The Tories are high in the polls, but why? The power of tribal loyalties

Boris Johnson may be off the hook now that Owen Paterson, the MP at the centre of a lobbying scandal, has resigned. And while his party tries to shrug off allegations of sleaze, there’s no denying the PM’s very first instinct was to try to ditch the rules to save a trusted MP. It reflects the tribal loyalties that drive this government…

Boris Johnson’s Cabinet meeting: the tribe before Matt Hancock was thrown out. Photo credit:                  Creative Commons BY-NC ND 2.0.

FAQ of the moment: How does Boris Johnson’s party continue to poll around 40% support? The Conservative party has been in power for 11 mainly austere years, is run by a proven, serial adulterer and liar and the country is in a self-imposed mess: Brexit without benefit and democracy threatened. All logic would say that any half decent opposition should be gaining ground.

But this is not happening.

Poor opposition may have something to do with it, but is not enough of an explanation as to why so many remain seemingly unmoved by evidence of Conservative chaos and culpability

It is so good to belong, isn’t it, sharing common interests or values with like-minded others? Writers and readers of Sussex Bylines are ‘belongers’ or a tribe, perhaps. We share an interest in and have views informed by where we live. Tribalism helps people to belong, fulfils a social and emotional need.

There are many glues, both inherent and chosen, binding people into tribes: following a leader, common demography, convincing myths or shared interests. Whilst many people seem to accept where they live as a tribal definition – Sussex; Sardinia; Syria – Basques used to define as Euskal those who spoke their common, ancestral language, Euskera.

‘Belonging to a tribe is warm and cuddly… people have roots, values and interests they share with like-minded others’

In sport, we like to support a team we have chosen for our own reasons to admire. Its fans are a tribe, as are those of other teams. Come on you Seagulls

Belonging to a tribe is warm and cuddly so why not belong to several? People have multiple roots, values and interests which they share with like-minded others without conflict. We can belong to Sussex, the Seagulls, the socialists and the stamp collectors, without any one of those affiliations treading on the feet of any other. 

A political party is a tribe. The Labour Party used to be the tribe for unionised workers; the Conservative Party for the bourgeoisie. Both used to acknowledge that they were “big tents” containing a variety of shades of opinion, but social media have made such cohesion more difficult and factions [small tribes] easier to connect.

The Labour Party today seems more interested in factional infighting than opposing the government. Compare this with the Conservatives, always prepared to do whatever it takes to gain or hold on to power. Instead of attempting to unify the disparate shades of opinion in his parliamentary party, Johnson simply removed the whip from those whom he deemed represented a risk to his control, leaving an apparently loyal tribe. 

‘At a stroke, Johnson cemented not one but two substantial but complementary tribes behind his flag waving’

His ruthlessness gained him another tribe too. With Brexit becoming the most divisive political issue for years, it created its own huge, ideological pro- and anti- tribes.

Labour, having seen its original base dwindle with the decline in manufacturing, then the virtual disappearance of its Scottish tribe, failed to secure a following from either the Europhile or Europhobe tribes and now seems to lack any vision through which to attract new tribes in either parliament or country. 

Johnson, on the other hand, using meaningless populist slogans  and prepared to antagonise or belittle any who did not agree with him won the uncritical loyalty of millions, not necessarily of Conservative tradition who fell for his Brexit rhetoric. At a stroke,  he cemented not one but two substantial but complementary tribes behind his flag waving, his Tory brethren and Leavers, neither of which is likely to be dissuaded from this even by evidence of his venality.

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Johnson 2: Labour 0! As a result, Johnson has his secure just under 40% in the polls; and Labour flails around some way behind, lacking its old core and missing opportunity after opportunity to call his disasters to account. So is that the end of the game?

Not necessarily. Johnson’s demonisation of those whose votes he does not need shows a disgraceful intention not to govern for the whole nation, despite persistent rhetoric about “levelling up”. In repeatedly describing UK as “the best in the world” at almost anything, he is provocative as well as offensive to those countries so unfavourably compared who should be allies.

‘The offending “Johnson Little Englander” tribe must inevitably become isolated’

These behaviours can only result in retaliation by those so treated, as we are seeing with the French fishing row. The offending “Johnson Little Englander” tribe itself must inevitably become isolated, no matter how cohesive; and that cohesion may increasingly be tested as the more decent backbenchers and constituency parties become more awake to the corruption at the head of their tribe, as the furore over the Owen Paterson scandal demonstrates. Apart from such offence, Johnsonian commercial, economic and diplomatic impacts must eventually reap consequences.

The tribe’s very exceptionalist nature creates arrogance and hostility towards others, even nation states, who may find it hard to resist reciprocal attacks. 

For individuals, membership of that one dominant tribe may even become a social obstacle and erode trust and friendships. Can a Seagull Brexiter be mates with a Seagull Europhile? Can a Europhile rely on a Johnsonian? The tribe and its members will gradually suffer the consequences of their own isolation and its strength will erode. 

Unless Johnson actually wants conflict and decline, he should learn to focus on the needs and interests of the country over those of the tribe. History shows too painfully what can occur when exceptionalism becomes just the first step in a march towards fascism.

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