Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Do divided parties lose? Continued

This is a follow-on post to my comments this afternoon about whether parties which are seen to contain a multiplicity of views can win elections.

My previous post contained links to three people who challenged the prevailing wisdom that electors do not vote for parties which are seen as divided.

I think that John Rentoul and Janan Ganesh are on to something and I suspect the prize offered by Professor Tim Bale ‏to anyone who can produce evidence which supports the prevailing wisdom may go unclaimed.

However, the prevailing wisdom is not so much completely wrong as grossly oversimplified.

It is time to discard the habit of thinking that assumes the slightest sign of open disagreement within a party is evidence of bad management and electorally damaging. This model leads to control freakery and stifles imagination and debate. In the early days of the Blair government there was a joke about the difference between a supermarket trolley in need of oiling and a New Labour MP - that the supermarket trolley had a mind of its' own. Did the attitudes which made that joke funny serve Britain well? Definitely not. Did they serve Labour well?

At the time I thought so but I am changing my mind.

Rather than working on the theory that all open disagreement is electorally disastrous, I suggest a more accurate model would be that there is an optimum range of disagreement - with the lower end of the optimum range set at the point below which you look like a bunch of robots who blindly do what they are told and never listen to any different ideas, and the upper end of the optimum range at the point above which you cannot manage the disagreements in a constructive way and it starts to harm the process of government or degenerate into a vicious faction-fight.

So lets consider how this works in practice. Is it really going to harm the Conservative party in Cumbria that local Conservatives are standing up for their area by making every effort to persuade the Home office that the cuts currently proposed in the county's police budget are too severe? Does it harm a party when it's local representatives fight to keep services at the local hospital? Or when they are seen to be expressing reservations over a controversial policy like Tax Credit cuts?

The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that the answer is no, provided that the disagreement is managed in a way which does not paralyse the government.

The same applies both to backbenchers actually carrying out their duty to hold the executive to account and scrutinise legislation, and to differences within the government.

Within the past few days there have been signs of debate within the government over the policies to be pursued in relation to Saudi Arabia, and public debate in the country about out approach to China.

Is it a bad thing that there are both voices at the cabinet table who want to protect the interests of British interests and British jobs, and voices who want to make sure we do so in a way which has not lost sight of right and wrong? Surely there should be such a debate.

However, there is undoubtedly a point where an excessive level of division within a government leads to paralysis and chaos. When that point is passed there is no doubt in my mind that the "conventional wisdom" that such division will repel voters is correct - and indeed, that voters are right to be repelled.

The Conservatives do need to watch the divisions in the party about Europe, because in the 1990's those divisions nearly tore the party apart and the electorate is understandably on the lookout for anything like that happening again. That is why it is vitally important that the forthcoming EU referendum campaign, in which there will be Conservatives on both sides, is conducted in a positive and constructive manner with both groups of Tories showing respect for each other.

Similarly on the Labour side, everyone always knew that there were tensions between Blair and Brown, but while those tensions were contained and did not interfere too much with the business of government, the electorate did not care. After 2005 the Blair/Brown schism became exceptionally bitter and did start to increasingly damage the work of government, and if they had fought an election in that state I think it would have cost them votes.

And of course, the schism which currently exists between on the one hand Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn and the relatively small group of MPs who voted for him, and on the other hand most other Labour MPs, makes the battles inside the Conservative party in the 1990's look like a little local difficulty. You don't have to take my word for it - look at what my Labour MP wrote in his Progress column or what Labour MP Simon Danczuk wrote in the Mail on Sunday.

When the level of dissent and faction-fighting within a party gets as bitter as it did for the Conservatives over Europe in 1992-97, let alone to something as close to civil war as what the Labour party is going through now, the received wisdom is right: parties that badly divided do not win elections.

So the challenge for a party, particularly one in government, is to allow enough dissent to ensure that you are open to ideas, able to respond to public pressure, and avoid looking like a collection of daleks, but not so much that you descent into a paralysing level of in-fighting.

What I've just written sounds simple, but the history of British politics over the past thirty years suggests that achieving it is not as simple as it sounds.

On the other hand, if you are not clever enough to manage a decent stab at that kind of balance, you probably should not be running Britain.

1 comment:

Jim said...

"if you are not clever enough to manage a decent stab at that kind of balance, you probably should not be running Britain"

I have read, and re-read and re-read that post again and again. Its just that last bit really makes me think. Is that not what I have been trying to say, for quite some time now, that is why we NEED Harrogate