Working in a bank and being an unabashed left winger results in constant invitations to engage in tribalism. As such, the world that many people have inhabited for the days leading up to the British general election, of constant partisan bickering and debate, is one I’m mightily familiar with. My peers attempt to force it on me all the time. As I see my friends and colleagues facebook posts and tweets giving their perspectives, on the rightness or wrongness of the results, and how personally miserable or elated they are with the outcome, I’m wryly happy for them because the hot blooded combative arguments and forthright opinions they’ve been exposed to for the last few weeks are how I choose to live my life – and I think it’s good. I wish there were more times when people got off the bench and into the game.
But enough about me, what does it all mean? Tories on twitter are very clear about the meaning. The tribal being in me is infuriated. The smug conservatives swarming over my Twitter feed, and the middle aged balding white men from the home counties on my dealing floor are elated. They have won. They are vindicated in their beliefs that naive lefty nonsense has no place in the UK. This kind of thinking is seductive for both sides. It’s fantastic to feel like a winner and have the reward circuits that millennia of tribal living implanted on our minds lit up by the feeling of victory. Equally, the victimhood narrative is seductive for the loser. Loss to an enemy tribe kindles the desire for revenge, justifications that the other lot were meaner, stupider, whatever is necessary to explain and justify the loss and affirm the tribal identity. All of this is mightily satisfying, and I don’t begrudge either side their comforts. I shall certainly be indulging myself.
There is another side to it though. The aforementioned smug balding middle aged white men from the home counties marching proudly onto the dealing floor yesterday morning were all saying similar stuff. Common sense had prevailed. The country is in safe hands. And how do they know what’s common sense? Well we can’t have any of this lefty nonsense, but equally, can’t have racists in charge. Labour are just peddling pie in the sky nonsense. What nonsense specifically? Well, you know, all that lefty rubbish they go on about!
Ok… It’s all a bit circular and light on detail. As all political commentators constantly tell us, the key to electoral victory is to capture this elusive ‘centre ground’. What they spend rather less time on telling us is why the centre ground is where it is, which of course matters far more. In an election, the main parties react to voter preferences by getting as close to the centre as possible – which means left wing and right wing are decided not by reference to some indisputable cannon of issues but relatively depending on consensus.
Seen in this light – a conservative victory in an election only means what consensus allows it to mean. And when you think about how successful the left has been over the years in terms of shifting consensus – one feels a lot better. Consider that:
– Any party that committed to ending free universal healthcare would never be elected
– Any party that committed to ending free public education would never be elected
– Racism, sexism and homophobia are no longer part of public political life
– Formal equality under law for minorities and women is unquestioned
– Any party that openly committed to ending state support for the disabled would never be elected
All of this stuff feels 100% natural, common sense, and absolutely centrist. And it was bitterly fought for by the left over centuries.
Now, this is not to say that we can all rest comfortably, champagne in hand, and let the Tories muck around while progress marches on. There is a constant, unending battle over the centre ground – fought every day in every way as we persuade our friends, comment on newspaper articles, protest, debate and otherwise attempt to win the battle of ideas. It’s not only one way – and this election demonstrated that public ignorance of economics and especially the economics of government spending and immigration can do real damage. Also, clearly, being in government provides an important vantage point to influence the centre ground. Elections matter and we should fight them hard. But it’s important to remember that while the tribal combat of politics is emotionally engaging and necessary, systems, structures and norms are really what it’s all about. So if you can, rise above it and consider that. It may be cold comfort after a crushing defeat for the left at the polls – but really, it’s all that matters.