Russell Elliott addresses the question of tribalism in Welsh politics
When the Romans turned up, the Welsh were divided into different tribes, with the Ordovices in the north west and the Silures in the south. Today the names of the tribes have changed, but we still see strong regional and party divisions in our politics. It’s often said that politics here is too tribal, with politicians giving knee jerk responses to suggestions from other parties.
We need to leave behind the tit for tat responses and bring issues to life, showing how they relate to people’s everyday experience. But what if the key to building a politics that people felt emotionally engaged by and enthusiastic about, was rooted in tribalism?
The traditional political parties have been shedding members for years. Instead younger people in particular tend to focus their energy on single issue campaigns. But the scale of change we need to see will not be delivered by either one party or single issue group.
We need to generate new ideas to rebuild the Welsh economy and protect the social gains, secured after World War II, against austerity policies. To do this we need to draw on all our progressive parties and movements. This won’t be achieved by building a one size fits all, rootless cosmopolitan politics which includes everyone but excites no-one. The answer could be to build on people’s emotional connection to their political ‘tribe’ but enabling them to work with others from different tribes.
Just over a week ago the former Labour Party thinktank, Compass relaunched itself as a cross party pressure group for ‘the good society’. What we in Compass are exploring is the possibility of re-imagining progressive politics around the idea of an ‘open tribe’. A politics where people start from their identification with a single party or issue but are then able to connect to a wider ‘tribe’ of people to achieve change. In Raymond Williams words, this is a strategy that “makes hope possible, rather than despair convincing”.
So could a new ‘open tribalism’ lead to a renewal of Welsh politics, stressing the importance of co-operation rather than control? We’ve seen both Welsh social democratic parties, Plaid and Labour, work successfully in coalition government and co-operate on budgets. With Welsh Labour embracing devolution and soft nationalism, and Plaid Cymru prioritising economic issues, the parties are looking more similar than in the past.
However, this is not about their offering the same policies to voters. Democracy would be better served by them building on their different traditions and generating new ideas out of this dialogue. And don’t we also need the Greens’ ideas on a green new deal and also the Social Liberals tradition, that the welfare state was built on?
In the 1920s Antonio Gramsci the Italian political theorist, wrote, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Fortunately, Wales has been free of some of these ‘morbid symptoms’, such as the ugly right wing nationalism of some across the dyke. It could be argued that Plaid’s civic nationalism and Welsh Labour’s embrace of soft nationalism has reduced the breeding ground for right wing nationalism in Wales.
In which case, instead of running with the One Nation slogan, wouldn’t UK Labour be better giving Welsh Labour more room to manoeuvre on devolution, recognising the need to appeal to the ‘Welsh tribe’, while also being part of the British Labour one?
In Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland proportional representation has made coalition and co-operation more likely. With two years to go until the general election, and even with ‘First Past the Post’, the UK Parliament looks headed for another coalition. It’s time to pick up again on the ‘rainbow’ discussions, which took place after the last Westminster election, on forming a coalition from Labour, Lib Dems, Greens, Plaid and the SNP.
Political parties need to embrace pluralism, working with other parties but also valuing internal democracy and discussion. Similarly, single issue movements need to be able to join with other campaigns and feed into party policies. We need a framework that can bridge the gap between the formal structures of the parties and the informal, bottom up politics of campaigns.
The new Compass website is intended to provide a space to explore this new way of doing our politics. Cross party projects are planned on education, the living wage, the economy, the green new deal and Europe. All this work is aimed at bringing ideas and debate together across the centre left.
You may not be in the Silures or Ordovices. In fact, you don’t even need to paint your face with wode to be part of the Compass open tribe. Your tribe might be Labour, Plaid, Lib Dem or Green, or you might be a member of a campaign group. But if you share our desire to build a politics with all who want a more equal, sustainable and democratic world, linking formal and informal politics, come and have a look at the new website. Join one of our campaigns. Send us your story about what drives your politics. Get your tribe together and start a local group…