A little less tribalism, a lot more conversation, please

by Stephen Tall on July 10, 2007

First days back at work are always a little bewildering – endless e-mails, voice-mails and post to sift through, while trying to maintain the after-effects of the energy boost gained. I’ve also plunged headlong back into the political ‘blogosphere’ after a week hermetically sealed away (a little damply) in Devon. And it is clear the imminent by-elections in Ealing & Southall and Sedgefield are exercising fellow bloggers quite considerably.

And, I will add – hastily – exercising them quite understandably. By-elections: you either love ‘em or hate ‘em. Lib Dems are camped well and truly in the former field – it is a real test of our faith in activist-based pavement politics, and a rare chance for media exposure as the press is suddenly forced to remember that the age of two-party politics is dying. I certainly plan to do my bit to help the party in the next fortnight.

But let’s admit – if only to ourselves in the privacy of our blogs – that by-elections rarely show party politics in a good light. In fact, they show us, all of us, at our tribal worst.

Let’s take today’s exclusive story on Lib Dem Voice – that Tory campaign guru, Grant Shapps MP, has been seemingly caught impersonating a Lib Dem activist ‘admitting’ that the party can’t win in Ealing in a comment posted to YouTube.

First up, full credit to regular LDV contributor Mark Pack for spotting Mr Shapps’ clanger, a story which has now been picked up by both Tim Ireland at Bloggerheads and Paul Staines at Guido Fawkes. They both dismiss Mr Shapps’ defence – that his YouTube account was hacked, perhaps by nefarious political opponents – as chronically weak. (And who’d have thought they’d agree about something?) Mr Shapps’ honour is defended by Iain Dale, who breezily ascribes it to cock-up not conspiracy.

To me, it looks like a pretty clear case of caught-red-handed-bang-to-rights-guv for Mr Shapps. But then, that’s my point. Mandy Rice-Davies’s singular catechism applies: I would say that, wouldn’t I? I’m less likely to give the benefit of the doubt to Mr Shapps than I would if the shoe were on the other foot. Just as Iain is much happier believing Mr Shapps – whether he’s inventing an over-contrived excuse for pretending to be a demoralised Lib Dem member on the internet, or spreading unsubstantiated rumours of supposed Lib Dem campaigning skulduggery – than accepting what we in the Lib Dems might have to say.

This latest episode – Shappstick comedy, anyone? – won’t even achieve the status of Westminster village hothouse gossip. Today’s phosphorescent blog-wars will soon flame out, unnoticed by almost any members of the public.

But it is simply an exemplum of the distraction personality politics which rages during full-tilt by-election campaigns. Any issues that are discussed in the Ealing or Sedgefield campaigns will be painted in stark, clichéd, black-and-white, right-or-wrong terms. Real political debate (or any thought of more high-minded civic discourse) can go hang until the close of polls. ‘Get out the vote’ is what matters to all parties.

And it’s not just what the voters make of all this which bothers me – it’s why we, ‘the politicos’, continue to damage ourselves and the political process with our rampant tribalism.