Tribalism and coalition in a media-saturated political environment

We still have a lot to learn about Coalitionland. It is, certainly for Westminster politicos, a foreign country. As Mark Thompson pointed out at MarkReckons last Thursday, Labour seem unable to grasp the concept of compromise, which lies at the heart of successful coalition government. The idea that someone in the Lib Dems or Conservatives could simultaneously support both their own party policy and coalition policy, even though the two differ, does not (yet?) appear to compute for Labour. Of course, while Labour may be making a particularly bad job of adjusting to the new political landscape, they are not entirely alone. A while ago at Liberal Democrat Voice, George Kendall posted in response to tribalism from Lib Dems. The thrust of his argument was that it is not sensible politics for Liberal Democrats to engage in excessively tribal responses to Labour attacks on the formation of the coalition and the agenda it is seeking to pursue. After all, it may be that next time around the voters’ wishes signal that the most viable coalition would be with Labour. It would be rather unfortunate if all bridges had been burned. Remaining civil would seem more prudent.

Similarly, our routine experience of PMQs or, indeed, almost any outing on Question Time or television interview by a national politician is troubling. The response to a direct question about policy is just as likely to be an attempt to assert vigorously that the other lot are just as bad/worse as it is to be a reasoned defence of a policy position. And whether the other lot are bad or worse, clueless or not should have no bearing on whether a party’s position is sensible or defensible. This sort of approach might be understandable from Labour, given the absence of any very clear policies of their own. But it should be beneath the Government. Yet, David Cameron was at it again this morning on the Andrew Marr programme.

And it is not a problem entirely restricted to Westminster. Recently I was reading an interested blog post by a Lib Dem local politician – not in my area, I hasten to add. Among some decent points about the positive aspects of the coalition agenda, there was some fairly serious mud-slinging at their local Labour rivals. At local level, it can appear much more visceral and personal. But then, it most probably is.

Unless we can move beyond this type of tribalism the transition to a world where coalition governments, of different complexions, are more likely is going to be much more difficult than it might otherwise be.

Can we move beyond the current rather unsatisfactory situation? Clearly, coalition governments function successfully in many countries. While these exist within different political cultures, it demonstrates what is possible. Closer to home, coalition government is characteristic of the devolved administrations. Left Foot Forward carried an interesting post today from Mark Drakeford, exploring the differences between coalition in Wales and Westminister. Since 1999 Wales has already had two coalition governments of different complexions, and the experience is viewed as both relatively positive and successful. So it can be done.

On the other hand, one variable noted in passing by Drakeford as differing between Cardiff and Westminster is the level of media scrutiny. This seems to me to be a component of the context that needs much greater consideration. There was an important piece in the FT the other day exploring the role of the media in politics. The basic thesis was that the power of the media has increased and the boundaries of the public interest are being interpreted increasingly broadly. The examples considered include Wikileaks and the Telegraph’s sting on Lib Dem constituency surgeries. There is no acceptance that there are any boundaries on transparency. The press have deemed pretty much everything a politician might say or do is fair game. The net result is that the press scour the scene for signs of disagreement and difference, pick at any hanging threads to see if they can start things unravelling. Any sign of inconsistency is a sign of weakness, as is reconsidering a position, even in the light of new evidence. Hence, we get these absurd charades in which politicians feel obliged to argue, rather tortuously, that, even though it is obvious to a six year old that they have changed their position, continuity is in fact clearly in evidence. Equally importantly the press approach is reductive. It deals in soundbites, simplifications and seeks stark policy differences. There is no subtlety. No shades of grey permitted.

Our political discourse, in this sense, is being driven towards an increasingly American model of media engagement. But the American model is fundamentally about a two party system. It is not fit for the more subtle, sophisticated and grown up world of coalition politics. The recent tragic event in Arizona may indicate that this impoverishment and brutalisation of political discourse does not make a positive contribution in its original context. Our situation is, of course, in no way comparable with that in the US. But recent history suggests that we often look to the US for inspiration when thinking about how politicians should communicate with the public in a media-saturated age. That route has tended to push towards the simple, the digestible and the adversarial. That may be even less fruitful in the era of coalition.

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