My column for ConHome: Why I loathe tribalism (even and especially when I’m guilty of it)

by Stephen Tall on April 10, 2014

con home cartoonHere’s my latest The Other Side column for ConservativeHome, published here on Tuesday. I sometimes get asked what on earth I’m doing writing for a Tory site: here’s my rationale. My thanks as ever to the site’s editors, Paul Goodman and Mark Wallace, for giving a Lib Dem space to provoke – constructively, I hope.

Commenters below-the-line sometimes ask what on earth this site is doing letting a Lib Dem loose on its pages. Here’s my favourite example: “Why do we have to keep putting up with this Haw Haw-esque propaganda on ConservativeHome?” I get occasional flak from my side, too: “I’ve asked before and I’ll ask again – why is a Liberal Democrat writing for ConservativeHome?” In true Lib Dem style, I’ve got a couple of different answers to this question, depending on my audience.

For Conservative readers, my intention is clear. To give you some sense of the Lib Dem perspective on the Coalition, and – my poorly concealed, ultimate goal – to encourage those liberal Conservatives among you (I know you’re lurking out there) to recognise you may have more in common with my lot than you do with your increasingly Ukip-leaning lot.

For Lib Dem readers, my rehearsed response is this: when out canvassing do you only ever knock on the doors of those people you already know are voting Lib Dem? Of course not. So why would you expect me only ever to write for a Lib Dem site? Besides, don’t you realise that my poorly concealed, ultimate goal is to win over some of the ‘soft Cons’ for the greater good of Lib Demmery?

Both of those answers are true. But there’s a bigger motivation, a reason why every other week I spend a couple of hours scribbling this column. It’s simply this: I loathe tribalism. Really, I do. Let me be clear here: I’m not against belonging to a political party and being proud of the fact. Generally, I think that’s healthy for democracy. No, what I detest is the ‘my party right or wrong’ style of tribalism.

That’s not to say I’m not guilty of it. I am. I’ve edited Lib Dem Voice since 2007 and I guess in that time I’ve written articles – not often, but more often than I’m comfortable counting up – traducing opponents for things I probably agree with, and also written articles hypocritically praising my party for things that deep down I’m not keen on. It’s the sort of thing most party activists end up doing at one time or another, either out of ignorance, loyalty or convenience.

I’m sometimes asked if I’d ever fancy being a Lib Dem MP (as if that’s actually a serious career option for anyone with a mortgage). A decade ago, I did in fact start filling in the candidates’ application form. But when I got to the question asking which aspects of party policy I disagreed with – and realised I was well on my way to starting my third side of A4 – I had second thoughts. After all, in 2004 what hope was there for a Lib Dem who believed in a competition-driven market economy and was pro-tuition fees? How times change. Anyway, the form was never completed, never submitted.

Few of us who are actively involved in politics (albeit in my case from the safety of the spectators’ stand, not the pitch) realise quite how freakishly odd we are.

For me it’s enough to agree broadly with 60-70 per cent of the Lib Dem manifesto and put up with the 30-40 per cent on which I may disagree. I’ve internalised the logic of this trade-off and as a result spend a decent dollop of money – and a quite ridiculous amount of my spare time – supporting my party. Small wonder, then, that having personally invested so much in them I often end up rooting for my team, almost irrespective of the situation: the very definition of tribalism.

It happened last week during the Nick v Nigel debates. I’m something of a Eurosceptic within Lib Dem ranks (needless to say that makes me a hard-core ‘EUSSRophile’ on the Ukip scale) and what I wanted to hear from my party leader was a positive but pro-reform vision for the UK staying within the European Union. Instead, when asked what he thought the EU might look like in 10 years’ time, he replied: “it will be much the same as it is now”.

So my post-debate disappointment wasn’t triggered by the insta-polls showing Farage the viewers’ winner – after all, acting the uppity outsider railing at those in power is a much easier gig – but by Clegg’s failure (at least on this occasion) to argue for a different and better EU. Does that make me any less likely to vote Lib Dem at the 22nd May European elections, though? Of course not: it’s my tribe.

For most of the public, though, my decision to nail my political colours to one mast will seem utterly perverse. Long gone are the days when the Conservatives and Labour between them hoovered up 97% of the votes cast, as they did in 1951. By 2010 they couldn’t even clear the two-thirds hurdle between them, with just 65% of voters opting either red or blue.

The post-war duopoly has been breached. New parties have burst forth in waves, as fragmentation becomes the new normal. First, the post-Orpington Liberal revival in the 1960s, then the nationalist upsurge in Scotland and Wales in the 1970s, followed by the SDP splintering of the centre-left in the 1980s. These waves have risen and fallen over the decades, but they remain ever-flowing, while a fourth wave, Ukip, is swelling.

Voters have never had so much choice. Yes, the three main parties fight on the centre ground, but that’s because they know when they stray to the fringes they’re punished by the voters. Other parties are available, however: an abundance, in fact. Whatever your viewpoint – left, right, liberal, nationalist, and all shades inbetween – there’s a political party that shares your outlook. What those people who complain “They’re all the same these days” really mean is, “No political party agrees with me as much as I’d like them to.” Fewer and fewer people are willing to make the compromises needed to belong within a tribe. I regret that. But I also understand it.

Politics is the art of persuasion. Me popping up in this space every fortnight either to tell you the Lib Dems are always right or the Conservatives are always wrong would be as tedious for you to read as for me to write. I’m not going to conclude with something as platitudinous as “We’re both sometimes right, we’re both sometimes wrong” (though it’s true), so let me try this instead…

As British politics becomes more fluid, it is becoming harder and harder for any one party to win a solid majority. Those of us who remain committed members of our respective tribes need to look at what is happening around us. Coalitions, formal or informal, are here to stay. In the circumstances, it’s not a bad idea to keep open lines of communication: to listen, to talk, to engage with each other. That, at any rate, is the real reason why this Liberal Democrat writes for ConservativeHome.

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