Tribalism, commitment and political vision

Jill Segger
By Jill Segger
3 Apr 2010

Identification with a group is part of our primate nature. The tribe offers safety and security; outsiders present a threat to cohesion and survival. Civilisation has refined our responses but partisanship remains instinctive. We define ourselves by many different groupings: native place, religion, class, football team, occupation and political allegiance. The latter is perhaps the most difficult area in which to balance the conflicting demands of emotional attachment and integrity.

The Labour movement is in my DNA. I use the word “movement” in preference to “party” because it embraces the broader spectrum of the co-operative ethos and of trade unionism, both of which – despite occasional excursions into dead ends of excess and self-absorption – have played and continue to play a vital role in the creation and maintenance of justice in an increasingly unequal culture of consumer capitalism. It is this movement which has formed my thinking from an early age, contributed a focus to my adult life and provided the deep and lasting friendships which are forged in adversity and the pursuit of a shared vision. It is the reason for my long-standing membership of the Labour Party.

I make no apology for having been what is – often scornfully – described as a “party activist”. As a foot-soldier in the poor bloody infantry which delivers leaflets and invites abuse on doorsteps, a constituency chair and press officer, a candidate and a branch secretary, I have experienced the elation of victory and the pain of defeat, the hopelessness of contesting the 'safe seat' and the excitement of campaigning for the marginal. And with this goes the intense tribalism which has served Labour well in the past.

To hold the group together, our inner ape requires the ‘enemy’ to be clearly seen and defined. Opposition to, and contempt for, policies which entrench privilege and inequality may easily become indistinguishable from hostility towards fellow citizens who work, presumably with similar conviction, for a different view of society. In the heat of campaigning, loyalists of all parties often become blind to the virtues which may be found in another point of view and to the common values of a democratic society.

To be committed to the core beliefs of a political party does not – despite the anodyne and ludicrous performances of so many politicians in the face of a hostile 24-hour news culture – mean suspension of the moral and critical faculties. Nor should it lead to unrealistic expectations. Politics has been described as the art of the possible and although what is possible should always be informed by vision and by honour, the critic who fails to draw parallels with the unavoidable failures, compromises and pragmatic decisions of everyday life, is likely to remain in a constant state of dissatisfaction.

It is perhaps in part due to Labour's roots as a movement of protest and reform that many members of the party have a tendency to prefer the purity of impotence to the messy realities and difficult adjudications of power. During my term as a constituency chair, I spent a considerable amount of time and energy in trying to dissuade from resignation many members who were disillusioned over the cut in lone parent benefit, the collusion with Bernie Ecclestone and the craven subjugation of presentation to the agenda of the right wing press, “Stay and fight your corner; change the Party from within”. That was the view I held then and to which I am still clinging, though my grasp has been loosened in the years since 1997.

When Blair followed Bush into an illegal war in 2003, I took the kitchen scissors to my membership card. But that rather showy act of rage and despondency brought me up short and held me back from the letter of resignation with which I had intended to end a lifelong relationship. It is because affinity with a political cause is a relationship, that objectivity and the exercise of discernment is difficult. One does not walk out on family who have gone astray. Nonetheless, a no-holds-barred examination of what truth demands of us cannot now be shirked in the present parlous state of our democracy.

The health and even the survival of that democracy are under threat as they have never been in my lifetime. Politicians are held in utter contempt. Self-serving, mendacity, spin and puerile point scoring have all but crowded out principled service and intelligent debate.

The turnout at both local and national elections is piteous. At the last election for a District Councillor in the ward where I live, the successful candidate was elected by a small majority on a turnout of just over a quarter of eligible voters. It is difficult to accept that as a mandate for making decisions which affect the lives of a community. Where so many of our democratic rights have come to be perceived as meaningless, disengagement from the process, regrettable though it may be, is hardly surprising.

A Prime Minister may take the country to war on the Royal Prerogative – a relic from an age of monarchical warlords - so rendering the elected representatives of the people powerless before the authority of an hereditary head of state. The unelected second chamber, populated by accident of birth and by place-men and women, has frequently sought to frustrate, rather than revise, the intent of the elected assembly. That elected assembly, constituted under the distorting process of the first-past-the-post system of voting, does not reflect the political choices of the population and in providing for foregone conclusions in so many constituencies, depresses the quality of political engagement and debate.

Tribalism will no longer serve in the nadir to which we have sunk. Constitutional reform is essential; a long hard look must be taken at what we may do to make both the executive and individual MPs far more accountable to the will of parliament and to the judgement of those who elect them. If this is to happen, progressives must make common cause and 'bottom-up' non-party groupings such as the Power2010 coalition are indicating the way forward. In many constituencies, the combined forces of progress easily outnumber those of both upper and lower-case Conservatism. Although it remains my desire to see a Labour government returned in May, I accept that a differently constituted House may offer a better chance of the constitutional reform without which democracy will continue to decline, permitting the unscrupulous and avaricious to further degrade our common life.

Constitutional reform is unlikely to be on the radar of lone teenage mothers on sink estates. It may seem irrelevant to minimum wage contract cleaners, asylum seekers and pensioners whose later years are blighted by poverty. But unless democrats of vision and integrity are willing to unite in the cause of a healthy, accountable system of governance, we will, in the longer term, betray the vulnerable and the powerless.

It was the pursuit of justice for those vulnerable and powerless members of society which called the Labour movement into being. If we are to be true to its honourable tradition of radicalism, we must be willing to step outside the laager of partisan interest wherever the greater good demands it.

I will continue to have an emotional attachment to the Labour movement. I will admit to a lift of the heart when I hear a full hall belting out the Red Flag. I will own to a real sense of unity and purpose when I am addressed as “comrade”. But I accept that the time has come for a wider vision. It is not going to be easy.

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© Jill Segger is a Quaker and Ekklesia's associate editor. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is also a composer. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger

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