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.