Groups, Crowds and Cliques

Photo credit: lewishdreamer, Flickr

Photo credit: lewishdreamer, Flickr

Pat Wylie

Where there are groups, there are group dynamics.

After thirty years as a left-wing backbencher, an outrider in parliamentary Labour politics, Jeremy Corbyn recently became Labour leader with the support of an overwhelming 66 per cent of those who voted. I welcome Corbyn’s leadership. Perhaps now Labour will return to being the party that promotes secure employment and universal human rights. Perhaps this symbolises a revival of the left in England and thus a narrowing of the gap between the political cultures at Westminster and at Holyrood. Perhaps not; Corbyn’s support appears to have come from trade unions and ordinary people rather than from many of his fellow Labour MPs. In any case, what does Corbyn’s victory tell us about group dynamics and group thinking?

Corbyn first became an MP in 1983, at the same time as Tony Blair. Many Labour MPs of his generation went on to form protective cliques around Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and each other, hitching their own careers to New Labour. Within a few years, this generation of MPs came to dominate the Labour party, reforming the party from the top and giving the general impression that there was “no going back” to anything resembling left-wing socialism.

Throughout the period 1983 to 2015, Corbyn was given no additional responsibilities within parliament, nor did he gain the media platform or public recognition afforded to other left-wing Labour figures such as Tony Benn, or controversialists such as George Galloway and Dennis Skinner. Corbyn’s hitherto low profile will have played some part in his recent success; he is an untainted outsider, who didn’t compromise and had the strength to resist the charismatic power of New Labour.

And so it goes in work and life. Not everyone will attain a position of great prominence, nor high salary; not everyone’s career ends with a flourishing up-tick as we reach our later years. In contrast to Corbyn, the nondescript recent lives of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Alastair Campbell illustrate the pitfalls of a career that peaks early. At one point or another, most of us will belong to an “in-crowd”, held in high regard by others and getting away with our mistakes. Most of us have also experienced an “out-crowd”, far from power and not expecting to be thanked for our efforts.

“Group-think” prevails in most white-collar workplaces, not just in government. It happens whenever crucial decisions are made by a number of close colleagues with the same priorities and vested interests. The good news is that these things tend to change over time. To take one example from social work and public services, today’s out-crowds are those who stood by and did nothing while young people were being sexually exploited in Rotherham, Rochdale, near celebrities, and in many other places besides. The tide is still rising and there remain many people who have yet to be held accountable for their negligence or active participation in the sexual abuse of children. But the group-thinkers who said nothing could be done have been undone by their own complacency; a new generation is determined to act to prevent these injustices in future.

I can think of two crumbs of comfort to the phenomenon of in-crowds and out-crowds. Firstly, times change and lots of people get their comeuppance at one time or another. Secondly, there is more to life than winning and leading. The recent flurry of publicity around Alex Ferguson’s new book, Leading, seems to revolve around the premise that life can only really be enjoyed if one spends it in a state of perennial “victory”, leading one’s team to ever greater triumph in perennial competition against others. Suffice to say, life doesn’t work like this and many leaders and winners probably wish that they hadn’t bothered to make the compromises and sacrifices necessary to reach “the top”.

Power should only be held by those who don’t desire it. Good luck, Jeremy.

Is tribalism a barrier to genuinely progressive politics?


Anna Crow

So, what team do you support?

How many of us remember those days when, particularly in Glasgow, to ask what football team someone supported might have been the most divisive question that could be asked of someone by a new acquaintance?  I must admit that when faced with this particular question, I very rarely have given whatever the asker would consider to be the right answer.  I am fairly indifferent towards football in general.  If pressed for a more specific answer I might express support for Partick Thistle, if largely because I like that they are not caught up in the sectarianism which can divide Rangers and Celtic supporters and associated groups, and I like their new mascot Kingsley, who was designed by David Shrigley, one of my favourite artists.

That answer and its basis some may find controversial enough; however any controversy which could be provoked by asking the question above so often pales starkly compared to that generated in response to the question posed to those able to vote in Scotland last year – the question of whether we should become an independent country.  I and so many others grew to feel very strongly about our personal viewpoint regarding this.  I imagine how I felt when walking past others in the street who were wearing Yes badges is similar in many ways to how avid supporters of a football team may feel when seeing others wearing the same colours, proudly displaying their affiliation.  I remember that urgent sense of wanting to find out from acquaintances both new and old their answer to that question – were they a Yes or a No?  In essence, what team did they support and why?

Nearly 1 year post-referendum, I don’t feel that precise urge so often anymore.  I certainly do not regret that Scottish independence was a large part of the draw for me and many others to engage seriously with politics, but I believe that to focus on independence as a single issue will always risk hampering a broader sense of perspective and understanding regarding politics and society in Scotland and beyond.  I still support Scottish independence but it is clearer to me than ever that this is from the viewpoint of it being a means to the kind of significant progressive change that I feel is so desperately needed, rather than from a point of view of nationalism for its own sake.

