Friday, November 26, 2010

Tribalism and party politics

All genuine political parties are alliances. There isn't a single significant party in history that hasn't had a number of currents and tendencies within it with their own perspectives and methods - although this doesn't always mean rows and rage, obviously.

For me those tensions are a useful democratic tool. Any organisation that is too ideologically homogeneous is setting itself up for a fall, unable to adapt it's strategy organically, too easily going out of political fashion or unable to test arguments internally there becomes a natural limit to how large or influential it could become.

It's also the case that people join parties for very different reasons and it's good for different groups of people to feel there are others like them in any organisation. When it works best people learn from each other, enjoy the variety and it puts you in a good position to reach into many different communities with a good team of activists.

There are also pitfalls, which is why members of parties don't always welcome with open arms those who have a different vision for the party. It's certainly true that there's a big difference between an idealised utopia of political differences being discussed with mutual respect and intellectual agility and the often personalised and ridiculous nature of internal political debates in all parties.

I think that's where tribalism comes in handy. If you're Labour through and through, if you're going to support every Labour candidate put before you even when they completely oppose everything you stand for, it helps to see the party label as more important than the political content.

In fact, while tribalism is an essential tool for building a stable party capable of running councils and nation states it cuts against fluid political debate and can find loyalists voting in favour of candidates they hate against candidates of other parties who hold far closer views. This is justified, when it is justified, by the idea that there is a larger political project at work and even a crap, say, Green Party candidate is an advance for the cause they so poorly represent despite a candidate for another party being a keen environmentalist and lefty right-on person.

For me I've never really been a tribalist. I've obviously been enthusiastic for particular candidates or parties over the years, but my party right or wrong has never been something I've ever felt quite comfortable with. I happen to think that's quite a healthy position to hold, but it does create problems.

One of the reasons I'm writing this post now is that there are no elections coming up so no one will think I'm talking about a specific candidate, but to draw a hypothetical example - if I want to see my kind of ideas get greater prominence and a candidate for another party is, well, better than the Green one (which never, ever happens obviously, cough) I'm in no position to actually say so. In fact, if questioned, I'd have to put on my most sincere face and lie. That's not really cool is it?

Or perhaps it is. If I'm standing somewhere I don't really want fellow party members announcing on public platforms that I'm useless and people should vote for someone else, even if they think it. And after all why wouldn't they? The usual boundary is that people sometimes don't bother campaigning for candidates that don't inspire them - but actually often they do.

So there's no facility to recognise that politics is so much more complex than what colour rosette someone is wearing. Where does that leave people who have a looser, more open minded attitude towards politics? Well, they could become unaffiliated commentators, but that's rather unsatisfying and sterile. If politics is about taking an active role in your community then refusing a party card might not be the best way of going about this - although some people make it work for them.

In 2012 Londoners will have at least three ballot papers in front of them. There's no party that would allow someone to advocate voting Lib Dem on one, Green on another and Labour on the third - even though, once the specific candidates are all in place, there could be good arguments for doing just that. Not that you'll catch me voting Lib Dem this side of Armageddon.

Does that make all party activists natural liars? No, not at all, some people are just stupid and actually don't know that there might be a difference between candidates of the same party. Others are so base they don't care what the political views of their candidate is as long as it gets them personally one step closer to power.

Still others skirt close to the edge and imply heavily they would vote for the Tory in a particular election and allow the knowledge of party rules to do the rest for them - that's kind of having your cake and eating it too though, don't you think? None of it's very satisfactory though.

I guess this side of the abolition of all parties it's a problem everyone is stuck with. Certainly parties are essential vehicles for political change and the most effective of those parties will always be the best at squaring the circle of broad church pluralism and tribal loyalties that go far deeper than how any particular candidate may or may not vote on abortion, the economy or war.


Derek Wall said...

made me realize I am amazingly inspired by some parts of the tribe.

catch you tomorrow at COR?

Peter Cranie said...

I think that there are attempts being made by Respect to go beyond simple tribalism, which is a new model of how things might be approached:

"Challenging the traditional parties on their own ground is always difficult. The work is long and hard, and the rewards are few. But as things stand in England today, it is only the Green Party and Respect who offer a clear political alternative and have a serious chance of winning votes."

In some ways, our increased size and presence as a political party means we are much less able to go beyond our own tribe when we are talking about candidate choice, under FPTP at least. However, I think historically with the Supplementary Vote (London 2008) and potentially in future AV elections, there would be more opportunity to recognise the good representatives or candidates, even if they don't belong to our own tribe.

Derek Wall said...

I am not always persuaded by George but Salma is wonderful.

Peter Cranie said...

I think you sum it up very well Derek! I agree.

Strategist said...

George is wonderful too, but in a different way.

Anonymous said...

Is that the same george galloway that will probably garner enough lefty votes in his latest electoral adventure in Glasgow to deprive patrick harvie of the Scottish Greens his chance of re-election to the Scottish Parliament?

Jim Jepps said...

I'm not sure the Galloway demographic is the Harvie demographic frankly.

mind you I've always had a soft spot for George. Wouldn't want everyone to be like him, but a treasure none the less.

Of course Harvie is head and shoulders above him politically, but I wouldn't worry to much about a split vote if I were you, just the Green vote.

Anonymous said...

Anyone who works for Press TV or sucks up to that regime is out of the game.