The tribes they are a-changing

In the past, Labour and the Tories could rely on legions of loyal supporters in their traditional heartlands. But now the electoral bedrock is starting to erode. How will the parties cope, asks Peter Popham

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Once a symbol of the potency of tribalism in British politics, Merthyr Tydfil has changed. Its past is crimson with the glory of radical dissent. Industrial to its fingertips, its economy founded on iron and coal, it was the first town in Wales to produce a working-class movement and leadership. One of Trollope's genteel curates fainted on hearing that he was to be posted to the town. Here, in 1831, the leaders of a violent insurrection slaughtered a calf and soaked their flag in its blood and impaled a loaf of bread on the flagstaff and marched against the government's troops, bearing it. It is claimed that this was the first time a red flag was employed in Britain as a symbol of revolt. The Welshman hanged in Cardiff Gaol later that year for his part in the uprising, Idic Penderyn, is commemorated by a stone in the wall of the town library: "A martyr of the Welsh working class."

In the closing stages of this election campaign, the word "tribe" is much on the party leaders' lips. No one is in any doubt that tribes and tribalism are a bad thing. Tony Blair tells The Times that he promises to offer "a fresh start in politics which will not be tribal". Paddy Ashdown says that his "passion" is "to destroy the destructive tribalism in British politics". Tribalism, it is implied, is the primitive, superstitious element in politics which all good modernisers would gladly banish.

But as usual, they mean rather less than they say. Marginals and floaters doubtless deserve all the furious wooing they have been getting. But without the voting tribes of Britain, the polling booth fodder, the masses on whom they depend without a backward glance, where would our two main parties be?

Where would Labour be, for example, without seats like Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney? They would be nowhere: the 1992 majority of Ted Rowlands, the sitting member, was more than 26,000. So secure is Merthyr and dozens of industrial seats like it that they can be ignored. And the only revenge they can take, in the absence of anyone else to vote for, is to return the snub.

Five candidates are standing in the election here, including the only candidate in the country to trade under the name of Old Labour. But though the sitting MP's agent claims to have spotted more than 380 Labour posters stuck up around the constituency, the great majority had evidently been taken down by the time I did my rounds the other day. I found a total of four. The scruffy industrial town, planted like a cheap brooch in the glorious Welsh hills, was busy finding other distractions.

Like bingo, for example. At Castle Leisure's new bingo hall at the bottom of the town, a local woman won pounds 106,000 on the roll-over prize recently. A fortnight later another woman won pounds 102,000, and what was more sensational was that she had borrowed the money to play with on the way in! Understandably, Castle Leisure Bingo is the talk of the town, and it's packed out every night. If you're hungry, chips cost 20p.

Mammon has arrived in this, the deepest, reddest heartland of British socialism, and he seems inclined to stay. The newsagent who is giving me a lift to the home of Alan Cowdell, Old Labour candidate in the election, stops his car and points across the valley. See that old black building in the distance? That's where the new Sainsbury's is going. There's a leisure centre planned for nearby. The essence of the old valleys, part of the source of their pride and desperation, was that they were dead ends, culminating in gorse and pasture and scree. Now a new road links them, riding the crest of the hills, and right at the top, beyond the sign that says "Merthyr Tydfil - Vision for the Future", there is an ungainly congress of warehouses (Asda, MFI, etc), plus a petrol station and a McDonald's: civilisation as we know it.

It is not all that long ago that the romance of places like Merthyr was gorged upon by Labour politicians. "What is it that South Wales ... has got which others haven't?" asked Michael Foot after winning Ebbw Vale in 1960, part of which constituency is now included in Merthyr Tydfil's. "The short answer is that the people of industrial Wales are proud of their working-class tradition, proud of their working-class achievement, and still as proud as ever of being working- class." Were such views ever more than middle-class sentimentality? If they were, today the de-industrialising of the valleys and the accompanying collapse in self-esteem have dissolved them in confusion.

Alan Cowdell will serve as a fair symbol of that confusion. An electrician who used to work down the mines but is now disabled with a back injury, he lives in a tiny house at the top of the town which he shares with his wife and four or five large, formerly stray, dogs. From afar, Mr Cowdell looks like a revival of the old spirit of Merthyr in the teeth of Blairite disdain. "Today you can elect an Old Labour Socialist," says his campaign leaflet, "or you can be taken for granted by TORY BLAIR! New Labour = New Tory."

