Choosing your tribe – them and us

“In Ireland you must choose your tribe. Reason has nothing to do with it.” 


So wrote J.G. Farrell in his 1970 novel Troubles. While much of what has happened politically in 2016 has felt both tribal and irrational to me, psychology suggests that we don’t even need big issues to persuade us to pick our tribe. Developed at much the same time that Farrell published his novel, Henri Tajfel’s minimal group experiments show how easy – how frighteningly easy – it is for us to do this.

Minimal groups can be formed using arbitrary criteria.  A coin toss can be used to divide people randomly into two groups. A simple task, such as distributing small amounts of money, results in people favouring members of their own group. This happens even when there is no objective difference between group members and the distribution is performed anonymously.

This result led Tajfel with others including John Turner, to develop Social Identity Theory (SIT). SIT can be used as a way of explaining the minimal group results, but more importantly, can perhaps shed light on what happens in everyday life outside of laboratory experiments.

SIT argues that we categorise ourselves and others into different groups. A process of social identification occurs over time, where we decide which groups we identify with. Our decisions on group membership are influenced by others already in a particular group whose attitudes and beliefs we wish to emulate. Finally, our self-esteem is boosted by positive comparisons of our own group against others. It can also be damaged if other groups are held in higher regard by society than ours.

The need to pick our tribe, regardless of how rational or irrational that choice may seem to others, would therefore seem to be an inbuilt characteristic of humanity. Which of the tribes that we belong to is most important to us at any point in time depends on how salient the social identity it embodies becomes. If that identity feels threatened, then we often cling to it even harder.

It would seem to me that the events of the last week demonstrate that the most salient political identity in the UK at the moment is how pro-EU (or anti-EU) we feel. How else would you explain the truly wonderful result for Sarah Olney in the Richmond Park by-election if that was not the case? How else would you explain the willingness of many people to work across traditional party political divides to make sure that we don’t drive our economy off a cliff? Or how else would you explain a large slice of the electorate still voting for the ‘independent’ ex-incumbent anyway?

Long may the country’s new-found passion for the EU continue. I have chosen my tribe and for the first time in some years, I feel rather good about being a member.

My response to the recent Post40Bloggers writing prompt number 104: “Them and Us“.

10,000 steps a day – day 27 – Allestree by-election

Today’s steps were easily achieved as this evening I went out leafleting on behalf of the excellent Liberal Democrat by-election candidate for Allestree, Deena Smith.

Allestree by-electionFor those of you that don’t follow Derby politics closely, the vacancy was caused by the Conservative councillor elected in May being jailed for two months for providing a false address. I think the people of Allestree deserve better than to have their votes taken for granted by the Tory party. The by-election is on Thursday and I hope that the recent success elsewhere in Derbyshire is a good omen in what has been considered a safe Conservative ward.

If you’ve never delivered leaflets before, this is what the activity looks like to a Fitbit tracker.

Delivery WalkI was quite pleased that I didn’t have to backtrack too many times.


There are just three days left in my September walk all over cancer, but there’s still time to sponsor me. My donations page is here. Thank you!

Two thoughts following the referendum result – and what to do next

This is a quickly written post as I really need to get on with my dissertation today. However, here are two thoughts about what not to do, and what to do following the EU referendum ‘leave’ result.

First – the what not to do. Don’t sign the petition arguing for a second referendum on the same question immediately. We may not like the result (that’s possibly the biggest understatement I’ve ever made), but a second referendum isn’t the answer. At best it would be a sticking plaster that fails to address the underlying causes of the dissatisfaction that many people feel about their situation. At worst, it looks like sour grapes. In fact, I’m in full agreement with the good Lord Bonkers (a.k.a. Jonathan Calder) on this – referendums on anything are a really bad idea in a parliamentary democracy. Read his piece published before the results were known to understand why.

Secondly – the what to do. With the Conservative and Labour parties ripping apart at the seams, an early General Election seems like a real possibility, even with the fixed-term parliaments act in place. If you think that the UK should remain in (or rejoin) the EU, I hope that you’ll join the Liberal Democrats. Come and work with us to create an optimistic, liberal and positive vision for the future, that addresses the underlying problems in our country with real solutions, not just cheap slogans.

In praise of Baroness Sharp – the Lords debate adult education and lifelong learning

Last week, the House of Lords debated the current state of adult education and lifelong learning. I’ve now taken some time to read through the transcript and I’ve picked out a number of highlights from the excellent contribution made by Baroness Sharp. The debate was also notable for providing a vehicle for the farewell speech of Baroness Williams to be delivered, which was well reported on Liberal Democrat Voice.

