Should we hide in a bunker where we’re always right, or try and do things differently?

Sometimes, I wonder just how the various forms of the Right have become so dominant in our politics, and then sometimes I have days like yesterday that explain perfectly why they manage it. It’s not that they have the best ideas or anything like that, it’s that they know that the best way to build yourself back up when you’re in opposition is not to form a circular firing squad and commence sniping at each other.

Two things yesterday reminded me that liberals and the left are far too willing to form into a firing circle than they are to look around and realise there’s a much bigger fight going on. (I’m reminded of Lisa Nandy’s words about how we love to win battles against each other, while the Tories are busy fighting and winning the war) First, I spent the evening at the latest of the Mile End Institute’s ‘In Conversation With…’ series of events, this time featuring Diane Abbott. At one point, she was asked a question from a Labour member in the audience who was considering leaving the party to join the Liberal Democrats, and asking for a reason why. You won’t be surprised to learn that the answer featured ‘Clegg’, ‘coalition’, and ‘Cameron’ quite frequently but nothing about any post-2015 political issues. The message was that only Labour is any good, and there’s no point being a member of any other party.

Meanwhile, further around the well-armed circle, the New Statesman published this article in which various Labour and Liberal Democrat figures suggest that maybe if the non-Tory parties thought about making minor steps towards co-operation at some point in the future, it might help defeat the Tories in an election. (If only someone had written at length about the benefits of Lib Dem-Labour co-operation in defeating the Tories before) I’ve seen it posted in various corners of Lib Dem social media, where it’s been received by many people as though it was a skip full of radioactive donkey vomit. We’re the one true party, came the gold-tinged echo of Abbott’s comments, there’s no need for us to work with others, they should all come and join us.

And because this isn’t a new argument, here’s some desperation about in-fighting I wrote earlier:

We can sit around and wait for everyone to agree with us like we’ve done for most of the last century (a strategy of, at best, occasional and partial success) or we can get out there and try and find common ground we can build on. If we’re so convinced that that liberal arguments are correct, then why fear working with others when we should be able to persuade them to our way of thinking? Sure, it can be fun to sit around in a small group indulging in the narcissism of small differences, but maybe we’d be better off engaging with those we seek to dismiss and trying to persuade them to work with us and perhaps even getting them to agree with us? If we’re so convinced that they might be wrong on something, why not try and persuade them of that, instead of declaring them beyond the pale?

Let’s be prepared to reach out and play a role in building the common ground, instead of standing on the sidelines and complaining that we weren’t included when someone else builds it without us.

There was a time after the Richmond Park by-election where things were looking hopeful, and that we were actually taking baby steps to building more co-operation between the parties with the understanding that the looming threat of Brexit could be enough to break with the old ways and try something new. Instead, we’ve all just retreated into ‘we know best’ tribalism, shouting that it’s our way or the highway and forgetting all the lessons we could have learned before. That the Lib Dem leadership didn’t even make a pretence of talking to the Greens before declaring that we were going to fight the Manchester Gorton by-election in full force threw away all the goodwill from Richmond Park with a breathtaking flippancy. Everyone’s focused on the short term and manoeuvring for advantage against each other, eager to win the next series of little battles while completely ignoring the wider war going on about us.

And if you’ve read this far hoping for a solution, then I’m sorry to say I don’t have one, or at least an easy one, but maybe that’s the point. There’s no simple, easy, obvious solution to this problem because if there was, we’d have done it already. There’s only complicated, flawed, human solutions to it, that’ll be messy, that’ll delight some and anger others, that’ll collapse and need to be rebuilt before they can ever be put into action, that’ll need an awful lot of talking and negotiating and compromising before we can have a hope of using them. But they’re all we’ve got, unless we’re all happy to shut ourselves up in our isolated bunkers and not talk to anyone else, safe in the knowledge that we’re right and hoping that when it finally becomes time to crawl out of the bunker, we’ll have outlasted everyone else and there’ll be something left that was worth it.

I’d rather build something now, because maybe if we want to build a liberal society where everyone can get along despite all their differences, we ought to be able to build a political movement that embraces difference, rather than shouts it down.

10 thoughts on “Should we hide in a bunker where we’re always right, or try and do things differently?”

  1. As a Mancunian, I wish to respond to your comment:
    “That the Lib Dem leadership didn’t even make a pretence of talking to the Greens before declaring that we were going to fight the Manchester Gorton by-election in full force threw away all the goodwill from Richmond Park with a breathtaking flippancy.”.

