Argonauts of the incredibly specific: anthropological field notes on the Liberal Democrat animal
Editor’s note: I used to have a blog, it doesn’t exist any more. It was purely for my own entertainment and so the quality was variable. But I’m told some of the articles weren’t terrible so I’ve migrated them over. This was an incredibly self indulgent rant about why I left British politics, that some people seemed to like. Personally I hate it, and would write it very differently now, but it seems dishonest to take it down.
It has of course aged terribly, most hilariously in the fact that back in early 2013 my go-to example of an acceptably left politician was Owen Jones, and in just how entirely absurd it seemed that political parties could truly represent actually meaningful ideological choices as opposed to mere technocratic policy platforms from within the centrist ideological hegemon. But it is what it was.
Also, I realise this has now sort-of become the default “why was Fred a Lib Dem?” piece, and actually this isn’t really a piece about that, so let me just add this: I was a Lib Dem because there was a war on and the Lib Dems were the electoral vehicle best placed to stop it. Also because at that time they were the only not racist parliamentary party in my area. I was, to be fair, a bit less left wing back then, but I was still vaguely post-Marxist and it turned out the Lib Dems were fine with that — as I say we never really spoke about politics.
In September of 1946, just days after the formal Japanese surrender, Noboru Hayama — a twenty year old inventor — hung a sign on the door of his home in the Tokyo suburbs bearing the single word “Riso-sha”: the Japanese word for “ideal”. Thus a company was born, and over the years Hayama’s genius would take it to global prominence. In 1954 he developed Japan’s first emulsion ink. In 1977 he invented a screen printing system which was small enough to fit in the home. It was so popular that at one stage a third of Japanese households owned one. In 1984 he invented the world’s first fully automated stencil duplicator: the Risograph 007 or RG. For small organisations mass duplication of low quality black-and-white leaflets in-house became cost effective for the first time. The machines were relatively small, meaning they could fit in an office or garage and, if necessary, be hidden: the “samizdat”, the underground network of newspapers and pamphlets which permeated the Soviet Union, and thrived after Glasnorst, made full use of this last feature to ramp up their operations during the late ‘80s.
In 1989 Riso launched the European version: the RC; the RA and GR series followed in 1993 and 1994. The cold process and lack of moving parts meant these machines were robust and easy to maintain — many are still working nearly twenty years later. The RN and RP series, which followed in 2000, massively improved print quality but were fussier, more temperamental, machines. At the same time the V series allowed two colours to be printed at the same time — allowing for much more sophisticated graphic design. Finally in 2004 the RZ series brought in phenomenal speeds and almost laserjet quality printing — but at a price of being so fiddly that I doubt many will show the resilience of the old RAs. Noboru Hayama, meanwhile, lived to the ripe old age of 87. He died of a heart attack last March.
Fact: most normal people don’t know what a Riso is. Most Liberal Democrats have a thorough understanding of how to maintain and repair an RA4200.
Stand back everybody. Avert your eyes. There will be shards. I am about to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut: politicians live in bubbles. Those bubbles cause them to have a distorted view of the world.
I imagine you are not reeling in shock. But here is an exploration of the consequences of that idea. But first I am going to smash that nut, by giving the Liberal Democrats a good hard Othering: by talking about them using some of the language and techniques of anthropology, as one would a long lost tribe, I’m hoping to show just how odd the Liberal Democrats are, and by extension just how odd the lived experience of politics in the UK really is. And yes, I am aware that this is a self-indulgent piece — that is somewhat the point. Indeed if anyone publishes a more self-indulgent piece this year I will be sorely disappointed. I should also point out that I am not a trained anthropologist, although I have been known to dabble, and this is largely a bit of fun.
All the standard anthropological caveats apply. I am writing about the Lib Dems because that is what I know, but it is likely that much of what follows will also apply to the other major parties (minor parties are weird). I also don’t know how different things are in other countries, but this piece from Australia, suggests not very. I always thought American elections were very very different until I read the description of the fridge on page 21 of Primary Colours, and realised they were exactly the same. To what extent that is the case would require further research to establish.
