The uncomfortable truth about party politics is that loyalty trumps morality

by Peter Watt

This week there was one story that depressed me more than any other.  It was actually quite a small story and you may well have missed it.  It involved Baroness Sayeeda Warsi and a referral to the City of London Police following various allegations in the national newspapers about her expenses.

Putting aside the actual allegations and whether or not the police should be involved, for me the really depressing part of the tale was actually an interview given on LBC 97.3 by the MP who referred the matter to the police, Karl Turner.

Karl was being interviewed on the James Whale show and you can hear the interview here.  Basically Karl appears to concede that, despite the matters being considered being serious and a non-party political issue, he would not have referred a Labour MP in the same situation.

Now I don’t know Karl and I am sure that he is an excellent MP.  But inadvertently he has allowed something to be raised in public that is a pretty uncomfortable truth about party politics.  Worse, it is something that most people involved in party politics will recognise and actually completely accept. In the words of Disraeli to errant MPs, “damn your principles!” and “stick to your party.”

All political parties make much of the fact that they “stand up for” people; that they are “working together” for the greater good.  All try and portray their positions as being in the national interest and of being a selfless pursuit of power that once achieved would give them opportunity to deliver for others.

To a very large extent of course this is true.  But there is another side; a side that allows things to become, well a little less balanced: namely that when push-comes-to-shove all that really matters is that my team wins.  Quite often this trumps the more altruistic elements of political motivation.

Just think about it for a minute.  If you knocked on a door and a non-registered voter said that they were a Tory would you offer to help get them registered?  Or would you help a housebound Tory voter to get a postal vote?

I would suspect that the answer to both of these for Labour activists is ‘no’ and that quite reasonably it would be argued that it is not Labour’s job to secure Tory votes.

But if we admitted that outside of the “political club” I wonder how that would look to the millions of people for whom the Disraeli instruction is not a part of their DNA?

Or what about making decisions on spending that particularly benefited Labour wards in the year before an election?  Again I am sure that this could be justified in that Labour wards tend to have a greater need anyway and a genuine belief that a Labour administration is in people’s best interest.

But again, if it is all fine why don’t politicians just admit that they do this?

They don’t because they know that people would be horrified if they thought that they were prioritising the spending of tax payers’ money on the basis of party need rather than actual necessity.  And it isn’t just Labour that does this – it is all parties.

It is the same principle that allows people to campaign for politicians from their own party even though they don’t actually agree with them.  Or even if they think that they are not actually the best person for the job.  Again the electorate would be horrified if they knew the extent to which politicians from all parties can justify to themselves standing up and saying “my leader is the best person for the job” and not meaning it.

In short politicians live by a slightly different moral code to everyone else.  To “what is right or wrong” needs to be added “and what is in the best interests of the party?”  But how far does it go?  What about decisions of national security, or the economy?  If it is OK to look the other way if one of your own is breaking the law then where does it stop?  I know that lots of Tories expressed outrage about what Karl Turner said but if they were honest then their outrage was forced, to say the least.

Because what Karl has inadvertently done is to lift the lid a little on the culture and attitudes of political parties generally.   Most activists, hearing Karl’s interview, would have agreed with him but would just rather he hadn’t said it.  There is an acceptance that loyalty to the party at all costs is a part of the price of being a member of the inner sanctum of the exclusive club.  And an unacknowledged acceptance that the public wouldn’t find all of the consequences of this very attractive.

The problem is that the public may well be catching on, and unless something changes then the decline of political parties will continue.  If that happens then it won’t be Karl Turner’s fault.  It will be all of us who knew that Disraeli’s instruction was simply not right for the politics of the early 21st century and chose to look the other way.

Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party

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10 Responses to “The uncomfortable truth about party politics is that loyalty trumps morality”

  1. Rallan says:

    “people would be horrified if they thought that they were prioritising the spending of tax payers’ money on the basis of party need”

    Too late. There is no “if” about it anymore. We have seen some dispicable abuses of power by Labour in government, including cynical and obvious attempts to permenantly subvert democracy itself.

