25 January 2020

When one tribe goes to war


Two interviews this week crystallised what has become one of the biggest failings of the contemporary British left.

First was Rebecca Long-Bailey, the Corbynites’ candidate of choice for the Labour leadership. Asked by the BBC whether she had any Tory friends, she replied: “I don’t know, they wouldn’t tell me if they did [vote Tory] because I’d be angry.”

Then in a segment following up on Long-Bailey’s appearance, Guardian journalist Joseph Harker told broadcaster Iain Dale that he could never be friends with someone who “believes themselves to fundamentally sign up to conservative values”.

Granted, these are just two interviews. But I think they speak to a wider problem. It is not an entirely new one, of course: a politics rooted in hatred of the Conservatives has a long history in the Labour Party, from Nye Bevan’s description of Tories as “lower than vermin” to the more recent ‘Never Kissed A Tory’ T-shirts.

Long-Bailey’s comments were of a piece with remarks from John McDonnell and the recently ousted Laura Pidcock, who grabbed a few headlines by saying she had “absolutely no intention of being friends” with any Tories (on a website now best known for losing a libel action to a Labour MP).

There are many problems with this kind of vacuous tribalism. First, it elevates political beliefs above any other personal qualities. Someone could be talented, kind, selfless and terrific fun, but woe betide them if they happen to think, say, a smaller state, lower taxes or privatised utilities might be a good idea.

Dismissing Tories as a group also suggests a degree of homogeneity on the right that just isn’t there. Indeed, such is the history and depth of conservative thought, you can pray in aid of any number of different politicians to suit your preferences. Feeling like a bit more state intervention is the order of the day? Disraeli’s your man, or perhaps Macmillan, or even Hezza. If tax cuts and free enterprise are more your bag, the Iron Lady shall provide.

Perhaps the biggest issue is the overdeveloped sense of your own virtue needed to glibly write off a whole section of the population as somehow morally defective. How many of us can honestly say they are pure enough of word and deed? Let he who is without sin cast the first stone, as a wise man once said.

A connected issue is that tribalism blinds people to the failings of their own side. Harker’s interview with Dale is a case in point; the journalist assails the Conservatives for their stance on immigration, but excuses Jeremy Corbyn’s shilling for the Iranian government because “he stood by people like us”.

It’s also striking that – in the UK at least – you rarely hear a right-winger claim they would never be friends with a socialist.

The difference in outlook was perhaps best summarised by the late Roger Scruton: “Left-wing people find it very hard to get on with right-wing people, because they believe that they are evil. Whereas I have no problem getting on with left-wing people, because I simply believe that they are mistaken.”

This matters for the state of our politics too. If they are going to get themselves out of their current quagmire, Labour must dispense with this brand of zealous sanctimony.

For one thing, as Alan Lockey noted on CapX this week, it is obscuring the nature of the government they face. Far from the ‘hard right’ bogeyman of Twitter fantasists, Boris Johnson has made a clear stride into the empty centre ground – and the further Labour retreats to its comfort zone, the more comfortable he will be there.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX