Tribalism and party splits

Extraordinary circumstances force us to address hard questions. And the situation in British politics at the beginning of 2019 is the most extraordinary I can recall since I joined the Liberal Party 59 years ago. Both major parties are bitterly divided, with some long-term members talking almost openly of leaving for some other group. Neither of their leaders commands popular respect. Normal government has almost ground to a standstill, with ministers and officials overwhelmed by the uncertainties of Brexit. Either or both Labour and the Tories may find MPs, Councillors and activists splitting away.

Which raises, for long-term Liberals and Liberal Democrats, the hard question: would we want to welcome any substantial number of refugees from other parties into ours? Even harder, would we be willing in some circumstances to stand aside to allow ‘independents’ in informal alliance with us to keep their seats in the uncompromising conditions of the UK electoral system?

Politics will get even messier in the next few months. A referendum is quite likely, and a general election might well follow, with factions from Labour and Conservatives who have campaigned for different sides on Brexit unreconciled.

We have, after all, been here before. I joined the Liberals in the surge of members that carried us from 100,000 to 300,000 members between 1960 and 1963 – to subside back to around 150,000 as the swing from the Conservatives swept Labour to a clear majority in 1966. Many of us stayed with the party. Others, whose ambitions were stronger than their principles, turned up elsewhere; the right-wing Tory candidate in Huddersfield in 1970, against whom I and other Liberals battled, had been a Young Liberal only 7 years before.

British entry into the EEC, and the 1975 referendum which Harold Wilson called to appease the Eurosceptics in his party, shook party allegiances. My wife’s opposite number as campaign coordinator in the North-West was a Labour MP, John Roper, who later became LibDem chief whip in the Lords. I had much more respect for my Conservative opponent in the October 1974 election than before; John Lee later left his party, and joined ours. Many of us painfully remember the bitter negotiations between SDP and Liberal officers on the allocation of seats between the two parties, with decent Liberal candidates forced to stand down. But the legacy of the Alliance and the merger, after all that pain, has included another group of long-term activists; few of us now could identify correctly which of our older members was originally a Liberal and which a Social Democrat.

We have even stood down in a by-election when the occasion justified it: to allow Martin Bell to win Tatton with a clear run against a Conservative Party discredited by corruption. I admit that Martin was a friendly independent (I had paid Martin my first party subscription as our college Liberal Party representative at university). But there are some MPs in other parties with whom we share enough views and values to make it worthwhile asking ourselves how we should react if – like Dick Taverne – they were to resign their seat to fight a by-election on a platform with which we largely agreed, or to leave their party to stand as an independent in an early general election.

Before you leap in to denounce me in your comments, remember that tribalism is one of the besetting sins of British politics, and that members of a third party have no choice but to promote cooperation with the more fair-minded members of other parties (when and if we can find them). Local Councillors know this better than those who focus on national political rivalries; we welcome people moving across parties at local level as their views develop or their party moves in a different direction.

So look kindly on those you may already be working with on the People’s Vote Campaign or some other set of issues; you might even want to cultivate them actively, as you discover their growing doubts about the party they belong to now. If you want the UK to come out of the current chaos successfully, we will have to win over others. Heaven preserve us from another ‘centre party’, set up to occupy the ground and try to push us out of the way. Yes, let’s be rightly suspicious of those whose motives are ambition rather than principle (I have sharp memories of negotiating with David Owen). But allies, locally and in Parliament, should be encouraged and welcomed.

In the likely confusion of British politics this year, good people will splinter away from both Labour and the Conservatives. We should aim to recruit them, and if possible to play a leading role in any reconstruction of our party system.

* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.

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33 Comments

  • I don’t mind former Labour and Conservative members joining the party but would be suspicious of a large break away of Labour or Conservative MPs, especially Labour.

  • Richard Underhill 31st Dec '18 - 5:04pm

    It is possible to join by simply paying a sum of money online, but councillors and candidates should go through an approval process.

  • paul barker 31st Dec '18 - 5:16pm

    Party realignment has the potential to transform the Political landscape as it did in 1981, in fact the pressures for change are greater now & both Labour & Tories are weaker.
    We can prepare for any breakaways by starting to talk about Electoral Alliances right now. We have enough in common with The Women’s Equality Party & The Greens outside Scotland for an Alliance to be possible with them, enough to start talking anyway.
    We should be opening our arms to potential Allies.
    This is the moment when we can break out of our ghetto of irrelevance.

  • David Warren 31st Dec '18 - 5:27pm

    Of course any converts to liberalism and our party the Liberal Democrats should be welcomed.

    However we must be careful that they are actual converts rather than just jumping ship for political expediency.

    We want Liberals in the party not careerists who are looking for refuse.