That aside, the motion debated (and agreed) was:

That this House takes note of the role of adult education and lifelong learning and the need to develop the skills needed to strengthen the United Kingdom economy.

and was moved by the Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Sharp of Guildford. In opening the debate, she said:

The trends [concerning adult education] are not good at present. Since the introduction of the full-cost £9,000 fee at universities in 2012, while the number of full-time undergraduates has increased, part-time numbers have plummeted by 58%. Today, there are 244,000 fewer part-time students studying at our universities than in 2010-11. This has hit the Open University and Birkbeck hard, but it has also led to course closures elsewhere because part-time courses become unviable. We know from the research undertaken by Universities UK that part-time students are indeed a somewhat mixed bunch, but we also know that a large number of them are mature students, many from disadvantaged homes and often with existing debt and family obligations, which makes them much more wary than their younger counterparts of taking on the debt obligations. Part-time study has been a powerful access tool. For those wishing to retrain and take up a new career, the ELQ rule, which excludes those who already have an equivalent level of qualification from getting grants and loans, has proved a substantial barrier to course take-up.

Yes, we’re definitely a “mixed bunch”! Baroness Sharp made a very pertinent observation about ensuring that the provision of adult education opportunities isn’t solely employer-led, but also considered the needs of individual learners.

I am calling for a more comprehensive skills strategy which addresses helping the over-24s improve their lot if they want to. What happens now if you are made redundant and cannot find an employer who will offer you an apprenticeship? What if you are self-employed, the fastest growing sector in the labour market at present? Who is responsible for training you if you are one of the army of people working as agency staff in one of the many areas in both the public and private sectors where work is now subcontracted out? If you are on a zero-hours contract, who is responsible for your training? There has been much talk about training needing to be demand-led, but demand in this case is always referred to as employer demand. I argue that the individual is an important part of demand.

In concluding, Baroness Sharp made three recommendations:

First and foremost, we need a more comprehensive approach that pulls together adult education and skills. This requires much closer working between colleges, universities, the independent training providers and not just employers but the local authorities and other public sector organisations, such as the NHS and DWP, as partners at a local level.

Secondly, we need to empower the individual to take more control over their own training. … given the risk-aversion shown by many mature students to loans, how about allowing 40 year-olds to draw down a proportion of their pension funds to meet training costs?
Thirdly, we need some incentive for the individual to invest in themselves. It is time, I believe, to look again at the idea of individual learning accounts … At the very least, it would be good to allow the individual to claim tax relief on the money that they invest on bona fides education and training courses.

The response from the government at the end of the debate came from Baroness Evans of Bowes Park. It was interesting that significant chunks of her response focused on pre-21 education, training and the provision of full-time apprenticeships, perhaps showing that despite the encouraging noises being made by her, there is still a failure at the heart of government to understand the needs of part-time, mature adult learners. She did, however, conclude that:

The Government recognise that there is more to be done to ensure that the UK has the skills and flexibility it needs to grow in the global economy and that all people in this country have the skills they need to do what they would like to in life.

… which is encouraging, but fine words butter no parsnips. Until there is a greater focus by government and politicians of all parties on the needs of part-time, mature students and an understanding of the value generated by people treading this path, then the decline in this sector can only continue.

Post-40 Bloggers

LibDem leadership hustings: “it ain’t what you say, it’s the way that you say it”

Last night, I attended the Liberal Democrat leadership hustings in Nottingham. It was held in a large, but peculiarly airless black box theatre at the Djanogly City Academy, bringing back uncomfortable memories of Saturday mornings a few years ago when my OU critical social psychology tutorials were held there.

Lib Dem Leadership Hustings, Nottingham, 6th July 2015

I had intended to diligently take notes on what Norman Lamb and Tim Farron said, and then report back here on the nuances, but as the chair pointed out at the beginning of the evening, a Liberal Democrat was definitely going to win this election. On matters of substance, the two candidates were therefore likely to be in agreement 99% of the time. So it proved. Even when Norman started one of his answers by saying that he disagreed with Tim, I really couldn’t spot much of a difference in the substance of his answer once he’d got to the end of it.

So if there’s little to differentiate the candidates on matters of policy, how do you choose who to vote for? It was certainly true that the people I spoke to at the meeting had found their own choices difficult to make. Pleasingly for the future of the party, the choice is difficult because of the outstanding quality of both candidates. I’m sure that another party currently holding their own leadership contest wished that any one of theirs were even half as good as either Tim or Norman.

Given that both candidates live and breathe Liberalism (and that’s obviously the case based on the evidence of last night), the key test for me is which of them stands the best chance of being noticed by the public over the next 5 years and enthusing the 20% or so of the electorate who might be persuaded to vote for us in 2020. Oh, and enthusing the party at large to go out and campaign, donate money, deliver leaflets and rebuild our local government base, of course.

