Alliances among the Tribes

The tribes in my previous post are socio-political groupings, not party-political affiliations. There are Mongols who vote Labour, and Rus who vote Conservative, and the votes change over time. The tribes groups have shared language and symbolism, they are not politically unified blocs. There aren’t bright lines between the tribes – but some distinctions are harder than others. So the Labour Mandarin can thrash out politics with the Conservative Mandarin, but really doesn’t understand or mix socially with the Labour Rus – hence incidents like this.


The core Labour vote is the Rus and the Aedui. The traditional Labour strategy was to max out that vote, try not to gross out the Mandarins too much, and hope to pick up some random votes in the other tribes. This will fight the Conservatives to a standstill in England, and then the Celtic vote will put you over the top. This was how every Labour government got elected prior to 1997 (apart from the exceptional 1945 election). The problem with this strategy is that the coalition is quite narrow, so there is no room for manoeuvre. Worse, it means that the government is just a proxy for the TUC, meaning it becomes zero-sum rent-seeking and unites the rest of the country against these tribes. Hence every Labour government prior to 1997 was a short-lived disaster. However, it did at least guarantee Labour a strong position as the long-term opposition, ready to pounce if and when the Conservatives ran into trouble.

This strategy was dealt a fatal blow in 1981 by the creation of the SDP. The eventual response was the strategic repositioning towards the Iceni (“New Labour”) – ironically, just at the time when it was least necessary. However, the real success of New Labour was not 1997, which the old strategy would have won anyway, but 2001. The success of the strategy was that by neglecting the Rus to pick up Iceni votes, it denied the Conservatives any kind of coalition of their own, and the Rus had nowhere else to go. However, it was a high-risk strategy – after all, the Labour Party was founded because the TUC weren’t happy with the Liberals. Moreover, it has not really been able to articulate a coherent vision of government, as it seems that Iceni and Aedui interests and politics are mutually opposed. Labour got just 35% of the vote in 2005 and won only because of problems in the Conservative coalition and quirks of the electoral system.

Save exceptional circumstances, I do not think the traditional strategy will work any more. Brown’s pursuit of it meant the Labour vote fell below 30% at the last election. Obviously much depends on what kind of voting system is used going forwards, but I think that the changes are likely to make the traditional strategy even less rewarding. But if the traditional coalition is too small, it is at least stable. The New Labour coalition is large enough, but fundamentally unstable – at least under the Blair policy vision. If Labour is to have a lengthy spell in government again they must somehow square that circle. Milliband’s strategy is to pursue the traditional strategy and hope dissatisfaction in the Conservative coalition (and Coalition) will win him the next election. This may work, but I do not see how it can possibly lead to long-term success.

Liberal Democrat

The Lib Dem problem can be expressed in various ways – they do not have a clear ideology, they are not the preferred party of any tribe, they are unclear what coalition they are trying to build. Another way of putting it is that the Labour coalition is given impetus by being not-the-Tories, and the Conservative coalition is given impetus by being not-Labour. The Lib Dems not sure what they are for, but worse, they are not sure what they are against. This leads to them pointing in two directions at once, and causes general paralysis. It is likely that this period in government will be a disaster for them, because if the government succeeds it will (rightly) be seen as despite much of their party, and if the government fails it will (rightly) be seen as due to much of their party. This is the natural result of trying to please Taunton Deane (Cornish) and Sheffield Hallam (Rus/Aedui) at the same time. The Lib Dems have dribs and drabs opportunistically picked up from all the tribes, but no real centre of gravity.

The long-term strategy of the Lib Dems is unclear. When New Labour tacked right, Charles Kennedy could have tacked left, and tried to engage with the TUC, who were crying out for a champion. It would have been risky, as Labour could have tacked back – but alternatively, it could have caused Labour to tack further right, or split. The truth is that the Rus, and to a lesser extent the Aedui, were there for the taking for a ten year period, and the Lib Dems passed up the opportunity to build a new coalition, on different terms to the Labour one. With the help of the Iraq War, this strategy might even have seen them as the major party in government by now. It might also have seen them wiped out, who knows.

The other strategy for the Lib Dems is that of the “Orange Book” i.e. a tack to the right. This is good governance, but questionable electioneering, at least if the Lib Dems see themselves as an independent force. As previously stated, the Aedui are a client constituency, so even if the Orange Book wins over Mandarins, they cannot take their lower-class followers with them. Meanwhile, this is weak-sauce for Mongols, Iceni and Corns – why should they join a weaker coalition that serves their interests less well? The logical conclusion of the Orange Book is that its followers should enter long-term alliance with the Conservative Party and become their liberal wing. This would probably involve splitting the party. Despite the wishful thinking of some Conservatives, I do not think this at all likely – I regard the Orange book as being an aberration, and its followers will likely be punished by their party in the long term.

The third strategy of the Lib Dems is to stay where they are and hope demographics helps them. The aim would be to maintain equidistance between the parties, and hope that younger, more market-orientated members of the Labour coalition bleed into them, as do younger, more socially liberal members of the Conservative coalition. But this assumes that the other parties are passive watchers of this game, and also that the future will be more centrist than the present. I find these highly unrealistic assumptions. It is at least as plausible that the Lib Dem voters will bleed into the other coalitions under this strategy.

The final strategy is to cross your fingers and pray for electoral reform. This is not so much a strategy as a postponement. Even if they get AV, or even PR, they will still have to develop a strategy. They are currently running at around 10% in the polls – however you count the votes, that is not nearly enough to be successful.


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