You don't have to get very close, however, before the image starts to break up. Though he says that he is a life-long socialist, Mr Cowdell's claim to represent Old Labour is impaired by the fact that he has never actually been a member of the party. His candidacy, he admits, was "a spur-of-the-moment thing" - provoked by what he felt to be contemptuous treatment from the sitting MP when he took a personal problem to him. "I've never been a card-carrying Labour man," he says. "I went to see Neil Kinnock speaking once and I saw right through him. The Labour Party is a corrupt organisation, as corrupt as the Conservative Party. Corruption and nepotism have been endemic in the Labour Party for years, and today it's worse than ever."

Mr Cowdell's spur-of-the-minute manifesto includes "capital punishment for murderers, clinical castration for rapists and paedophiles ..." Less controversially, he advocates a "return to full employment". But perhaps the best proof of his socialist credentials is that he tried to get his election deposit paid for by Social Security. They turned him down. "Parliament expects the votes of poverty-ridden people," he declares indignantly, "but denies them the right to stand!"

"You'd have been better off applying for a job-seeker's allowance," says his wife.

It's safe to assume that, out of friendship or sympathy or confusion, Alan Cowdell will pick up a few hundred votes tomorrow. And Ted Rowlands will be back with another socking majority. And apart from that reliable reflex of loyalty to the tribe, few of Labour's loyalists will be able to tell you exactly why.

Reigate in Surrey is as different as possible from Merthyr Tydfil, but it is another constituency where tribal loyalty is beginning to look anachronistic. And here, perhaps, it is truly beginning to unravel.

Historically, the Tories are a more successful tribe than Labour, perhaps because no intellectual acrobatics are required for them to absorb people of different incomes, classes or levels of attainment: given a steely belief in self-improvement, respectability and convention, just about anyone can belong. Eavesdrop on the chatter of the party faithful before a campaign rally and one quickly understands that under the pink perms and navy blazers this is a coalition of classes. But the class lines remain, and lend the tribe a dangerous fragility. It is the issue of Europe that is now splitting the tribe into pieces.

In Reigate, the question of what size the pieces are going to be will be settled tomorrow. Sir George Gardiner, Reigate's Tory MP for the past 23 years, had a majority of nearly 17,000 in 1992, but in February he was deselected by a meeting of his constituency party for his Euro-scepticism and disloyalty to John Major (he called him a ventriloquist's dummy - Gardiner claims to have been the first to introduce the now-famous dummy into the European debate). Gardiner responded by quitting the Tories for the Referendum Party, standing as candidate for Reigate.

Last Friday and Saturday he was to be found out and about in the town in the company of a donkey. His successor as Tory candidate, Crispin Blunt, had made the error of telling the selection committee: "You could put up a donkey as the Conservative candidate for Reigate and it would win." This was Gardiner's way of capitalising on Blunt's mistake. It was also his way of defying the Tories' belief that Reigate will continue to behave tribally, whatever the worries about Europe. Although the Tories' disagreement over Europe is on policy, according to Sir George its manifestation is social. "The toffee-nosed tendency demands loyalty to the party line," he told me when I finally managed to separate him from the donkey. What exactly did he mean by "toffee-nosed"? "They are concentrated in the northern part of the borough," he explained. "The well-to-do people, the so-called Chipstead Mafia, the people who live in Walton on the Hill next to the golf club - a lot of the agitation against me has been cooked up at the 19th hole. It all becomes clear when you fly over the constituency - these are the parts with lots of swimming pools.

"Some are very strong pro-Europeans; others just thought I wasn't up to it socially. They complained that I wasn't very good-looking, that I wasn't good at tea parties. Some of these people are very inward-looking. There are parts of Reigate where they say you have to have lived there for 20 years to be accepted."

Snobbish attitudes such as these sound quintessentially Tory; and if Sir George is right and the pro-Europeans are "very much a rump in the party", then the tribalism of the Tories will indeed have been exploded into smithereens. The result of tomorrow's poll will tell us whether this is the most drastic event to befall Toryism since the Corn Laws, or not.

Tribalism sounds like the sort of antique commodity that should rightly be banished from the politics of a modern nation. But if the Tories lose, it will be largely because tribal cohesion has collapsed in the face of policy dissent

But Tony Blair has few grounds to be complacent. The bedrock of his support remains a tribalism quite as primitive as that which the Tories have built on. It survives chiefly for lack of plausible alternatives. In Merthyr Tydfil, Labour's only challenger for the tribal vote is a whimsical lightweight. Next time around, Labour might not be so lucky.

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