Two things convinced me during the evening that Tim is the right choice to lead now, in the circumstances that the party finds itself in today.

Firstly, Norman’s obvious intellect shines through everything that he says. His deeply held and considered views on mental health, drug reform and many other topics are clear. But in the parlous circumstances the party finds itself in, we need more than pure intellect to survive. Likewise, Tim has deeply held and considered views on range of topics – housing, poverty, social justice – but I also get the impression from listening to him that he’s got the rhetorical skills, raw passion and sheer bloody-mindedness needed to make sure that a hostile press and a sceptical public can’t ignore him … and better than that, actually want to listen to him.

Secondly, although both agree that we need to be bolder in putting forward what the party believes in, rather than defining ourselves in terms of what the other parties may or may not believe, it was Tim that had started to answer the “so what” questions – in other words, why our beliefs make the Liberal Democrat view of the world distinctive and valuable to the electorate. For example (and this isn’t an exact quotation from last night, but I hope that it captures the sense of what Tim said), “Our Liberal values mean that we’re internationalists, which is why we support the UK’s membership of the EU. Our membership is important, because it’s the EU which has made war between European nations unthinkable today, and means that we can act effectively together to tackle the threat posed to us all by terrorism”.

So, as I’ve said here before, I’m backing Tim for leader. I hope that whatever the outcome of the leadership election, they both continue to work together constructively as colleagues for the good of the party, but more importantly, I’m sure they’d want to do so anyway for the good of the country.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Three things I don’t understand about the LibDem leadership election

Before I talk about the three things I don’t understand about the election, let me be clear that having a choice between Tim Farron and Norman Lamb is great, as they’re both excellent candidates. But Tim Farron wins my vote, due to the way that he has always chosen to engage constructively with party members and is continuing to do so through his campaign. It’s my belief that his ability and willingness to engage with everyone, while maintaining a consistently Liberal stance, is the best way to ensure that our message doesn’t get lost in the Labservative noise that will dominate the media agenda over the next few years.

Anyway, the three things I don’t understand:

  • It’s an election between two candidates. Much as I love preferential voting, the instructions on the ballot paper asking the candidates to be ranked numerically makes no sense. And even in the highly unlikely event of Tim and Norman tieing on first preferences,  my reading of the AV guide issued by the electoral reform society suggests that the tie would be broken by drawing lots, rather than looking at the number of second preferences. Otherwise, your second preference could count against your first preference! But maybe someone with a deeper knowledge of the mechanics might be able to clarify this for me. (I also find it inconceivable that if someone marked their paper with a cross against a single candidate that it wouldn’t be counted).
  • The photographs on twitter of completed ballot papers. If you tell me you’ve voted for Tim or Norman, I’ll believe you. I really don’t need photographic proof that you can fill the ballot in correctly!
  • However, even more disturbing are the photographs of people posting the envelope. That really does seem odd, especially as there must be a chance you’d drop your phone into the postbox with your ballot paper. I’m willing to bet that at least one of you may have got close to doing it …

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Charles Kennedy

I only met Charles Kennedy once. It was in 1986 at the Erewash SDP Christmas Party held in the (long gone) Co-operative banqueting suite in Long Eaton, where he was our guest speaker. The event is now so long ago that I don’t remember what he said, but I do remember the overwhelmingly positive impression his words made on me and the encouragement that I felt as the youngest member of the Erewash party executive at the time. I also remember Ted Gay, the Erewash party secretary, introducing Charles as a future leader of the SDP. Charles dismissed this idea with good humour, but I for one was absolutely convinced that at some point in the future he would be.

I may have joined the SDP as a student because of seeing David Owen speak at Warwick University, but it was Charles Kennedy’s influence that meant I became a member of the Social and Liberal Democrats after the 1988 merger, rather than throwing my lot in with the Continuing SDP. Jonathan Calder suggested that it was this, rather than his opposition to the Iraq War, that may have been the biggest service Charles performed for the Liberal Democrats. From a purely personal perspective, I’m definitely in agreement with this view.

From what I remember, I think that Charles took some time in formally declaring his support for the new party, but once he had, I knew that I had to follow. Up until that point, I’d been furiously hedging my bets. Somewhere, I still have the welcome pack I received from the Continuing SDP – as well as my founder member certificate for the Social and Liberal Democrats!

So like many, many others, the news that I heard at around 7am yesterday of Charles Kennedy’s untimely death came as a huge shock.

My prayers and thoughts are with his family and friends at this desperately sad time.

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