    First, about the Greens:
    On the one hand, Greens won second place in Manchester Gorton in the 2015 General Election while the Lib Dem vote crashed, making Gorton a priority target for Greens this time round. Clearly the Greens would put up a candidate and campaign to win. Furthermore he Greens view Gorton as one of their most promising seats nationally.

    Now about the Lib Dems:
    On the other hand, Lib Dems won second place in Manchester Gorton in a string of earlier General Elections, making Gorton a target for Lib Dems in a by-election situation this time round. Clearly the Lib Dems would put up a candidate and campaign to win. Furthermore, the Lib Dems are on a roll in Manchester with clear signs of ongoing Lib Dem revival of activity and support across the city, and not least with a track record of winning a string of wards from Labour across Gorton not so long ago.

    Now about Labour:
    On paper, Manchester Gorton should be one of Labour’s safest seats in the country. However this is now in doubt due to national factors with Labour floundering in the opinion polls; local factors with Labour having bitter internal battles in Manchester; and the loss of the undoubtedly massive personal vote held by Labour’s MP.

    Finally about the clock:
    In a by-election situation, time is of the essence for contenders to have a chance of snatching a safe seat. Whosoever mobilises first, fast and strongly can build up an unstoppable momentum. Every hour is precious in such a situation.

    The harsh reality doubtless encouraged Lib Dems to mobilise swiftly, first and alone.

    Seeking co-operation between parties to defeat Conservatives has its merit, but this is one of the safest Labour seats in the country. This seat has been held by Labour since 1935, with large majorities exceeding 17% since 1979. The 2015 result made the seat the 8th safest of Labour’s 232 seats by percentage of majority when Greens came second.

    Nick, I’ll be going to Manchester Gorton several times next week, and hope to see you there. Yes, it is a long way from Colchester but…

    1. You ignore my point and so help to make my point: by focusing on the short term and ‘every hour is precious’ we miss the long term picture and ignore what might be achieved if parties work together. Yet again, it’s focusing on what’s important for the next battle and forgetting the wider context of the war. The Green leadership took a huge amount of flak from some of their membership for supporting us in Richmond Park and how do we repay them the next time there’s a by-election in a seat where they’ve done well? By ignoring them. How does that make future deals any easier to negotiate?

      “Nick, I’ll be going to Manchester Gorton several times next week, and hope to see you there. Yes, it is a long way from Colchester but…”

      First, fuck off with this ‘shut up and deliver leaflets’ bullshit. Second, you obviously haven’t noticed that we’ve got important county council elections going on here, which will have much more of a long-term impact on the residents I represent. Yet again, the by-election mania is making you miss the bigger picture.

  2. Hi Nick, best wishes with your ongoing Essex County Council election campaign, and I trust you will wish us the same in our ongoing Greater Manchester Mayoral campaign.

  3. The trouble with this discussion, from a Labour point of view, is that some of the forms of inter-party co-operation being canvassed (e.g. in that New Statesman piece) are aimed at helping Labour win, some at defeating Labour and some at splitting Labour. Hard to build trust in those circumstances – particularly if one believes that either defeating or splitting Labour would tend to benefit the Conservatives first and foremost.

    Personally I’m very much in favour of Labour working with rather than against the SNP – David Owen is talking sense in his old age – and I think we should bite the bullet and stand aside, or at least not campaign hard, in quite a few formerly-Liberal, never-Labour seats. (I remember working out at the time that the seats where the 2015 rise in the Labour vote was larger than the Tory majority over the Lib Dems were numerous enough to have cost Cameron his majority. We shouldn’t make that mistake again.) But this depends on the Lib Dems very decidedly not being ‘equidistant’ or ‘neither left nor right’; it depends on the LDs not only calling on Labour to stand down (e.g. Richmond Park) but being willing to stand down for Labour (e.g. Copeland); and it very definitely depends on consigning all these musings about ‘the SDP mark II’ to the museum of bad ideas. The main achievement of the SDP mark I was to keep the Tories in power for 15 years; why would anyone imagine that another attempt would get better results?

    1. On the Lib Dem-Labour switchers winning the election for the Tories factor, you might find this article interesting: I think a similar process was at work in 2010 – LD-Lab voter co-ordination from 97-05 brought about a lot of gains for both parties, and when LDs went back to more equidistance in 2010, some Labour voters drifted back, hence why a higher national LD share gave a lower number of seats.

