Making sense of the new factions and understanding the potential threats to party unity
20 February 2012 2 Comments
In Lib Dem circles, much has been made of the new factions developing within the party with many giving their opinion of them. Stephen Tall has a good overview of the groupings here. Now that Social Liberal Forum, Liberal Left, and Liberal Reform are here it is worth having a look at what this might mean for the party, and particularly party unity as Stephen Tall says there are potential causes for concern.
Generally in politics groups form on the basis of values to create a shared value system and a common way of understanding the world as a result. All the new factions acknowledge the shared value system within the main party but have a particular stress on certain values within this, with a view to influencing the main party from that view point. While there are many advantages to have a group of people focus on policy from certain value positions, there are risks to party unity due to the way groups operate.
While it used to be considered that groups generally create a more measured decision at the end of the day due to the multiple voices being considered, this has since been disproved, initially by what social psychologists called ‘risky shift’. This was the observed phenomenon of groups making riskier decisions than the individuals would have done on their own. However, this has become known as part of a larger observed phenomenon called group polarisation and it is group polarisation which may create problems for the Lib Dems with these factions.
Instead of groups making more measured decisions, group polarisation describes the phenomenon when groups make decisions that are more extreme than the individuals members would have made on their own, as people in the group have their initial attitudes strengthened and intensified after group discussion. What this could mean is that the recent factions within the Lib Dems could move quite quickly into more extreme positions. It is interesting that when the Coalition was formed there was very little dissent in the party about its formation, yet we now have Liberal Left who are formally opposing it. Could this have been that the formation of the group reinforced certain aspects of individual members thinking to create a formal opposition? A hardening of ideas?
The risk for the party is that as these groups discuss and debate issues, the groups will inevitably move in their own direction which could ultimately mean they move too far away from each other for them to see the shared values that bound them in the first place. Something that history has already taught us as Stephen Tall commented on the splits in the Liberal Party between Lloyd George / Asquith split or the Samuelites v the Simonites (see here for more info).
While there are difficulties and challenges for us as a party in a Coalition Government, we will come through it and we will feel that the party best represents our values only if we remain a unified political party. The factions present a threat to this unity unless there are bridges built between the groups to keep the shared values at the heart of them. We should welcome the debate and the ideas, but we should not ignore the new challenges this brings. We are a party of cooperation and collaboration and the groupings should use these values as a basis to start their work.