    As far as elections are concerned there might be a small number of places where we don’t stand because there is a principled independent seeking re election for example.

    What really should happen is an SDP mark two should be set up by those on the right of the Labour party who oppose Corbyn. I don’t think it will happen though because the leaders of that faction are still plotting Jezza’s downfall.

    They see his leadership as temporary not surprising given his age and there is no obvious left wing candidate to succeed him.

    As for the Tories I see more chance of a split from their right wing, not a group we have much if anything in common with.

  • Nom de Plume 31st Dec '18 - 6:19pm

    Much speculation. In principle I don’t object to coalitions and agreements, but the wider, political effects need to be carefully considered. It seems to have worked for Richmond LibDems with their agreement with the Greens, but the Coalition did not work for the Party at the 2015 general election. I measure success in terms of LibDem seats won.

  • Standing down to support others we agree with… I don’t disagree but we need to be sensible about it. There is an example you haven’t mentioned, William: when David Davis stood down to fight his own Haltemprice & Howden seat in protest at some anti- civil liberties issue the Blair government was pursuing (2004-ish?)
    This was a target seat for us. A bona fide target seat, yet just because we agreed with him on the particular policy, we decided to sit out the by election and let DD preen and own the issue. I found it an unbelievable choice at the time, and I still do. We not only threw away a chance to gain a seat but we allowed this very right-wing Tory to continue his career and help bring about the Brexit mess we are in now.
    So, yes to standing down sometimes to back others we agree with, but let’s make sure we know who our friends actually are. And let’s avoid enabling vanity projects.
    Happy New Year all. It’s bitterly cold in Edinburgh but I’m braving the weather tonight to watch the fireworks from Calton Hill.

  • Laurence Cox 31st Dec '18 - 6:37pm

    “However we must be careful that they are actual converts rather than just jumping ship for political expediency.”

    Well said, David Warren. I remember some months before the 1997 General Election a message coming down to our local party from HQ that our, then, Tory MP was willing to join our Party if he was selected as our candidate. Our response was that we expected any Lib Dem MP to put looking after his constituents first. That was the last we heard, but a few months later we learned that he had been made a Lib Dem Peer. Some years later he left the Party again to sit as a cross-bencher in the Lords.

  • 8 comments, 8 by men, 7 negative but also unrealistic. We are recovering, at the present rate of improvement we could overtake Labour in as little as 8 Years, as long as nothing bad happens – hurrah!
    We are in no position to be snooty about any recruits from other Parties, we need them as much as they need us. Some of the comments on this thread sound like Brexiteers talking about the continent.
    If a few MPs from Labour were to form a new Party we should embrace them – a New Alliance could be the best chance we have had for 4 Decades.
    Go back & look at 1981, The Alliance gained 15% in 3 Months, we should do everything we can to encourage a repeat of that.
    We are not going to make it on our own.

  • Yeovil Yokel 31st Dec '18 - 10:16pm

    Much as I would like to see it, I doubt we will see many, if any, Tory or Labour MPs defect to us during 2019. FPTP confers greater security of tenure for them compared to MPs in the minor parties, and splitting away might well condemn them to losing their seats. Under a more proportional voting system there would be a greater prospect of the two big parties splintering, which is why they are resistant to changing the status quo. It would take a political cataclysm for such a scenario to play out and I can’t see even Brexit providing the impetus for it.
    Tim Farron once said something (slightly tongue-in-cheek) along the lines of becoming a Lib Dem politician as being a poor career choice – why would most Tory or Labour MPs take the risk, when it would be safer to stay within the fold of one of the two big parties and hope to ride out the Brexit storm?

  • Katharine Pindar 31st Dec '18 - 10:40pm

    We Liberal veterans have never seen a situation quite like this, before – where both Tories and Labour in Parliament are so deeply divided, and where both the PM and the Opposition leader are wanted to be rid of by substantial numbers of their own MPs. I reckon that puts us in a uniquely strong position, especially with our popularity in the country quietly growing because of what we have to offer ourselves.

    The lesson for the coming year therefore seems to me is that we stand firm, wait for the upheavals that are likely going to bring us new recruits, be ready for new informal alliances and local pacts where they are to our benefit and our country’s, but recognise our latent strength and don’t rush into anything or give way unnecessarily. The future may well be bright for our beloved party, as it should be again. Stop Brexit, and be happy in 2019.

  • Lord Wallace and many comments focus on the splits in Parliament, but are the splits not just a reflection of what is happening within our communities generally.
    Labour has a stronghold in many of the cosmopolitan cities where it has been successful in driving the Tories out, but has lost support among its traditional working class heartlands to Conservatives. It is a reflection of what Andy Burnham described as the rift between “Hampstead and Hull”.

