Four political tribes

Four political tribes

A lot of commenters have observed, particularly post-Brexit, that the old divide between left and right seems to be breaking down. At the last election, age and level of education were better predictors of how someone voted than income or what one might traditionally think of as class. In truth, the new voting patterns are simply revealing differences that have been growing for many years, with or without Brexit: similar – if differently presenting – changes can be seen in America, with Trump, and, in different fashions in different countries, on the continent. Brexit was simply the proximate factor in the UK that forced some of these differences to the surface.

It seems that, at a very high level of simplification, one could model the situation as there being four main political tribes in England (and perhaps Wales – the nationalist vs unionist dimension is clearly much more dominant in Scotland and Northern Ireland). These could be termed, in what I hope are colourfully descriptive rather than pejorative terms, The Establishment, The Traditionalists, The Old Left and The Radicals.

It should be emphasised that, as with all classifications of this type, the below is a simplification: few people will fall entirely into one of these tribes and even people who do are likely to have some beliefs that are not congruent with it.

The Establishment. Economically right-wing and socially liberal, this is the tribe that dominated UK politics from 1990 to 2016 and still maintains a significant degree of domination today. They tend to strongly support the free market, including in public service delivery, and support, or at least are comfortable with, privatisation of public services, off-shoring and outsourcing, strong corporations, the end of defined benefit pensions and high executive pay. At the same time they tend to be socially liberal, supporting, or at least being happy to accommodate, gay rights, high levels of immigration, multiculturalism, social justice and identity politics, the EU and environmentalism. Strongly globalist. This tribe, in keeping with its name, includes the majority of business leaders, senior public officials, university vice-chancellors and similar. Although members may disagree with each other on whether public expenditure should be higher or lower by 5 percentage points of GDP, at the end of the day their values are very similar. The tribe of The Economist and The Times.

The Traditionalists.​ Socially conservative and economically right-wing, this tribe tends to support lower levels of taxation and redistribution, and are more likely to support spending on traditional public services such as the NHS, schools or defence than on benefits or foreign aid. Though economically to the right, may not fully embrace marketisation and globalisation as much as the Establishment, being more comfortable with small businesses and local enterprise than multinational corporations. Likely to support more traditional values, including patriotism, family values, freedom of speech and religion, and public service, whilst being either sceptical of, or find less important, more socially liberal causes, particularly around the EU, immigration, multiculturalism and elements of social justice and identity politics. This tribe is typically older and is more likely to be found in rural areas or mid-sized towns rather than urban metropolises, in the private sector rather than the public, and amongst those who, for whatever reason (perhaps religious affiliation), find themselves unable to accept all of the currently ascendant socially liberal values. The tribe of the Telegraph.

The Old Left. Economically left-wing and socially moderate, this tribe cares primarily about economic issues: quality of public services, unemployment and wages, whilst also being concerned about high executive pay, off-shoring and globalisation. Likely to share some social values with the Traditionalists, particularly around the EU and immigration and, whilst they may not oppose the goals of social liberals, they are unlikely to see them as important as economic issues such as jobs and public services. They tend to support significantly higher rates of taxation on the rich – and other similar policies – than that favoured by the Establishment consensus. This tribe, again, is typically older and likely to be found in mid-sized towns rather than urban metropolises. It also has strength in what remains of the traditional union movement and industrial workforce. The main dividing line between the Old Left and the Traditionalists is class and wealth, rather than social values. The tribe of the Mirror.

The Radicals. Socially liberal and economically left-wing, for the Radicals the principal political issues are identity rather than class-based. Radicals tend to be strongly motivated by social issues, including on race, gender and gay and transgender rights, supportive of the EU and immigrants’ rights, care passionately about the environment and poverty in the developing world, and explicitly reject or reinterpret many traditional values, for example around freedom of speech, marriage or religion. They tend to support economically left-wing policies, including higher taxation, particularly where these have a social dimension, such as anti-globalisation or nationalising industry, but these motivate them less strongly than social issues. This tribe is typically younger, often university educated, with particular strengths amongst the precariat, those whose education has not secured them the salary, job security or house that would once have come with such an education. It can also find adherents amongst older left-wing or campaigning groups, or in academia.  The tribe of the Guardian, the Independent and the Huffington Post.

It should be emphasised that these are generalisations. In actuality, very few people will fit simply within any one grouping, but nevertheless it is a model with some explanatory power. From this perspective, the political parties can be seen as:

Conservatives: A fairly equal mix of Traditionalists and The Establishment

Liberal Democrats: A fairly equal mix of Radicals and The Establishment (the latter being ‘Orange Book Liberals’, ‘Centrists’)

Labour: An uneasy alliance between The Establishment (much of New Labour), The Old Left and Radicals

UKIP: Mainly Traditionalists with a touch of The Old Left

Greens: Mainly Radicals with a touch of The Old Left

It can be seen that the traditional alignment in the UK has been for an alliance of the Establishment and the Traditionalists (‘right’) against the Old Left and the Radicals (‘left). Under New Labour, a significant part of the Establishment aligned itself with the ‘left’, which explains both Blair’s landslide victories, and the dislike with which he is seen by many on the left, who correctly see that he governed as much for the Establishment as for either of the two left-aligned tribes.