    There is no way back for the main parties now. You cannot change, you are too tribal. Look how obvious your coverups and internal stitch-ups are. The internet allows the public to share and discuss your misdeeds. Yet despite knowing that everyone is watching you still go ahead and do it again and again! Do you somehow think it does not register with the electorate? That there are no long term consequences?

    The public see what you do and we increasingly loathe you for it more every day. Poll leads are misleading – UK democracy is now an unpleasant choice between different coloured turds.

    We don’t trust you, we don’t believe you and we basically don’t want you.

  2. I think the issue of ken in london was another case of ‘layalty over morality’. Here is someone who openly bashed rich jews, someone who doesn’t pay his taxs and someone who openly worked for Iran’s state broadcaster Press TV. In my view someone which we shouldn’t have backed.
    Also as someone he live in the east I also feel the party (apart from John denham and caroline flint ) is stuck in fighting battles in know it can easily win in the north and london )

  3. Ed says:

    I am not a voter for the big 3, but this article is truly excellent. There is huge distrust of the big parties and its no wonder why. They lie, cheat and steal their way to power. All the while telling people they have their interests at heart.

    Time to wake up, people!

  4. Writeangle says:

    In short politicians live by a slightly different moral code to everyone else. To “what is right or wrong” needs to be added “and what is in the best interests of the party?” But how far does it go?

    We already know how far it goes – self interest rules OK. Remember the expenses scandal? What about lobbying and the companies that rely on an incestuous association with government to be given billions. In return the public get little or nothing apart from a long term debt to be picked up by children and grandchildren

  5. Matthew J says:

    Well said!

    It’s a reflection of the nasty tribalism of party politics in the UK (which I’m sure is reflected elsewhere). Tories are rude about UKIPers, Labour activists hate the Tories, nobody likes the Libdems…

  6. Rallan says:

    The real game changer is the internet. That’s why Murdoch is becoming so much less relevant. The internet is an uncontrolled news source and it’s exposing these parasites.

    It was Labours misfortune to have it’s longest term in power coincide with the rise of the internet and the perfection of spin as a substitute for political integrity.

    Not only does the internet prevent editorial spin/suppression, but it also never forgets. All the political sins committed in the 21st century will float back to the surface again and again, no matter how hard politicians flush

  7. Anon E Mouse says:


    Bang on the money as usual.

    Any chance you can forward a copy of this article to the Labour Party leadership please….

  8. uglyfatbloke says:

    Excellent article – makes uncomfortable reading and that is a good thing. Tribalism has a place in political life; it is an inevitable priduct of party politics and we should recognise and accept that. Al the same, it has got dreadfully out of hand and we end up in situations where we leap to the defence if the indefensible. Attacking for sake of attacking is part of this as well; it is not unnatural but it can become ridiculous – Johann lamont’s perfoermance on Question Time last night was just awful – gratuitously negative and sometimes just plain wrong in her assertions.

  9. Malcolm Bush says:

    I not only agree with this article by Peter Watt; this sort of thing runs through my mind all the time. I sometimes feel that politics is entirely about winning the election, local election or whatever. I once knocked on a door whilst campaigning for coming elections; a very angry man open the door a conveyed basically the same thing. At the time I could not see importance of this words; now I can see it all clearly. Politics is like a horse race; it’s all about winning, if you win you have a quick cerebration and plan for the next race, what happens in-between is unimportant. There are some political figures however who fight for just about every good course; many are Labour, some are from other parties.

  10. Anon E Mouse says:

    Malcolm Bush

    Agreed. The best example of the final part of your post was Anne Widdecombe and Tony Banks on banning fox hunting.

    I know they were personal friends and stuff but even so they worked together brilliantly in the commons to succeed in the way they did.

    It’s just a shame more politicians can’t stop towing the party line and acting on behalf of the people they claim to represent…

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