The caste system
The Liberal Democrats operate a rigid caste system. The principle major castes are: MP, Councillor, Researcher, Campaigner, Caseworker and Volunteer. These can be further grouped into two caste groupings: the professionals (Researcher, Campaigner, and Caseworker) and the amateurs (MP, Councillor, and Volunteer). The professionals view the amateurs with derision and suspicion.
Caste is largely a matter of social perception and one can usually successfully transfer caste allegiance by hanging around with people from a different caste for a bit. However, in the meantime, you will be viewed through the prism of your caste, and it will be a major factor in determining the opportunities available to you.
Volunteers occupy a position in the Liberal Democrats not unlike that of the “Hijira”, or eunuchs, of South Asia. On the one hand they are considered the lowest of the low: stupid, surly, and fit only for the most basic manual work. On the other they possess a certain sort of spiritual power which is coveted and must be appeased at all times. Thus contempt is concealed, and even the mightiest minister in the land must make a show of doing the occasional paper round to demonstrate fealty. There is a conceit that all Liberal Democrats start off as volunteers. It isn’t true, but those that didn’t fake it as best they can.
Councillors are essentially paid volunteers. We also let them run municipal services. Let’s think about how stupid that is for a moment: imagining you were conducting a Rawlsian experiment to establish the ideal form of Government. You might come to the conclusion that a system of justice is vital to contain the worst excesses of rational self-interest. You might come to the conclusion that some sort of basic social safety net is required to maximize the minimum potential regret or loss of wellbeing. You would be highly unlikely to determine that it would probably be best if we put the person who delivers the most newspapers in charge of town planning.
The problem is that the role of councillor falls between two stools: on the one hand they deal with very important issues, on the other hand (as local devolution in the UK is half-hearted at best) they often have limited control of those issues. On the one hand the money (c.£10k for a borough councillor) is pretty good for a job with virtually no requirements other than that you be liked by your local party, on the other hand the money isn’t really good enough to do a proper job. And so it tends to be more of a chore than an honour. It’s a bit like being an MP (see below) but with no up-side.
MPs (in which I include all the various mutations: MEPs, AMs, GLAMs etc…) are of course the only type of politician that matter to the wider world. It is therefore interesting to see how irrelevant and peripheral to political proceedings they often seem to be. Political machines exist to serve MPs, but much as most cooks feel the whole process of cooking would be a damn sight easier if it wasn’t for the bloody customers, so most people in politics seemingly would rather MPs were not involved at all. In fact at some point I want to write a sitcom set in an MP’s office, where the MP dies and nobody notices. Perhaps it is because there aren’t very many of them, and because they spend most of their time in Westminster (nothing that happens in Westminster matters to anyone except other people who work in Westminster — unless it gets on the telly).
If you want to be an MP it helps to be rich, charismatic, likeable, hard-working, lucky, good with the media, have a good back story, have a solid track record with the party, and good at campaigning. But you don’t need to be any of these things. The only thing you absolutely need is ridiculous, and I mean absolutely ridiculous, levels of self-belief. This is because no rational human being would ever want to do it. If you want to be an MP you must give up all semblance of a normal life for years, often decades, at a time. You must be unemployed, or have a very patient employer and a meaningless job, for about a year before the election. You must surrender all meaningful contact with friends and family. In the months before an election you must spend around twenty hours a day shaking hands, smiling, and making token purchases. And if you are not driven completely insane by this you also have to come to terms with the fact that there is a very very good chance that you are going to lose, that it will all have been for nothing, and that you have to wait four more years and then have another go — only it will be harder the next time because now you are tagged as a loser. If you finally ever make it to Parliament, you will realise the influence you wield is minimal, and considerably less than that you would have if you had devoted that amount of energy and dedication in almost any other direction.
No sane human being would do this. And yet from among the insane we have to choose the leadership of the nation. They tend to be those that are so utterly captured by the political process that they cannot imagine a life outside of politics, and those who genuinely believe that one day they will be Prime Minister. The scary thing is that at any given time one of them is correct.
