On defections…

by Stephen Tall on February 13, 2007

I’ve been reflecting on the nature of tribal allegiances today – Oxford readers will know why, as the Lib Dem city group has experienced another defection, the third since last May. (Two to Independents, including this week’s, and one to Labour.)

Understandably, I guess, the local press is trailing it as a ‘bombshell’, and implies some kind of internal turmoil. Not remotely true – as a minority administration, the Lib Dems successfully steered through a budget last night which delivered on our pledge to keep Council Tax down, and funded many (though not all) of our priorities.

We did so with good-natured unanimity – in spite of the tensions inherent in a seven-hour Full Council meeting, which was the usual pathetic pantomime but with knobs on. But no amount of denial from me here will convince those who don’t wish to be convinced, so I’ll move on.

What did occur to me was that our party’s tendency to be non-tribal is both our blessing and our curse.

Very few people are born and brought-up as Liberals – even if they are gut liberals – and certainly not to the same extent as Labour and the Tories, where there’s residual, though ever-declining, class-based allegiance. To become a Lib Dem is mostly an active, intellectual choice; rather than an instinctual reaction associated with where you live, your perceived social class, or actual economic standing. And that’s a Good Thing.

(To avoid mis-understanding: I well appreciate there are many Tory and Labour supporters who also make an active choice to vote for their party. I am being deliberately broad-brush.)

But that strength can be a weakness, too, for we sometimes lack the tribal DNA which glues parties together through thick and thin. Witness those left-wingers in the Labour Party, who hold their nose while voting for a government which waged war on a false prospectus. Or observe the Tory right-wing’s loathing of Mr Cameron’s ‘hug-a-hoodie’ agenda, while grudgingly acknowledging the increase in the party’s ratings (and praying he doesn’t really mean what he says).

What has been encouraging in the past 12 months has been the resilience of the party. A little over a year ago, the Telegraph splashed its front-page with the hyperbolic wish-fulfilment headline, ‘Lib Dems in freefall’. Well, 2006 may not have been our best ever year, but freefall? Not so much.

We are a party founded on an ideology: a party which is about ideas, or it is nothing. I would never want the Lib Dems to become a group of my-party-right-or-wrongüber-loyalist adherents. We are free-thinking individuals, and proud of it. Which is why we’re so damn awkward.

PS: just noticed – this is my 500th post. Just thought I’d mention it really.