Thursday 29 September 2011

Splits and schisms

It’s not often that I find myself agreeing with Peter Black, and it always causes me to pause for thought when it happens.  But I think he’s right to be dismissive about Peter Hain’s latest comments about a possible split in the Lib Dems.  (Actually, I'd probably say that anyone who is dismissive about almost anything Hain says these days is more likely to be right than wrong, but I'll stick to the specific here.)
There is a long tradition amongst politicians of seeing splits in everyone’s party but their own, and as often as not it’s based on the assumption that what is most important to the observer is also most important to the observed.  But interpreting the motivations and drivers of others through our own blinkers is never going to be the best way of predicting what those others might actually do.
From Hain’s increasingly tribalistic viewpoint, being ‘not the Tories’, and never under any circumstances working with the hated enemy, is a major driver of politics.  But it isn’t what makes the Lib Dems tick.  It doesn’t unite them in the same way that it appears to unite Labour.
I wouldn’t go as far as Peter Black does in saying that the Lib Dems “…are not a loose coalition of individuals but a party held together by common values and a coherent philosophy”.  Apart from anything else, the words ‘coherent philosophy’ are not ones I would generally use in the same sentence as Lib Dems; but I’m quite convinced that he’s right in saying that there’s more that holds them together than pushes them apart.
Foreseeing a split along lines which just might be favourable to Labour is to lose sight of those things which the Lib Dems share.  But it’s an approach which isn’t restricted to Hain and the Labour Party.
I feel the same way when I see some nationalists predicting the inevitable split of the Labour Party into its Unionist and Nationalist wings.  Certainly there are differences of opinion within the Labour Party about how far and how fast devolution should progress, but the constitutional status of Wales is no more the most important internal dividing line to Labour than is the question of not being Tories to the Lib Dems.  There is more holding the different strands of Labour together than there is pushing them apart.
I suppose that seeing splits and schisms in other parties makes good headlines, even if it's really just a bit of nonsense.  But there are two other things that worry me about it as an approach.

The first is the idea that the machinations of parties and politicians is what politics is about, rather than offering a choice between alternative futures.  It’s a very poor substitute for actually presenting an alternative and persuading people to support it.

And the second is that it looks like an attempt to define one party in terms of another - in effect, another way of avoiding real debate about substance.  Better, surely, to seek to define yourself on your own terms than allow yourself to be defined on someone else's.


Unknown said...

For such an experienced and savvy political operator, many of Hain's recent pronouncements have been somewhat bizarre - naive even. His simplistic, black and white thinking, and failure to envision a politics no longer based on the old tribal lines shows perhaps that it is time he pondered taking things a bit easier, and retiring earlier rather than later - the world has changed and he has failed to change with it.

Mind, I am not sure I agree fully with Peter Black's analysis either. Perhaps the party activists will stay loyal, but their vote is likely to be up for grabs, and there is no reason at all for Hain to assume that it will go to Labour, especially after the lacklustre conference performances from all their top players.

glynbeddau said...

Well the majority of Liddem votes in Scotland appears to have gone to the SNP in the last election.I must disagree with you John there are a difference between social liberals and economic liberals (deliberate small L)and I think the former are feeling very uncomfortable at the moment.

But as you know its very difficult to break from a Party even when the disquiet you have with the direction its going builds up.

Meanwhile as the Libdems voters desert the party as Sionnyn points out I can see the Consevatives gaining the economic liberal vote Whilst Labour, the Greens and SNP benefiting from the social liberals worries anbut I think Plaid alas will not. They may have got any who would have switched years ago.

John Dixon said...


I don't disagree that Lib Dem votes are likely to dissipate in a variety of directions; their supporters have long been less committed than those of the other two UK parties. There's a difference, though, between a dissipation of votes and a splitting of the party itself. The former is certain; the latter highly unlikely. But Hain seemed to me to be talking about the latter, not the former.