More and more I find myself questioning this instinct that drives people to think about things in terms of teams or sides and to focus so often on what divides us rather than what may unite us.  The prevalent tendency is to simplify, to present issues as a strict dichotomy when most things are much more complex.  With this can come the mentality where people assume all of those on what they perceive as the same side are friends and all on the opposing side as enemies, and even perhaps view the enemies of their enemies as friends by default.  I feel that there are many flaws in such a way of thinking.  I believe that the time has come to pose this question: is there really any place for this tribalistic mentality in progressive politics?

I do not seek to belittle the value of the way in which to align with a defined group can be a positive thing in terms of engagement with others who share the same beliefs and values to work together for the common good.  However, it is vital to remain aware that not all within groups we choose to join may share the same inherent views concerning important issues and there may even be times when we find have more in common with those some may view as being on the other side rather than those in the groups we may be affiliated with.

In terms of the Scottish independence debate there are prominent figures including elected politicians on both sides – to conform to a dichotomous way of thinking – whom I respect and admire because of the principled and progressive values shown by their words and actions.  There are also those in both groups who seem more interested in their own power gains than the common good or whose words and behaviour have displayed other attitudes which I believe to be bigoted and completely unacceptable.

Moreover, thinking more broadly about politics in Scotland and the rest of the UK, could anyone really argue that the sheer level of animosity frequently displayed between certain political parties, between Labour and the SNP for example, is a productive influence for the common good of wider society?  So often televised pre-election debates descend into shouting matches rather than any thoughtful and reasoned discussion where all are given equal time to make their case and be questioned and held to account by the general public.  What is of even more concern is that the same attitude seems so prevalent within all levels of government – the political happenings that we as the general public will not have easy access to see.

A culture where tribalism is so prominent can foster an unhealthy sense of hierarchy and lead to bullying and intimidation of individuals who may at times be unwilling to side with the dominant view in their affiliated group for good reason – how can this be representative of genuine democracy?  This mentality also creates an unnecessary barrier between different groups being able to communicate honestly and work together when possible while retaining the ability to take a stand on areas of irreconcilable disagreement.

To challenge this may not be simple or straightforward to do but I believe that is what we and our elected representatives in government must do and keep doing in order to further progressive politics.  We need politics that represents genuine democracy, a greater sense of cooperation and solidarity regarding issues we agree upon, and most importantly, politics that is centred on the common good of all in society.

E-petitions: promoting slacktivism or participation?


Louise Wilson

Of the many changes this new UK Government has made, or announced it will make, so far, perhaps one of the more positive aspects is the establishment on a new Petitions Committee and system.

Whilst the ability to petition Parliament has been around for decades, in July this year a system to allow e-petitioning was launched. Any UK citizen can now open, sign and publicise a petition online, which will be registered on the UK Parliament website immediately. This differentiates it from other websites, such as, as it does not require petitioners to physically deliver their document.

So Westminster has now caught up with the Scottish Parliament, and it is a positive step in terms of modernising many of the institution’s archaic traditions. This is a turn for the democratic – with much of Britain now online, it makes sense to allow the electorate to engage with the Government and Parliament in this space too.

This new e-system is not without its criticisms, however, By making the process more open, it automatically means it is easier to garner support for, shall we say, less serious petitions. With only 10,000 signatures, the government must issue a response to any petition. This will take up resources, and whilst we can hope only worthy petitions would reach this threshold, other countries’ experiences have shown this isn’t always the case.

Take for instance the petition in the US to build a Death Star back in 2013. It received over 34,000 signatures, therefore requiring an official response. Whilst the US Government successfully turn this into some positive PR, it is easy to imagine other scenarios in which petitions are simply wasting Government time. And even those that do not reach 10,000 have to be considered by the new Petitions Committee – potentially detracting from more serious issues.

The ease with which a petition can be created and signed may also encourage a rise in slacktivism and clicktivism. By e-signing a petition, a person may believe they have played their part and so no further action is required. This train of thought has pervaded much of the research undertaken by academics in internet and politics for some time. There is a fear that people will trade in physical, pro-active campaigning for a few clicks or a button. After all, it is far easier to do without feeling like you’ve done nothing – but it is also far less effective a method of advocacy. Arguably, the same could be said for traditional petitions, but the difference is that many of us still separate online presence from IRL. We might put less thought into signing something over the internet than we would with pen and paper.

Despite the issues, e-petitioning could still prove to be a very useful resource. It opens up the conversation, and by allowing information to be shared via social media, might encourage participation. Studies have suggested that we are more likely to engage with something a friend has posted online than from another source (albeit the online friend must also be an IRL friend, according to these same studies).

And while the occasional daft petition might come up, so might a stroke of genius. For example, among a list of Holyrood petitions deemed successful, one can find: reinstalling a railway to the Borders, clarifying grant guidelines for Historic Scotland, and protecting Wemyss Ancient Caves. Petitions can also trigger action from governments before they are officially taken forward – usually recognisably by a withdrawal.

This move online ought to be celebrated. At the very least, all petitions will receive some consideration by the Committee, and at best might trigger a debate, and real, tangible change. It is a step forward for both modernisation and democracy in an institution that holds old values dear and is often accused of not listening to the public between elections.


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