug, now Cllr Richard Kemp, leader of the Lib Dems in the LGA,  has written a spite filled eulogy. Words can’t express how stupid this is.

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I was having an interesting discussion with a colleague this morning about what Lib Dem MPs who didn’t like the coalition’s actions could and would do. I said that it was highly improbably that this (or any) government would go a full term without at least one ministerial resignation and that that was probably even more likely under coalition. While ministerial resignations are dramatic and aid a narrative of splits, in the end they don’t really amount to much unless a Government is a lot closer to a knife edge than this one is. Some junior Lib Dem stepping down from being minister for paperclips will occupy Twitter, the blogs (this one included I’m sure) and the press, but won’t make an awful lot of difference to the Parliamentary mathematics.

The only thing that would really change parliamentary mathematics would be defections.

Now as is utterly clear, the Lib Dems hate Labour. Lib Dem blogs are full of this bile and since going into coalition with the Tories, it’s all spewed endlessly at us. And let’s be fair – we hate them right back. We hate them for splitting the left making it so easy for the Tories to rule without a majority and the coalition has hardly dulled that feeling. Both sets of activists are as tribal and angry as each other and this is not being made better by the ConDem coalition.

So I really can’t see a Lib Dem defecting to the Labour Party in this parliament. But I can see a Lib Dem feeling so far removed from their party that they didn’t see a place for them in it anymore. This happens – rarely but it does happen. If it did, I think that the shock of leaving their own tribe would probably be quite enough and defecting to Labour probably more than they could take. But with Caroline Lucas now firmly ensconced in Parliament, there is another alternative which would work pretty well for non-Orange Book Lib Dems.

I’m not willing to put any money on it (unlike AV failing, which following today’s story in the Independent I have now put £20 on) but I don’t think it could be dismissed out of hand that by the end of this Parliament, we could see at least two Green MPs fighting for reelection.

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I’m not surprised or disappointed that Alan Milburn has agreed to work for the coalition, I’m surprised and disappointed that a man like this ever managed to make his way through the Labour ranks in the first place.

For every Labour Party member who makes it to Parliament, to Government, to leadership, there is an army of people who made this happen. these lucky few aren’t uniquely blessed by God, they were chosen among a number of other suitably qualified candidates and fought for by a determined army. We praise and appreciate their talents, but don’t ever think that doesn’t mean that we aren’t equally aware of their weaknesses. They are there because of us, and while they are elected to serve the country, their first mandate is to do so in the democratic way that we as a party agree is the best way forward. We have different ideas from the other parties, and we know in our hearts that ours are right. They should never, ever forget that they are there as our representatives. They are not bigger than the party, and the way we all know this is that they wouldn’t be elected as an independent.

We don’t work this hard for the betterment of one other person’s career, but because we believe in a better way of organising society. That’s important to us. That doesn’t mean that we don’t need or want  to be challenged. We understand the need to be constantly evaluating what this organisation means and would mean to our modern citizens. It does mean that when we take you on as our representative, this underlying belief is what you are there to represent. That we will only accept a challenge when presented through the prism of our unchanging values.

Having this army of volunteers work for you must feel good. I can understand how a person may come to think that it is their unique talents that is important and not the collective values they are there to represent. My understanding this doesn’t make it right. It isn’t.

Neither does this make our party one of narrow interests. The myriad interpretations of our values always make for interesting policy discussions and debates. But in the end, we do come back to our core values in an understanding that they are what unites us.

The last time I saw Alan Milburn speak, it was at a Fabian Conference. He spoke shallowly, attacking the concept of Social Housing seeing only an outmoded model of community based housing vs an ownership society. His model of Social Mobility is well meaning, but narrow and shallow. His willingness to work with the coalition doesn’t surprise me, as he is exactly the kind of New Labour politician who forgets why he was elevated and what was holding him up. He believed far too much in his own mythology, and I’m sure has taken this position with the coalition is the certain and unswerving belief that he is the only person for the job.

But anyone who shared  in the values of the Labour Party would have no faith that this ideologically manic government would implement the kind of solutions we believe will actually work. And anyone who was willing to implement the kind of small state sticking plasters solutions to the gaping wounds this government is already inflicting could never have shared our values.

Labour must learn that we will only survive while we champion, rather than hide, our values. The New Labour Milburn days are thankfully behind us, but what is to come is still unsure. I hope for the sake of our values and the people we champions (as opposed to the people we choose to lead the championing) that we get this crucial next phase right by basing it on our core values.

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This post is triggered by a few blogs I have read by Lib Dems some of which are linked to here.  This post here - for example – is one of the most laughable pieces of rhetoric I have ever read. Whining that opposition politicians are daring to oppose your Government (or in fact the bit of your Government it suits you to claim) is as pathetic as it is ridiculous. Honestly, it’s such a caricature of all the worst traits people complain of in Lib Dems, that if Nick Perry didn’t exist, the Labour Party would be accused of inventing him to make them look bad.

More thoughtfully, Mark Thomson has laid out his thoughts 0n the betrayal narrative here and here. But I think Mark too misses the point. In both of these posts, Mark writes as if Labour’s calls of betrayal are about a sense of betrayal felt by the Labour Party. I can’t speak for all of my party, but I didn’t feel the Lib Dems betrayed Labour, but vindicated what we had been saying to their left-leaning voters. And that’s the point. It’s those voters who are feeling betrayed or are likely to feel betrayed over the next few months and years. I’ve already met several Lib Dem voters of my acquaintance who have sworn “never again” and it’s exactly those kinds of voters who Labour can and should be appealing to. Will this bleeding of voters be the  cost to the Lib Dems of being backed into the corner they have been fighting for all these years? The result of the inevitable mixed feeling that coalition government will bring?

The problem the Lib Dems have is that they have always been two rather different parties one of liberals and one of social democrats forced into an alliance purely for electoral advantage (which is probably why the one thing that unites them is an over-prioritisation of voting reform). The party leadership – as happened with Labour – is increasingly to the right of the membership (a huge percentage of whom identified themselves as Left of Centre before the election) which I can tell you from experience leads to disaffected members and ex-members pretty quickly – particularly when you enact right wing policies. For Labour it was our civil liberties agenda and the war, for the Lib Dems it likely to be the cuts.

The Lib Dems may soon find that they consist of two groups. the economic liberal wing – led by Nick Clegg and their remaining leftist partisans led by Simon Hughes. Lib Dems often accuse me of partisanship, and it’s true. But it’s just as true that the Lib Dems have partisans too.  But “my party right or left” is only going to remain true for the rump of supporters who will always be there, not the millions of voters who felt the Lib Dems were the left wing alternative to the Tories in their area. These supporters are a good target for a reinvigorated Labour Party, and focusing on an appeal to them will help keep Labour fresh and moving on from the worst of New Labour authoritarianism. Moving beyond – for example – the tough justice stance of Alan Johnson and Jack Straw to the more nuanced position being heard from Ed Miliband.

Let’s be honest. The Lib Dems were faced with a complete Hobson’s choice after the results of the election. Going into some form of coalition with the Tories was probably the only thing they could have done. But having decided not to opt for confidence and supply, they will have to realise that they will be judged on the whole actions of the Government.  In the first of his posts I linked to, Mark had this to say of the Labour Leadership Contenders: All the main contenders are very closely associated with the previous discredited government. Which is true in parts. But if Liberal Democrats are going to say that any member of a Government should be judged by all the actions of that Government, they need to realise that will be true of them too, and can’t simply try to claim credit for the “good” parts of the budget.

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