More disruptive alignments are, of course, possible. In the Brexit referendum, an alliance between the Traditionalists and the Old Left served to narrowly defeat the Establishment and the Radicals, the single-issue effect of the referendum allowing the tribes to align in an orientation orthogonal to traditional party loyalties. Whilst the impact has not as been as far-reaching as some predicted, there have nevertheless been hints that for, some at least, the social dimensions are outweighing the traditional economic concerns in determining party alignments; demonstrated, for example, by Conservative victories in seats such as Copeland, and corresponding Labour triumphs in Conservative strongholds such as Kensington. Looking abroad, to the extent that these tribes can be applied to other nations, one can interpret Macron’s victory in France as being an Establishment realignment with the Radicals.

What will happen in the future, and the extent to which these tribes remain relevant, remains to be seen, but which tribes gain prominence within each political party may be as significant as which parties win power.

6 thoughts on “Four political tribes

  1. Nitpick: “Although members may disagree with each other on whether public expenditure should be higher or lower by 5%”: do you mean 50%?

    More substantive thoughts:
    1. I think the Left in Britain is unusal because Labour was not founded as a communist party. So within the old left (and to a degree radicals and even sometimes left-establishment) there’s a division between those who see left-wing as meaning ‘good public services’ (e.g. Blair) vs. those who see it as a sort of methodist tradition or German-style consensual negotiated relationship between business and worker vs. those who see it as class struggle and the overthrow of capital.
    2. It’s an oversimplification, but I think Establishment tends to be socially liberal mostly in a ‘get out of the way’ classical liberal sense, support ‘meritocracy’ and believe that the ideal is basically acting as if race/gender/sexuality distinctions weren’t there [the ‘extreme establishment’ is probably essentially libertarian], whereas much of the radical left has a model of social liberalism that says you need to be very aware of these distinctions and intervene based on them (due to believing more strongly in the power/iniquity of structural/implicit bias and discrimination, and also more of a group focus against the estalbishment individual focus). Though in practice people tend to be somewhat vague/inconsistent between the two of course
    3. I’d be tempted to say Old Left is more ‘social policy undefined’ rather than moderate. If the focus is class distinctions, then the position on gay marriage etc. is often pretty irrelevant to the discussion.

    Oh, and I think the paper of the Old Left is probably the Mirror? The lack of a broadsheet is interesting in itself. Much below the line commentary (and so presumably the readership?) on the Guardian is broadly from an Old Left perspective.

    1. I meant 5 percentage points of GDP – I’ll amend to make it clear.

      On 1, is that correct? In Canada, the left-wing party evolved from the old liberal party, so I don’t think Labour is as much an outlier as you suggest. I like your framing of the current divisions though.

      Your point 3 is what I was trying to say (what I meant by ‘moderate’) but you said it better! I’m afraid I disagree on 2 though: the Establishment is very socially liberal on the EU and immigration, and on identity issues, the position of being highly aware of distinctions and intervene accordingly is absolutely mainstreamed in Establishment thinking (consider the sheer number of government initiatives here, the regular reporting on such lines and corporate diversity policies and actions). I think the distinction between them and the Radicals is that the Establishment favours incremental interventions (e.g. publishing statistics, initiatives aimed at encouraging underrepresented groups) whereas the Radicals are more likely to go for more hard-edged levers such as quotas and safe spaces.

      1. On %ages I was confused because I read ‘by’ as ‘than’ and thought you were talking about the total proportion of GDP spent in the public sector (which is obviously nearer 50% than 45%, though 50% is high for the UK)

        On 1 I was largely thinking of various European parties. Unlike lots of Europe we’ve never really had a communist party (lots of potential reasons: the strength of other institutions like Methodism, the fact we’ve tended towards reform over revolution etc.

        Agreed on EU and immigration. I guess with the approach to identity stuff you might be right (and I might be projecting!) But I think it’s on a sliding scale and made more complex by the fact that two people can support the same policies for different reasons. Also because on matters of social liberalism I think most people wherever they fall on the scale themselves are far more tolerant of those further to the ‘liberal’ side than further to the ‘illiberal’ side (or at least want to appear so). So people who are against gay marriage (at least in terms of the public debate) are likely to treat someone who believes that e.g. decriminalising it was wrong or even in a different age of consent as being beyond the realms of reasonable debate.

        Some of the more heated current arguments seem to me to be where it’s unclear what the ‘more liberal/radical’ position is (e.g. with ‘TERFs’ arguing with pro-trans feminists)

        1. I agree with your description and think it’s evidence that the Establishment (and society) is indeed socially liberal on these issues!

          To be specific, I think the phenomenon you describe – people being more tolerant of those with more liberal opinions than they hold, than they are of those with less liberal opinions – is a function of having a socially liberal Establishment. I think the opposite would hold true in a socially conservative society (and indeed it does today in some counter-cultural subcultures). Similarly, in a religious society I suspect monks would be looked on more favourably than atheists; in a militaristic society, berserkers/warmongers looked on more favourably than pacifists.

    1. I don’t know enough about Scottish politics to be confident, but my sense is that the nationalist/unionist divide makes the above analysis irrelevant there. If pushed, I’d say they have a kinship with elements of the Old Left and the Radicals.

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