Those then are the amateur castes. The professional castes are much more interesting. While the amateur castes are fairly strictly hierarchical, the professionals have a cyclical hierarchy much like the Varnas of India. The Brahmins are the researchers, the most spiritually pure. The Kshatriyas are the campaigners, who wield absolute power in times of war. The Vaishyas are the caseworkers. They do all the actual work, and so wield economic power.
Researchers work in Parliament which means they get to drink subsidised beer but have to wear suits to work. They all watch the West Wing and the Thick of It and tell their friends that their lives are like that. If their MP is a) influential and b) trusts them, then they are not entirely incorrect — but they work for the Liberal Democrats so that never happens. “Research” is an archaic word meaning “to google” and so most researchers don’t really do much research: they are part PA, part Press Officer, and part Events Organiser. A large part of each researcher’s day is spent asking “what’s our policy on x”? Another large part of each researcher’s day is spent making up a policy on y (another researcher having asked you) based upon something you remember your MP having said about it in 2003. Researchers work around 60 hours a week, this is in part so they can look suitably exhausted when networking over a post work pint. Being peppy is bad form.
Campaigners have a strict uniform which consists of looking as scruffy as possible. In part this is to signify their indispensability (much as the U boat commanders of the Kriegsmarine did); in part this is because they spend half their life fixing broken printers. Campaigners are responsible for the electoral success of the party and, as such, look down upon anyone (such as researchers and candidates) who aren’t. Campaigners also have nothing to do with policy and, as such, are looked down upon by anyone (such as researchers and candidates) who do. About half a campaigner’s job is logistical management — the basic strategy being to batter your electoral opponent into submission by sheer volume of literature. Thus the best campaigners are those that do not make the better the enemy of the good, and always prioritise quantity over quantity (guess what I did). The other half of a campaigner’s job is graphic design. For this reason most campaigners are terrible graphic designers. Campaigners work around 90 hours a week and there is a machismo culture around who can do the longest hours. Unsurprisingly Campaigners live on a diet of nicotine, alcohol, coffee, and anything with lots of sugar in it. Perhaps surprisingly Campaigners have not yet discovered crystal meth.
Caseworkers are the closest approximation politicians have to real human beings. Obviously everybody looks down on them for not being “political”. Caseworkers tend to work 9–5 and have friends outside of politics. They also deal with real problems that happen in the real world. Unsurprisingly therefore caseworkers tend to be the most diverse and broadly representative political caste: there are caseworkers of all ages, races, genders and shudder classes.
It always amuses me that party’s plans to increase diversity seem to consist, not of turning politics into something a sane human being might want to do, but in convincing working-class BME women that they too should make the kind of mad irrational ego-driven choices that white twentysomething childless middle-class men do.
Liberal Democrats participate in tribal bonding rituals known as conferences. As with most such kinship occasions, complete with ritual chanting, conferences used to have a function, but that function has now been subsumed into symbolism designed to strengthen a sense of community, and to more clearly divide into Same and Other. As with most such kinship occasions, alcohol and sexual promiscuity are used to strengthen the bonds.
Liberal Democrats also have formative rituals, or initiation ceremonies, known as “by elections” to establish identification with the group. The by election ritual is much like the circumcision ritual of the Xhosa tribe:
“During the time of the initiation, the young men live in special huts, secluded from the rest of the tribe and especially from any females. They undergo training and endurance tests, which require great discipline. All aspects of the initiation are kept very secret.”