      As for Labour now, the big roadblock to any working together is, and I know we’ll disagree on this, Corbyn. It’s not just his policies, it’s that he (and people around him, see the Abbott point in the post) are in that wing of Labour who have a Pavlovian response of spitting out ‘coalition! Tory enablers!’ whenever anyone mentions the Lib Dems and generally aren’t renowned for playing well with others. Add to that the general perspective from the LD point of view is that Labour under Corbyn aren’t going to be in a position to challenge at a general election, and the best long-term strategy isn’t ‘work with them’ but ‘pick up all the support they’re alienating and build forthe long-term to replace them.’

      1. I don’t know about you, but I still want the Tories to lose the next election (who wins, and by how much, is secondary; as a long-time advocate of PR I’ve never been that keen on overall majorities). A Labour victory in 2020 may be unrealistic, but a victory over the Tories *and* Labour is surely beyond belief. So it sounds as if your aversion to Corbyn is so strong that you’re willing to resign yourself to another five years of Theresa May.

        1. Latest poll today has Labour on 25% and Lib Dems on 11%, and combined that’s less than the Tories 43% (not even including the 11% for UKIP). Even adding in the Greens, Plaid and the SNP and you’re still at the point where even perfect electoral co-ordination probably isn’t going to beat the Tories.

          Yes, I want the Tories to lose the next election, and if you ask me to choose between May and Corbyn, I’d choose him to be PM…but I can name at least a dozen Labour MPs I’d rather see in that option instead of him. He’s not popular with the public, and election after election has shown that – he’s 18 points down in mid-term, losing seats in local government elections and projected to lose even more in May. To turn your point around, it sounds to me like your support for Corbyn is so strong you’re willing to resign yourself to another five years of Theresa May rather than admit that someone else might be a better choice for Labour leader right now.

          1. I’m not bothered about personalities; I’ve said more than once* that I’d be happy to see Corbyn stand down in favour of an agreed successor – somebody who could carry forward more or less his policy agenda (which is really pretty moderate by the Left’s historical standards) while seeming a bit more media-friendly and, hopefully, working the party apparatus harder. The trouble is finding the successor. For a decade now Labour’s centre-ground has been encamped somewhere off to the Right of Labour’s historical Right, while the historical Left hasn’t moved nearly as far** – so even the likes of Sadiq Khan or Andy Burnham are talking a different language from the current leadership, or a very large proportion of the current membership. Whether the old-school socialism of the Left of the party is harder to digest, for potential coalition partners, than the mishmash of managerialism and British nationalism currently being offered by the Right is another question.

            *Not necessarily in this comment box.
            **They definitely have moved, though; compare the scale of government involvement in the economy which the SDP was prepared to accept in 1983 with the level of privatisation that Corbyn’s Labour is prepared to accept now.

  4. I do want to see some broad co-operation on the left and among “drawbridge down” forces. One problem of course is that the two aren’t the same. But co-operation across parties would have to be based on a pro-equality and pro-liberty narrative.

    Imagine what fifteen years of Tory overall control would do to our diminishing democracy and our increasingly unfair and divided society. Also as a Social Liberal I’m still concerned about some trends in our party – much less concerned than I was with Nick Clegg and the coalition when we seemed determined to be moderately reasonable, moderately decent and extremely moderate – but the understandable huge concentration on the Europe issue will bring in people who share pro-Europeanism with us and not much else, while I note that the draft vision statement just sent out says nothing whatsoever about green issues and is coquettish about the reality that “opportunity for all” is impossible without a society much less unequal in terms of outcomes.

    However, there is much to do and much in the way. Jeremy Corbyn is not a credible Prime Minister and that will be a huge barrier. Any co-operation has to respect and engage people like me who do believe their party is vastly superior to the main alternative, Liberals who could never join Labour and Labourites who could – or should – never join the Liberal Democrats. That means understanding one another better, Lib Dems understanding what many Labour activists can’t stand about their party and (a much bigger ask since it gets so much less coverage in Compass and such places) Labour people understanding what is it about Labour that repels leftish Liberals. It means more discussion – including Greens and Plaid Cymru – on our approaches to issues and the nature of the issues (somewhere between basic principles and detailed policy). It means for the time being not aiming for an outcome beyond local agreement in a relatively few key seats where one non-right party is clearly the only challenger with a chance.

    1. Apologies this was only just published – it got caught in the spam trap for reasons I can’t explain.

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