Lord Sugar’s little outburst against Ken Livingstone is barely remembered now although it was less than 10 days ago that it took place. In response, Mark Ferguson wrote this interesting piece about the general concept of Party loyalty. He makes many decent points, as he rightly says, Lord Sugar stayed on the right side of the rules, just about and he is also right that it is a bit hypocritical of the majority of Livingstone’s fans to scream Party rules at Ken’s critics. Not only has Ken himself had many dalliances with the dark side but you suspect many of his current supporters also sided with him in 2000, against the official Labour candidate. It is therefore a bit rich of them to get all po-faced about rules and regulations now because it start to looks suspiciously like they feel they should only be followed when they happen to suit their man.
Where Mark’s piece falls down I think is that it focuses too much on the Ken Livingstone side-show and doesn’t explore general factors that are blurring the traditional tribal boundaries. Ken tested one of these himself, in campaigning for Lutfur Rahman to be second-preferenced in Tower Hamlets; he stayed in the rules but in a way that exposed the challenge of preferential voting. If the election you are taking part in uses a preferential system it is perfectly possible to vote for, and also against, Labour all within the space of the same ballot paper. Is it, for example, a vote against Labour to second-preference the official Labour candidate? Some would say ‘yes’ but on the other hand, arguably its still a vote for if you reach a second round of voting because your vote is then counted for the Labour candidate. Ditto with campaigning, arguably, as long as you preference the Labour candidate somewhere, you are not actively campaigning for a vote against the Labour candidate (which would be a breach of the rules).
The second main challenge is the blurring of the ideological boundaries between all the main parties. Arguably, again, there is something of an amorphous ideological mess that governs our politics which stretches from the Cameroons on the right-fringe to the responsible capitalists led by Ed Miliband on the left-fringe of the center-ground. Both the Labour left and the Conservative right therefore find themselves somewhat alienated and out on a limb; because neither Party is particularly democratic, they are alienated from the machine of the Party whose values they both arguably encapsulate in their purest form; thirdly, and finally, we have the decline of the traditional sociological identities that gave the main parties their core support. The highly organised, industrialised and unionised working class that underpinned Labour’s electoral base has been replaced by the unionised middle classes, mostly concentrated in the employ of the dwindling public sector. Meanwhile, Margaret Thatcher decimated the aristocratic lineage of the Conservatives to forge a base alliance between the aspirational working and middle classes. This is why the Old Etonians currently in charge are finding themselves alienated from their own Party and under frequent attack from the true Conservative base. The Cameron leadership is like an organ that will eventually be expelled by its repulsed host body. Incidentally, neither Party makes much space for the very poor anymore and they duly respond by rarely bothering to register, let alone vote.
All of this does blur the strong sense of tribal loyalty that voters feel to parties. Activists are a slightly different breed but relative to the wider electorate they are dwindling rump. I think the voters are sensible adults. I think they realise people don’t always agree and we should trust them to show the maturity to understand that and indeed appreciate the sincerity of deeply felt disagreements being expressed in a heartfelt way. In the end, I feel this is what people want from their politics, politicians who speak their mind and do not behave like some pre-programmed drone. All these factors however present a major challenge to our political parties to adapt. Increasingly, the only way they will be able to ensure peoples loyalty is by giving them an increasing stake in the governance of their Party. People tend to be far more loyal to decisions they feel they have had some input in, even if they don’t agree with the final outcome and if they feel confident that they can disagree without being branded a heretic they tend again to be more supportive of institutions that show that trust in empowering them. Democracy is the best glue to bind people together around common values and common action, not a set of bureaucratic rules. Maybe to somebody like Mark, that sounds a bit too much like anarchy, but if that is what it is, I say ultimately, bring it on…..