'If fewer of us feel tribal about politics, it is because the parties have been disloyal to the country'
During the election campaign, I found myself the subject of an attack by a Labour Party website for daring to criticise Gordon Brown and for not giving the Conservatives a harder time before the election. Apparently, I had criticised the Brown government too much. I was told by a leading Labour activist that if I didn’t have something nice to say then I should say nothing at all. Strange, no?
As it happens, what I’ve written above is slightly, though only slightly, different from the truth. The attack actually came from ConservativeHome, a party activist website, against a number of commentators who had, in addition to criticising every other party, criticised the Tories. Norman Tebbit (whom we were told “should know better”), and I (who presumably should not) were among a list of insufficiently loyal people accused of “blue-on-blue” fire, and ordered to “either be silent or gun for Labour”.
It was a strange experience, because if you are not a tribalist then somebody trying to pull the tribal loyalty card on you is like somebody coming into your home and telling you you’re wearing the wrong attire for a club you’re not a member of and have no intention of entering.
It was also a rather striking reminder that for a lot of people, this is what politics is like — similar to supporting a football team, but perhaps less ideological.
It made me wonder why anyone should presume to know to whom or what I should be loyal, and to what I do feel loyal.
Having voted for all the main parties at some point I suppose I am a floating voter. This much-sought-after demographic looks with some amazement at our contemporaries who have decided to hold on to a party raft through thick and thin.
I wonder what they are clinging on to. One of the most extraordinary things about the campaign was hearing Nick Clegg talk about “Liberal Democrat values”. What are they? Are they, for instance, interventionist values of Paddy Ashdown in the 1990s? Or the isolationist values of Charles Kennedy in the 2000s?
The same could be said of all the parties. What are the common themes of any of them? Perhaps the most depressing part of a depressing election was the attempt by Labour activists to portray the Conservatives as unreconstructed Thatcherites. If only, one thought, if only. A large number of people who would have been Tories or still are, now find that Ukip speaks better for them than the Conservatives.
And what would you do if you were a working-class Labour voter from the 1960s who believed passionately in left-wing politics, and just as passionately in Britain? What if you were one of the passionately anti-European Union Bennites and you now find yourself in the euro-federalist Labour Party?
Which brings me back to the other question. What do you remain loyal to?
People remain loyal to institutions that have been loyal to them. It is a reciprocal arrangement. Our Queen’s popularity is not a fluke. It is an expression of loyalty from the people to a sovereign who has been loyal to them.
In our political life, with record low levels of membership of political parties, the public sense that politics is stuffed with loyalists who do not understand the reciprocity of the arrangement is profound. “They’re just out for themselves” and “None of them believes in anything” were, depressingly, two of the most commonly uttered phrases of this election.
The new Parliament must recognise that respect and loyalty will be won only in the same manner in which, during the last Parliament, they were lost. But if fewer and fewer of us feel tribal about party politics, then it is most fully because we recognise that in recent years these parties have been disloyal to the country.
The Brown government boasted in its final days that it had created 1.7 million new jobs since New Labour came to power in 1997. More than 1.64 million of those jobs went not to the people of this country, but to foreign-born workers. It was the emblematic act of a government which degraded the relationship of trust between the executive and the people and downgraded the bond of duty between one and the other.
It is a relationship that need not have been wrecked for good. But if we are going to get through the next few turbulent years, the political parties must realise that in a fragile political landscape they will all face opposition. They could do with recognising that this is not always a negative. In an era when politicians appear to have abandoned the people, criticism of the parties is not just a right, it is a duty. And they would do well to remember that it is often the expression of people brim-full with loyalty, but loyalty to the deeper things which a shallow political age so unwisely cast aside.
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