Against tribalism: “for the many, not the few”

I’ve just spent the weekend at the Roots Gathering festival, put on by my good friends Phil and Lynne Cowley Jones of Shamanic Drums and Rattles.

It was a brilliant affair, and shows what you can do with energy and enthusiasm and a clear moral perspective.

I spent a good deal of the time with Stuart Jeffrey, who is standing as the Green candidate for Maidstone.

You couldn’t hope to meet a nicer chap. He’s as left wing as anyone I know, inside or outside the Labour Party: committed to proper green politics and to a future where private profit takes a back seat to public need.

It was during one of our chats that he reminded me of why I am so against tribalism in politics.

Stuart was the Green candidate for Canterbury at the last election, which is when he first introduced himself to me. At the same time a number of us were also running a campaign to save our local Crown Post Office from closure.

We held a meeting with the Post Office up in London, involving local campaigners, and most of the election candidates – barring the Conservative, Julian Brazier, who had already indicated that he approved of the franchising out of postal services.

I was Stuart’s main enabler, making sure he was always informed about meetings so that he could attend. I did this, despite the fact that I am a life-long Labour supporter, because, it seemed to me, a campaign like ours needed cross-party support.

So at this particular meeting, Stuart arrived late, which meant that he missed the initial get-together before we went into the Post Office. He was very keen to have his voice heard and was quickly on the phone after the meeting was finished.

It was only some two or three days later that we found out that he had briefed the papers about the meeting with his own Green Party message, thus undermining our efforts as a cross-party campaign.

That was a clear example of party-political tribalism, something that I know that Stuart now regrets.

So what happened? How did this generally polite, thoughtful and considerate man end up making such an obvious blunder?

It was tribalism. So focussed was he on his personal campaign that he lost sight of the bigger picture. He lost sight of the fact that, in some cases, political parties have to suspend their rivalry and come together to fight an injustice. He wanted his party to get the advantage, at whatever cost. He let his ego get in the way.

This is something I’ve seen many, many times. Politics is the art of putting our energetic egos in the service of the things we value. No one does anything for nothing in this world. But if the cause is right, and the ego is properly regulated, it can be a powerful tool for transformation.

At the same time, it can also distract you, so that you lose sight of the main cause.

I’ve seen the glint in people’s eyes when they are in with a chance of being selected as the parliamentary candidate for a political party, even when the party is unlikely to win. The mere prospect of getting into power is visibly exciting. The urge for power is a fundamental drive with pretty much the same compulsive force as the urge for sex.

Access to power in the UK – assuming you are not already a billionaire or a sociopath, or both – can only be achieved through the democratic process, and it’s a rare person indeed who doesn’t succumb to its fascination.

Very few MPs, of any political party, come through the process unscathed.

The Tories, of course, delight in it. They revel in it. They are naked in their self-interest and will lie, cheat, steal, do anything they can, to get access to wealth and power.

Most of the other parties at least have some basic morals underlying their political stance, but individual MPs, of all parties, will still be subject to its lure.

Once in Parliament they will be lobbied by those who have real power in this world: the wealthy elites, the newspaper moguls, the captains of industry, the hedge fund managers, the arms dealers, the worldly landowners born into wealth and privilege. They will be wined and dined, made friends of, their egos flattered, their appetites indulged, in exchange for political favours.

It doesn’t matter what party you are in, it doesn’t matter what your ideals are, it doesn’t matter what your party’s policies are, it’s a rare person indeed who would not be severely tempted by such an onslaught of indulgence.

Tony Blair’s years were characterised by this kind of embedded corruption. Not only did Blair make himself fabulously wealthy by enabling and promoting the neo-liberal agenda through Parliament, he presided over a system, and a party, that was deeply compromised by its urge for self-promotion, for kickbacks and private perks.

Remember Geoff Hoon, Patricia Hewitt and Stephen Byers? If you don’t, then you should look them up.

And those were just the ones who got caught.

But don’t think it’s just the Labour Party. If there was ever a sniff of the Green Party getting into power (or the Trade Union and Socialist Alliance, or the Monster Raving Loony Party, or any other party you can name) people who crave power would soon be lining up to join. They will learn all the right words to say to rise up in the party. It doesn’t matter what the words mean, they will say them and mean something else. What is your party’s favourite word? Prepare to have it devalued. They will smile, dissemble, manipulate, whisper behind other people’s backs, bribe, threaten, lie, cheat, creep, undermine, patronise, whatever it takes, to worm their way into a position of power and influence in the party. That’s the psychopathic way.

And it is precisely here that the danger of tribalism lies, in that variation of “my country right or wrong”: my party right or wrong.

All parties need to be kept in check from the dangers of personal ambition.

Any member of the Labour Party who does not see that the Labour Party in Scotland deserved to get a good kicking, for its nepotism and neo-liberalism and support for austerity; any Labour Party supporter who found themselves incapable of celebrating Mhairi Black’s stunning victory in Paisley and Renfrewshire South, and who hasn’t been charmed by this fresh, young, authentic Scottish voice; any Labour Party supporter who works against Caroline Lucas in Brighton, or against Dr Louise Irvine of the National Health Action Party (NHAP) in Jeremy Hunt’s seat in South West Surrey (and, in particular, those Labour Party apparatchiks who forced the expulsion of Labour Party members for forming a progressive alliance with the NHAP); any Labour Party supporter who does not see the purpose of the Green Party, or identify with its aims and values, or who did not thrill to the debate that took place in Scotland around the independence referendum; any Labour Party supporter who failed to understand the overwhelming support for Brexit by working class communities in the North and the Midlands, and who disparaged such communities as racist: all of you need to take a good long look at yourselves and ask yourselves who you are really serving with your stance? You are succumbing to party political tribalism.

I say this as a committed Labour supporter.

But, by the same token, any Green Party member, or member of any other political party standing in a marginal seat, with Labour in second place, or who would vote for any other party in such a seat in this election, is also succumbing to tribalism.

For the first time in a generation, since the “white heat” of the sixties, we have a Labour Party committed to radical change in this country, with a manifesto that any progressive party would be proud of, with the means and the passion to deliver it, with a leader with integrity and a cabinet-in-waiting with hope and vision and real intellectual verve.

These are not people who have been jockeying for position in the Labour Party in order to further their careers: that lot were wiped out after the last failed coup attempt against Corbyn. No: these people are brand new. They’ve been working quietly in their constituencies for the good of their constituents, not chasing wealth and power. They are, by and large, the rump of the Labour Party who did not give in to Blair’s excesses.

We are watching the potential transformation of the Labour Party into what it was always meant to be: the party that our grandparents and great grandparents fought for and sacrificed for; the party that brought us the NHS and the welfare state, Comprehensive education and the post-war consensus; the heir to the Suffragettes and the Chartists and to all the groups who struggled for our right to vote; the party of real change in our society, who will close off the tax loopholes that allow corporations and other rich individuals to escape their fair share of tax; the party that will fully fund our NHS, that will create a National Education Service, that will ensure that our young people have a real future; that will not pay off the rich at the expense of the poor, that will not pay off the current generation at the expense of the future, that will not pay off the corporations at the expense of civil society, that will not take us into needless, dangerous, unasked-for wars, that will seek peace before war; the party of hope, the party of vision, the party of the future: “for the many, not the few”.

You’d better believe it.


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