Sat. May 25th, 2019

The Problem of Party Loyalty

Frank Field and Neil McEvoy - two men who have been loyal to their parties, even though their parties have not been loyal to them.

In most political parties – with the possible exception of the Liberal Democrats – it is possible to identify people of principle and good faith. People who have a moral compass and some intellectual nous; people who, while they may not agree on everything among themselves, understand the times they live in and have some idea how they might be made better.

But we live in an age when every one of the ‘traditional’ parties has lost its way and betrayed its principles, sometimes working directly against the interests of those they claim to represent and often treating them with unveiled contempt:

  • The Labour Party is meant to represent the interests of working people and the less well-off, and yet it is constantly preoccupied with identity politics and the causes of multiple special interest groups.
  • The Conservative Party is meant to represent people who believe that the tried-and-tested social norms that have come down to us from previous generations should be respected; yet it acts like the Very Modern Aunt from Goodness Gracious Me, ever trying to be more outrageous to show how cool and hip it is (and yes, I know how out-of-date those words are and use them deliberately).
  • Plaid Cymru are meant to stand for Wales, and seek to establish it as a prosperous independent country. Instead they have become indistinguishable from the Labour party for all practical purposes, with policies that many supporters of Welsh independence find completely unacceptable.
  • The Liberal Democrats are supposed to be Liberal, and Democratic. In fact their disgraceful treatment of their former leader Tim Farron, and their attitude towards the majority of UK voters who backed Brexit, demonstrates that they are neither.
Martin Baxter’s analysis of the electoral tribes in the UK as of 2019. Image credit: Daily Telegraph

Even so it is possible to identify individuals who still embody the principles of the parties with which they identify, at least in the recent past. In the Labour Party, I’ve always had a great deal of time for Paul Flynn and Frank Field; in the Conservatives, the same can be said of Owen Paterson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, and in Wales Darren Millar and David Jones (both, strangely, representing Clwyd West in different parliaments); in Plaid Cymru, Neil McEvoy stands out as a man of integrity in a party which is otherwise fatally compromised.

Sadly, Paul Flynn is no longer with us, and the fact that Frank Field and Neil McEvoy have both been expelled from their respective parties speaks volumes. Yet even after that, they continue to identify with their parties. The Conservatives, being traditionally more tolerant, aren’t in the habit of throwing people out but the likes of Owen Paterson and Jacob Rees-Mogg stick with them even though they look like square pegs in round holes.

So why is that? Well I’m told that it’s simply party loyalty – a consequence of the fact that, for people who are politically active, people in the same party form a social group from which it’s hard to extract oneself even when one no longer sympathises with the group’s aims.

There may be something in this. After all, for much of our history people have been closely affiliated to one religious denomination or another, and moving from one to another (or to none at all) is something that people have often found difficult. Roman Catholicism is well known for having a cultural hold on people who are brought up with it, long after they lose interest in its teachings. Here in Wales the culture associated with Nonconformity persisted long after the time when the leadership within most of the main chapel denominations had left the Gospel far behind, and started to follow Temperance or Socialism or some other substitute for it. To that extent people’s affiliation with political parties is no different.

Speaking personally, I’ve never really understood this, or at least haven’t been subject to it. Brought up in a household where neither politics nor religion were ever discussed very much, as a young teenager I was attracted to the Conservative Party mainly as a reaction to the Winter of Discontent; as an older teenager I became an evangelical Christian as a result of picking up a Bible, reading it out of curiosity, finding it very different from what I expected and ultimately finding the Gospel so compelling that all my objections were overcome.

Since then I’ve switched parties and churches several times, in each case choosing the party whose policies I’ve thought most appropriate at the time, and the church (from amongst those accessible from where I’ve lived) that I’ve thought to be the most faithful to the Gospel. Currently I’m a member of a Baptist church, but once a month I abscond to an Anglican church the other side of town when they hold a service using the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

Modern Tribes

I had already started writing an early draft of this article, with warm words for both Frank Field and .Jacob Rees-Mogg, when I came across this article in the Telegraph written by Martin Baxter of Electoral Calculus. In a similar way to the poll by Lord Ashcroft that my colleague Aled Gwyn Jôb reported on a few weeks ago, Baxter observes that the current mainstream political parties do not correspond in any way to the strands of opinion present within the electorate, which in turn do not correspond in any way to traditional ideas of ‘Left’ and ‘Right’. Baxter identifies seven ‘tribes’ (see sidebar).

There are lots of interesting nuggets here. For example, the ‘Strong Left’ makes more noise than all the other groups put together, and has taken control of two major parties (arguably three if you include Plaid Cymru), but is a tiny proportion of the electorate. Few things could emphasise more clearly how out-of-touch the major parties are.

Also, every party has always been a de facto coalition of differing strands of opinion, rather than a monolithic block. Traditionally, one could argue that Labour has sought a coalition of the first second and third of these categories, the Tories have sought a coalition of the fifth sixth and seventh, while fighting over the fourth category which has been the natural territory of the Lib Dems. Today, though, that picture seems hopelessly out of date. In these terms, I suppose my own ‘tribe’ is ‘Strong Right’, but I could very happily stand shoulder-to-shoulder with ‘Somewheres’ (the classic ‘working class Tories’ among whom Mrs. Thatcher was so popular) and ‘Traditionalists’. And electorally, such a coalition makes sense; on the figures of the above it would capture 37% of the electorate, as high as any other plausible coalition that doesn’t include the Centrists.

Of course these estimates cover the UK as a whole: I suspect in Wales the percentages would be a bit different, with far more ‘Somewheres’ and ‘Traditionalists’ and far fewer ‘Kind Young Capitalists’.

Even so, there desperately needs to be some sort of realignment if we are ever to have a party system that more accurately reflects where the electorate themselves are; and if party loyalty gets in the way of that happening then it’s more important than ever to set it aside.

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