    I like Lord Wallace’s turn of phrase “tribalism is one of the besetting sins of British politics” but believe we may be seeing that breaking down. Politics along the lines of class division is an outdated approach in a globalised world where people and businesses freely travel and trade across the globe.

    The real struggle is between Liberal Democracy and authoritarian populism whether of the left or right. We need to be prepared to pick-up the pieces from Brexit (whatever form any eventual settlement of the issue takes ) and have policies and campaign messages ready to go on the key issues highlighted by Vince in his new year message – properly funding health and care services, increasing resource for schools and police services, tackling homelessness and the lack of affordable housing, and harnessing the power and opportunities of new technology to develop the productivity of the UK economy.

    For our party we need to hold firm to our traditional values of Internationalism, protection of civil liberties, social democracy and equality of opportunity in a mixed market economy.
    There is no future in a political realignment with any breakaway party that is not wholly committed to these core principles. To quote Jo Grimond – “There is no point keeping a liberal party alive unless it promotes liberalism.”

  • Well said Joe Bourke, just above! And one of our major problems is that our own party has fallen for the big lie at the heart of neo-liberalism. Neoliberalism is the current conservative term for Thatcherism, and major figures in our party have fallen for it. We must distinguish between Economic ‘liberalism’, which means devil-take-the-hindmost, and moral or Social liberalism, which surely is what Grimond meant. Isn’t it?

    Do I know what he meant? I cannot answer that, but I hope he, and now all of us, would mean what we profess. And part of that — the central part — must be to avoid being tribalistic, and to be willing to change our opinions when the facts change. As all the world now knows, except half the Conservatives, “Austerity” has failed as it was bound to do, because the thinking behind it is wrong .

    And we must abandon the GDP as the touchstone for all political calculation. “It’s the Economy, stupid!” sounds appalling to a Liberal such as we should be, perhaps. But the truth in it resides in its relevance to our greater truth: “It’s the people, really!” Surely what Grimond meant was a liberalism that transcends mere material or economic calculation, in the primary pursuit of a national society in which wellbeing and community count for more than pounds per hour and millions per annum?

  • David Warren 1st Jan '19 - 11:29am

    Excellent comments from @JoeBourke

    Spot on analysis and explanation as to what is needed.

    On another thread I stated that my wishes for the coming year include the party adopting policies in favour of a Universal Basic Income and National Care Service.

    Raising problems with the roll out of Universal Credit and highlighting the crisis in adult social care are simply not enough.

    The money you get on UC is simply not enough to live on and the adult social care set up in this country is totally broken.

    A bit of radical Liberal policy is urgently needed in these and other areas.

  • Alex Macfie 1st Jan '19 - 11:31am

    TonyH: David Davis’ vanity by-election in Haltemprice & Howden was in 2008. I think It’s significant that the decision to withdraw our candidate from the by-election (which decision was not at all popular with the local party in H&H) was made under Nick Clegg’s leadership, and with hindsight it was an early sign of Clegg’s political naivety. It’s hard to imagine Charles Kennedy withdrawing our candidate for a Tory, let alone one as right-wing as David Davis.

  • paul barker 31st Dec ’18 – 10:06pm…………. We are recovering, at the present rate of improvement we could overtake Labour in as little as 8 Years, as long as nothing bad happens – hurrah!………….

    It’s good to see that the old tradition of starting the new year with an impossible promise is still being followed.

  • Neil Sandison 1st Jan '19 - 1:26pm

    Katharine Pindar totally agree speculating about what if ,but or maybe will happen is a mugs game .Standing firm on a sensible policy platform but being prepared to work cross party on key issues that reflect liberal values is the best course of action .We cannot stop other parties from self harming but we can offer sanctuary to those who are prepared to join us in our new liberal movement that reflects the principles of liberal democracy and social justice.

  • Peter Hirst 1st Jan '19 - 2:00pm

    One issue is that both leaders and particularly Theresa May tend to make their policy on Brexit a personal issue. They don’t emphasise the national interest and when they do it sounds hollow. A true leader accepts they can be wrong and shows flexibility and a willingness to listen, not dictate.

  • Paul Barker 1st Jan '19 - 2:58pm

    Hmmm, the bit about overtaking Labour in 8 Years was crude sarcasm, obviously not crude enough for David Raw & Expats.
    My point is that we need Party Realignment, we need people like Soubry & Umunna to leave the comfort of their Parties & join with us; we aren’t going anyway on our own.
    It doesn’t matter what form any Realignment takes but something must break soon, either our Party System or our Country.
    This is an existential crisis for The UK & also a unique opportunity to break out of a Century of stagnation. For our Party its our big chance to become relevant again, we need to be open & optimistic. We should open our arms to everyone who shares our values.

