A morally superior party? I don’t think so

I confess that I cringe a little inside when I hear politicians from one party claiming that their’s is somehow more honest, more decent and better at keeping their promises than another.

Lib Dem politicians have certainly fallen into the trap from time to time, but they’re not alone: every party has its moments (with many Labour people being particularly convinced of their moral superiority at the moment, if some of the comments on this site are anything to go by).

It’s easy to see how people genuinely come to believe it’s true. As I noted a few days ago, we’ve a natural tendency to put a positive gloss on the activities of our party and see those of the other parties in a more negative light.

It’s much easier to claim the moral high ground when you’re in opposition too – as the Lib Dems have known for years and Labour have rediscovered (the Tea Party movement have had a similar pleasure in the US).

But what would it mean for a party to be genuinely more moral and honest – whether in power or opposition; whether winning or losing – than its opponents?

Parties are collections of individuals – people who’ve joined up for all sorts of reasons (if the party is any decent size at all). Some want power because they enjoy it, others because they’ve an agenda to drive. Some want to help their community, or enjoy politics, or any combination of these and a hundred others.

And politicians are people – not particularly better or worse than any others – and people can be a dodgy bunch. We humans tell lots of lies (society wouldn’t work otherwise), we cheat, we play political games in our homes and work. Surprise, surprise, people in political parties are no different.

So for one party to morally superior to another would require that party to somehow attract more moral members and activists overall. Sorry guys – I know we all like to think our activists are a more morally upstanding bunch than the opposition, but- when the rose-tinted spectacles are removed – I really don’t believe it’s true and I’ve certainly not seen any evidence for it.

OK, scratch the moral superiority argument – why vote for one party over another?

Perhaps because you support that party’s policies. When in power, all parties are reasonably good at putting their policies into practice. Needless to say, you can achieve more if you have an outright majority and, by definition, not quite so much as a coalition partner, but that’s down largely to the voters.

There are of course many other reasons people vote for one candidate over another – such is the joy of democracy.

So, whether you’re a supporter of the Tea Party movement in the US, the Lib Dems, Labour, the Greens, the Conservatives or any other party, if you expect your party to gain power and then buck the trend of every political party in history and meet some wonderfully high moral ideal, be prepared for disappointment.

Political parties are full of humans, and humans have a nasty habit of being less than perfect (great guy Gandhi – probably best not to mention his support for apartheid, or the way he treated his wife and children).

That’s not to say there aren’t differences between individuals.  Some people are more moral than others (whatever your moral code might be).  But taken as a whole, and faced with the realities of being – and staying – in power, those differences cancel out across a party.

Setting your party up as morally superior to the next one is rarely sustainable.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • “Setting your party up as morally superior to the next one is rarely sustainable”

    As LibDems members are finding now. Of course the leadership always knew it was so. Didn’t stop them from being so sanctimonious and holier than thou. Along with ‘fair votes’, this also becomes a lost USP.

  • I agree about every party being a collection of individuals, the same with every organisation, body, company, church. Sometimes a member will err, and that does not necessarily reflect on the organisation.

    But the organisation have a choice on how it reacts to it’s member’s misdeeds. Does it take the offence seriously? Does it take sanctions against the errant member?

    Belatedly, the Labour Party has suspended Phil Woolas. While the membership – at least as it is represented on Twitter – seems to support this, the spin coming from London is that the Parliamentary Labour Party are up in arms about it. Will the suspension become an explulsion? Either way, I think we’re about to see the true morality of the Labour Party.

  • Terry Smith 9th Nov '10 - 4:36pm

    Quite Jayu, I admit I was seduced by that one.

    A new kind of politics ? At the worst a lie, at best a pipe dream.

    Shame you gave up this USP without a fight though. Not even a whimper,

  • paul barker 9th Nov '10 - 4:36pm

    Its true there is little you can do to improve a Party on the inside but theres a lot we can do about the outside, the Partys public face. That is where “Woolasgate” is so important, we can all make sure that our Parties & their representatives follow minimum standards of behaviour.
    I have been pleasantly surprised at the reaction of Labour members to the Woolas affair, at least the bloggers among them – its their MPs who seem to have lost their moral bearings.

  • I have to discagree with Iain. We ARE a morally sueprior party. Unlike our two big opponents, we opposed Cheney’s illegal war for oil in Iraq.

  • Terry Smith 9th Nov '10 - 6:54pm

    I’d really like to know how you can surmise my political convictions and prejudices from that comment.

    Complacent No… Jaded and cynical perhaps. But the feeling that we serve our politicians rather than vice versa (which is the closest thing I have to any political conviction) left the field open for a party that wasn’t in thrall to a handful of big business. We’ve had enough of that over the last abysmal government.

  • “No more broken promises”

    I think the leadership set themselves up to be the morally superior party.

    As for voting for policy differences, George Kendall stated on a previous blog regarding Nick Clegg’s views on defecit reduction, “He’s admitted that he’d started to have doubts about the timing of deficit reduction some time before the election, though I don’t think it’s clear when he came to a firm view on the subject.” Of course even the day before the election he was telling us the speed of the Tory cuts would be harmful.

    So if the leader doesn’t support the policies in the manifesto and their promises turn out to be false I suppose the moral high ground is utterly lost.

    But why must it be ? Ming Campbell, Charles Kennedy and others on tuition fees, and the question to be tabled tomorrow by Chris Rennard in the Lords show that coalition need not mean becoming morally bankrupt. The public remember those polititions who take a moral stand, think how respected Robin Cook was accross the house and in the wider party after he refused to compromise his morals over Iraq.

    I think the aim should be not to drop thoughts of moral superiority when in power but to turn them into action.

  • Yeah, I think the problem is that Clegg in particular, liked to flirt with this claim of moral superiority, which is why I think the vilification the Party is getting is so extreme. We are seen as hypocrites. And that is something that we should address.

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