Ceremony and hierarchy
Liberal Democrats use ceremonies to delineate hierarchy. Perhaps the most involved of this is referred to as “leafleting”. The leafleting will be led by the campaigner who will have put on their scruffiest outfit for the occasion. The campaigner will hold court in an office, carpark, or abandoned warehouse. Members of the other castes will come and demonstrate fealty by taking bundles of leaflets from them and distributing them among the townsfolk. In the case of the researcher this fealty will be guarded, often accompanied by a pointed remark about the spelling in the leaflet — a sign that the higher caste the campaigner enjoys at this moment is temporal, and it will all change when Parliament is back in session. In the case of the MP the statement is tokenistic, and the bundle of leaflets small, to indicate that — while the MP must participate in the ritual to validate their supposed volunteer roots — they do actually have more important things to do. The volunteers and the councillors tend to be the most devout believers in the ritual, and will quiz the campaigner on every aspect of the leaflet’s contents. This is also part of the ritual, as is the campaigner patiently pretending to listen whilst ignoring everything that is said. The campaigner wrote the leaflet at 4am while tweaking and is fully aware that it contains seven spelling mistakes and a potentially serious libel issue in the third article. It also has GY!BE inserted into the legal smallprint as part of a bet with the Labour agent. The campaigner knows that none of this matters as the vast majority of residents will only look at the leaflet for an average of three seconds between doorstep and bin, and so the headline is literally the only thing that matters. But the campaigner also knows that the good will of the councillors and volunteers, and their belief in the ritual, is required to deliver that headline.
Some things have to be experienced before they can be truly understood. The Lib Dems used to have a computer programme called EARS.
The foundation myth of the modern Liberal Democrats is Brent East. Broadly speaking this myth is a Titanomachy and the story is pretty cool. There are other similar campfire stories Liberal Democrats tell each other, and this is a common feature of most competitive industries. It serves to delineate kin (there are two types of people in the world: those for whom the phrase Littleborough and Saddleworth holds no meaning whatsoever, and Liberal Democrats), to delineate seniority (“you weren’t there man, you weren’t there”) and to give youngsters something to aspire to. This is normal. What is also normal is the stultifying effect this has on innovation. However as an organisation which has an overdependence on volunteers, and thus on war stories, it is possible that political parties are especially prone to gerontocracy and stagnation. This may explain why political parties so rarely innovate: one could safely and securely make donations online in 1994, but no political party attempted it in a coordinated way until the Obama 2008 campaign.
This has had a particular effect on the Liberal Democrats because the Liberal Democrats shouldn’t be. Duverger’s law states that First Past the Post nations should only have two major parties. The only counterexamples in the modern era are highly-federal nations (such as Canada, India, Pakistan, the Philippines) which have only two main parties in any given area but consequentially more than that nationally; and the UK. The Lib Dems are a historical anomaly, and the only reason they have survived is because, back in the day, the Lib Dems were seriously innovative. In some ways the 1980s Lib Dems were decades ahead of their time. The problem is that the 1980s were decades ago, and the Lib Dems are still campaigning much as they did back then. As Napoleon said:
“One must change one’s tactics every 10 years if one wishes to maintain one’s superiority, A man has his day in war as in other things, I myself shall be good for it another 6 years after which even I shall have to stop.”
Of course nobody else has innovated either, but they don’t have to because they are not historical anomalies. A venture capitalist once explained the situation to me like this:
“Seventeen years ago the Lib Dems were really smug about the fact that they were twenty years ahead of everybody else. Now they are just as smug about the fact that they are three years ahead of everybody else. When that happens in my line of work people get fired.”
Symbolism and language
Do you know what a Blue Letter is? Do you think Focus is a noun? What does the term Shuttleworth mean to you? Have you met Erlend? The Liberal Democrats have their own language.
Back to the point
Politics feels very very different when you are part of it. Politics should be simply a matter of making decisions about public policy but it can’t be because human beings are not built that way. Thus politics becomes a way of life, and once it is a lifestyle there is a disconnect between those who live the life and those who don’t. Politics becomes your identity, and your political party becomes your tribe.
And herein lies one of the biggest problems in politics. Because choosing between political parties should be a straightforward matter of selecting the policy platform that most closely aligns with your own. But it isn’t; it’s about group identity. And to a certain extent it has to be; because this is a representative democracy not a direct democracy, and we are picking people we trust to make decisions down the line. That is why it still matters that the Tories destroyed the social contract, and that Labour committed war crimes, and that the Lib Dems lied about tuition fees: because the people that did those things are still in charge, and their past behaviour is the best guide we have to their future actions.