  • Small pedantish point – stepping aside in Tatton was at the 1997 General Election, not at a byelection. I think it worked well in giving a human focus and news narrative to the Tory Sleaze aspect of that campaign – for both Liberals and Labour.

  • Paul Barker 1st Jan ’19 – 2:58pm….Hmmm, the bit about overtaking Labour in 8 Years was crude sarcasm, obviously not crude enough for David Raw & Expats….

    May I suggest that you seem to use such ‘crude sarcasm’ rather a lot. Over the time I’ve been on LDV your forecasts of the phoenix-like rise of the party have become an ongoing reminder to me not to ask you for any lottery numbers.

  • Having the stars aligned in your favour can be tricky. After the Orpington by-election there were those who felt that Jo Grimond and the tiny band of parliamentary Liberals could have seized the moment with more vigour and ruthlessness. Liberals quite rightly do not do ruthlessness very well but riding the tide needs courage, imagination and a willingness to take risks for the common good.

  • William Wallace 1st Jan '19 - 6:50pm

    I think at present the likelihood of individuals walking out of their parties is stronger than of a group emerging that wants to occupy some of our target electoral ground, and negotiate with us about withdrawing in their favour in multiple constituencies. There isn’t an obvious leader or leadership group for that. But we should be watching out for worthwhile people, locally and nationally, who despair of their parties and might discover they are more at home with us – and distinguish as carefully as we can between them and others who might be threatened with de-selection and simply want to use us to save their seats.

  • As has been pointed out, the idea of a realignment in British politics has been around since at least the 1980s but is doomed to failure because no one can quite agree who we might want to get together with, exactly. Pacts fall for the same reason. Many would like to see us team up with the Greens on occasion, others might find them a bit lefty (as in, not very keen on markets) for their taste . This is not tribalism, it is a matter of principle over electoral expedience. Ditto deals with just about anyone. Difficult.

  • Nom de Plume 1st Jan '19 - 8:32pm

    @ Chris Cory

    Nobody is being asked to join the Green Party nor am I particularly promoting agreements with them over any other party. In a proportional voting system agreements and coalitions are common and neccessary. It is not a matter of giving up on your own principles. FPTP is in large part to blame for this erroneous thinking.

  • John Probert 2nd Jan '19 - 10:25am

    We only need 2 or 3 MPs to defect to us, to give us a higher media profile and forward momentum in the polls. Let’s offer those defectors the chance of selection for a winnable LD seat. First come, first served!

  • Peter Martin 2nd Jan '19 - 10:33am

    . Politics along the lines of class division is an outdated approach in a globalised world where people and businesses freely travel and trade across the globe.

    This has erroneously been said many time before and no doubt will erroneously be said many times again. People and businesses have done all this as long as any of us. even the oldest of centenarians, can remember.

    There’s also a saying “It’s the economy, stupid!” which is perhaps slightly overworked but is nevertheless ignored at our peril. The problems we see in Europe, and Brexit is only a part of those, have only appeared since the big economic crash of 2008. Class divisions tend to be relatively dormant when everything is seemingly going well but, and as we all saw in the Thatcher years, they come to the fore in the bad times. Then we saw a recent outburs in 2011.

    No 2008 crash would have meant no Cypriot crisis, no Greek Crisis, no euro debt crisis (or at least it would be much more easily manageable) , no 2011 riots, no Italian crisis, no gilets jaunes, and no Brexit!

    Incidentally, there was quite a lot of discussion on LDV about Emmanuel Macron when, and just before, he was first elected. He seems like a non-person now. He’s still alive and kicking according to my information! He’s just referred to the demonstrators as “the hateful mob”. He’s not the first French ‘king’ to think along those lines!

    Have LibDems disowned him?

  • Richard Underhill 2nd Jan '19 - 11:57am

    Yeovil Yokel:
    Being a Lib Dem allowed Tim Farron to stick to his principles.
    Other Lib Dem leaders, including Paddy, have said similar things.
    When Tony Blair said “and you are all Social Democrats” the Lib Dem negotiating team said “No, we are all Liberals”.
    Paddy noted that this included the third leader of the SDP. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bob_Maclennan,_Baron_Maclennan_of_Rogart
    How are things in Yeovil?

  • David Evershed 2nd Jan '19 - 4:52pm

    There is a new tribalism afoot – Leave versus Remain.

    Rather than being the Lib Dem Tribe we have become the Remain Tribe and have attracted our new members from that tribe.

    This is a bad move. Once membership of the EU drops further down the list of key issues for voters, we will just be seen as the Remain Party and thus irrelevant.

  • Hasn’t one political party already lost an MP due to Brexit?

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