Friday, May 20, 2011

Liberal Democrat tribalism is the real danger

A Liberal Democrat friend was at a barbecue just before the AV referendum, and he was arguing (unsuccessfully) for a greater range of voices in politics.

"For example, I might not agree with everything the Greens want to do" he was saying, "and I certainly don't have much in common with UKIP, but a lot of people in this country do like what the Greens and UKIP are saying, and I think it's important those voices are heard."

There a little silence in the crowd, and then a cocky Labour voice quipped "I don't see why we need to hear the Greens or UKIP for christ's sake !!!"

Then Labour and Conservative supporters alike guffawed heartily in agreement together at the cheeky bravado of admitting to this in public.

I'm reminded of the pigs and the humans at the end of Animal Farm (oops, spoiler!)

And in fact we now know the AV referendum was won by an alliance of partisans, and not the gentle pluralists.

Don't you just hate the Labservatives? Don't you just hate all those who oppose progress? Don't you just wish a plague on both their unapologetically authoritarian houses?

Well, er... actually, no...

Over the past year, the Liberal Democrats have been on the receiving end of so much undisguised tribalist hatred that it sometimes seems impossible to ignore the bile. And the referendum and recent elections, gaffes and scandals have added to the misery. So it feels great to let loose a fusillade against the unprogressive majority.

But I think this might be a profound mistake.

It's true that despite being the junior partner, opposed on both sides by the sizable authoritarian elements within both the Labour and Conservative ranks, the Liberal Democrats are managing to be nimble about helping to encourage policies in liberal and social democratic directions.

There are many examples of positive achievements...
  • the pupil premium
  • the higher income tax threshold
  • halting ID cards
  • higher Capital Gains Tax
  • the restoration of the earnings link for pensions
  • the Great Repeal Bill
  • ending the practice of imprisoning the children of asylum-seekers
  • maintaining NHS spending
  • prison reform
... and many examples of defensive achievements, in the sense of forestalling potential illiberal initiatives such as:
  • more PFI
  • enforcement of the Digital Economy Act
  • new and worse kinds of control orders and imprisonment without trial
  • upfront university tuition fees
  • the enfeebling of local government
  • another illegal war
  • NHS dismemberment
  • knee-jerk law-making
  • secret support for torture
But this state of affairs is only possible (paradoxically) because of traditional Conservative discipline in following the party leader. Cameron, for all his faults, has set a mostly liberal Conservative agenda, and has been a man of his word in keeping to the Coalition Agreement. And this state of affairs is also only possible because the Labour leadership has decided to indulge in gratuitously oppositional politics, so that it has been easy for the Conservatives to maintain party discipline.

Coalition intensely irritates the tribalists within the Conservatives and Labour because it sidelines the Conservative right-wing and obliges Conservative ministers to negotiate formally with Liberal Democrat ministers rather than to make backroom deals with the authoritarian elements in Labour.

Of course, given the nature of Coalition, triumphs are rarely unalloyed. For example:
  • It would be better to repeal the DE Act and start again, but authoritarian elements within Conservatives and Labour would resist this.
  • The funding of Higher Education in England is a mess: there has been a huge leap in tuition fees; and while the repayment plan is better for students, it is far worse for the taxpayer. All parties are now however committed to the fees principle for this Parliament.
  • Reforms of the libel and privacy laws are moving slowly, shaped more by the judiciary than politicians. Over-regulation of media activities is a risk. As too is under-regulation of media ownership.
  • Conservatives and tribalists within Labour united to defeat the AV referendum.
  • Conservative traditionalists and Labour tribalists will again unite to try to defeat the introduction of democracy into the House of Lords.
However, if the diverse authoritarian or partisan elements within the Conservatives and Labour were able to maintain common cause over the course of this Parliament, as they did successfully over AV, the liberal and social democratic agendas would be lost. Moreover, if the next election sees the (unwarranted) smashing of the Liberal Democrats, only the liberal and social democratic elements of the Conservative and Labour parties can keep alive liberal and social democratic influences over law-making.

So despite a good record in government over the last year (for which they will never gain credit) Liberal Democrats do not have the luxury of mopping up the middle ground by antagonising supporters of Labour and Conservatives. Liberal Democrats need to foster liberal and social democratic elements in the other parties. Building common cause, not indulging in tribalism, is the only way to keep these ideals alive.

It means looking for those at the barbecue who are not guffawing quite so loudly with Napoleon and Pilkington... those who are, deep down, a bit uncomfortable with a simple binary divide of all political thought... those who would like to hear what others have to say.

Credits: Photo "Kitbash Mercenary" by Shaun Wong