United we stand….divided we fall?
According to a ComRes poll for the BBC’s Daily Politics program 60% of people think that Labour is the ‘most divided’ political party. It is a political truism that parties seen as ‘divided’ are damaged goods electorally though the fact that this is the case should lead to questions about what exactly voters expect from their politicians.
They expect ‘unity’ but also sincerity of conviction which in political reality are antithetical expectations. Parties by their very nature are voluntary alliances of people and on a wider scale different wings. No party is united in the homogenous way that is the expectation and if they were then frankly something is wrong. In fact, the only way at least the appearance of this can be maintained is through squashing inner-party democracy and the elevation of spin over substance (the more substantive things are; the more people will differ).
As Anthony Painter rightly advises Labour;
We can’t as a party get ourselves in a position where people are not allowed to express perfectly legitimate opinions without being vilified- that’s a recipe for ossification.
Sadly, under Tony Blair the structures of inner Labour Party democracy were effectively moth-balled. Painter goes onto argue that the Conservatives are more divided than Labour and in some respects that is correct though the public don’t see this because a) they are less scrutinised and b) because the division between the likes of Daniel Hannan/Conservative Home and the Cameron leadership will take time (and an election victory/advance) to play out. However, in partial defence of the Conservatives at least their differences at this current moment are more substantive than the playground-personality based ones afflicting Labour and the issue of its leadership. Until somebody steps forward with a substantive vision, the lack of which the latest New Statesman bemoans, they will remain this way.
Of course, even if you squash inner-party democracy (which any political party is willing to do under the right conditions, including the Liberal Democrats) you then get an ‘airbrushed’ image of a united party. However, nothing could be further from how things actually are and I would argue that its better for voters and democracy as a whole if they stop seeking to judge a ‘divided’ party as necessarily a bad one or one unfit to govern. In fact, by some criteria the more divided a party is the better as it shows the party is healthy, living and has an organic connection with people. Parties that strive for a plastic unity become unconnected from reality and willfully dismissive of the electorate and communities. What really matters is what the divisions represent and the substantive issues that underlie them and that is what should inform judgements on their validity (or lack of).