But we take it too far, and that is why the British are bad at coalition governments. We are too tribal, and we only see politics in terms of tribes, not policies, and so negotiating around a common platform is an exercise in futility. Far worse though is that the political parties themselves have this attitude. While most coalitions around the world understand that coalition government is a mixture of compromise, bluster, grandstanding, bluffing, red lines, and — occasionally — withdrawing, the British treat suggesting that one might actually walk away from a coalition at some point as in some way unsportsmanlike. And so the British don’t have true coalition government so much as a series of informal mergers.
The tribalism of British politics meant that a coalition Government was always going to be a tough sell to the British public; what is only now becoming apparent is that the tribalism of British politics means that coalition governments in the UK are not true fluid, dynamic, coalitions such as those enjoyed by the rest of the world.
A further difficulty then is that one cannot make political decisions for solely political reasons. What most, but not all, models of political behaviour miss is the role of interpersonal relationships in political decision making, and in particular the role of group loyalty. This is exacerbated by the fact most people in political parties never ever talk about politics: it seems somehow self-indulgent and redundant. I have managed campaigns for candidates at very high levels where I can honestly tell you I haven’t the faintest clue what my candidate’s political beliefs were. Because once they are playing for your team it doesn’t matter, your role is to help them win.
This can be seen most clearly when it comes to defections. When you defect from a political party you do not merely determine that one group of political actors have a set of beliefs and positions that more closely match your own (something which could happen to the inquisitive mind several times in a week), instead you make a conscious decision to abandon a lifestyle, to sever friendships (maybe not entirely, but to significantly alter the nature of the friendship), and to step outside of the kinship group that you have been up until this point entirely immersed in. Small wonder then that the majority of defectors are either people of real principle juggling with terrible weights on their conscience, or else really quite odd people. Furthermore much like Yes Minister’s hypothetical invading Russians, political parties tend to betray you via a thousand tiny cuts, they are rarely gracious enough to provide one with a clear cut “point of departure”. Defection is not a decision one takes lightly.
And herein lies the second problem with political kinship. People who are part of political parties are too loyal. Politics is fairly thankless; the material rewards are — comparing like for like — shit, and it is frankly quicker and easier to accumulate power outside of formal political processes. One therefore shouldn’t really do it for any other reason than ideology. But the kinship of politics becomes a trap, and so politicians do what every person in every walk of life does when they find themselves in this situation: they tell themselves little lies to make it all ok. This is why Liberal Democrats now send each other painfully thin infographics which crow over their “achievements”, and pretend that they had ever heard of the “pupil premium”. They have become, in the words of my hilarious pun title, the Argonauts of the incredibly specific. And by being too loyal, they are too forgiving of the coalition, just as by being too tribal others are too irrational about the coalition. And all of us are trapped by a discourse which sees these things as mattering, whereas actually politics was never this simple, and the political party one identifies with is almost the least important of the many ways one can influence political and, possibly more importantly civil, society.
So I suppose this is my letter of resignation from the Liberal Democrats. It is not really because I don’t like idea that one is either a Lib Dem or one isn’t. I’d like political identities to be fuzzier than that — the way political views are. As you might have guessed from the last paragraph I’m something of a Gramscian, and I think the debate around the ideas is far more important than the actual voting and the winning elections. I’d far rather have Nick Clegg as Prime Minister if we could be transported into a progressive socially liberal cultural hegemon, than have Prime Minister Owen Jones in the current cultural climate. Because Politicians don’t have anywhere near as much agency as we assume.
So I might vote Lib Dem and I might not (probably not if it means voting for the coalition) but I reserve the right to pick and choose as I see fit. I probably won’t work for them again, but that is more a lifestyle choice. Because it shouldn’t matter: your party is not your football team.
Fred Carver was a participant observer of the Liberal Democrats for six years. He was a councillor in Camden for a bit and ran some elections, mostly in north London.