Circular firing squads

Twenty four hours since Theresa May told us she wanted an election, and what have we seen? The Tories, and the right in general have all happily taken their place behind her, told us what a good idea this election is and happily picked up her authoritarian autocratic rhetoric and gleefully run with it. The S*n, forgetting Jo Cox entirely promises us a ‘Blue Murder’ of opposition MPs, while the Daily Mail adds a dash of Leninism to its blackshirt tendencies, telling us that it’s time to ‘crush the saboteurs’. (This is day one, remember, so who knows what depths they’ll have reached by the start of June)

Meanwhile, the disparate forces of the centre and left, surprised by the sudden call for an election, have realised it’s best to set aside their differences and focus on the common enemy, and I also have a bridge for sale that I’m sure you’d love to buy.

In a series of moves that will surprise absolutely no one with any experience of British politics, the centre and left have instead formed a series of circular firing squads because why should anyone worry about taking on the Conservative pitch for a bulletproof hard Brexit majority when there are more important fights to be won. And there are plenty of fights to be had, so everyone can pick their favourite hill to die on and wade in. Whether you want to have a go at the Lib Dems over the coalition and tuition fees, Jeremy Corbyn over his leadership abilities, Blairites for being the source of all evil in the world or the Greens, just apparently for the fact that they’re the Greens, all forms of partisan bickering are available for you to participate in. Yet again, we’re all having wonderfully enjoyable battles against each other, while the Conservatives survey the field from a distance, not even having to commit their troops in order to win the war.

There’s an election taking place in 50 days time, and maybe, just maybe, that might finally be enough to concentrate people’s minds on the bigger picture. We’ve seen time and time again how utterly terrible our electoral system is as parties with around 40% of the vote power to massive landslide majorities because the opposition is split. If we had a better electoral system we could be like other countries and have these ongoing battles and still combine our strength to win the war, but we don’t, and we’re never going to get one while the Tories remain in power and continue to rig the system to their own benefit. We have to find ways to work together, or we’re going to wake up on June 9th and have to deal with the aftermath of a catastrophic defeat for all of us. (Yes, fellow Lib Dems, even us, no matter how many seats we might win back)

But maybe there’s hope and perhaps we can take advantage of the weeks we have before candidates have to be named to try talking to each other and see where we might find we have enough in common, even if it’s just a common enemy, to work together. But please, let’s try talking to each other just this once, as shouting and arguing with each other clearly isn’t working.

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.

Stuck in the middle with who?

It’s been interesting watching the reaction from some to the Liberal Democrat victory in the Richmond Park by-election. One trend I’ve noticed is people (generally from the left) pointing out that Tim Farron hasn’t said that the party would never be in a coalition with the Tories again it means that the party is clearly just a bunch of evil Tories in disguise, can never be trusted and are somehow responsible for everything bad that has ever happened.

Now, while the interpretation might be a bit extreme, the basic fact is true in that Tim Farron hasn’t ruled out coalitions with anyone. (What he has done, however, is set out that any Lib Dem participation in coalition would be based on red lines like electoral reform without a referendum, that it’s hard to see the Tories agreeing to) However, there’s a reason for this, which is best illustrated by comparing his position to Paddy Ashdown’s back in 1992.

Back then, the party was well know for its policy of equidistance between the two main parties. Paddy’s Spitting Image appearances generally revolved around the phrase ‘neither one thing nor the other, but somewhere inbetween’, and polling showed that the public were pretty much evenly split on which party we were closest to. Then, a few weeks after the 1992 election Paddy gave a speech in Chard which declared a new strategic direction for the party. The party’s task for the next Parliament would be:

to create the force powerful enough to remove the Tories; to assemble the policies capable of sustaining a different government; and to draw together the forces in Britain which will bring change and reform.

That set the party on an explicitly anti-Tory path, which passed back and forth through various levels of co-operation and co-ordination with Labour, and eventually gave the party its best electoral performance in years at the 1997 election. (I’ve written a lot more about that here)

There’s plenty of people who would like to see Tim Farron make a similar declaration, but despite being from the left of the Liberal Democrats, he’s not in the same strategic position Ashdown was. For a start, Paddy was talking after thirteen years of Tory rule, which an unexpected election victory now threatened to make eighteen. That’s considerably longer than they’ve been in power now or will be by the time of the next election. Perhaps more importantly, Labour was in a completely different position. They’d just got 37% of the vote in the election under Neil Kinnock, who was about to be replaced by the very popular John Smith. Even though they’d lost the election, they were a credible alternative Government.

The problem Farron faces is that if he explicitly positions the party as anti-Tory, the immediate question from the media becomes ‘so you want Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister, do you?’ Labour in 2016 are simply not a credible alternative government in the way Labour of 1992-97 were, and the way our media frame politics as a binary choice mean Farron’s options are limited for the time being.

All that being said, Farron also has to be conscious of a much bigger opportunity than Ashdown ever had: a realignment of British politics. The referendum and its aftermath has shown up a division in our politics that could supplant the left-right cleavage as the main determinant of voter identification and electoral choice. If that sounds far-fetched, remember that there are already two parts of the UK – Northern Ireland and Scotland – where questions of identity and nationalism drive the political debate much more than economic. If the politics of England and Wales follow a similar path and Leave/Remain (or nationalist/internationalist or open/closed) becomes the main political division then which side of left/right the Liberal Democrats support becomes a moot point.

If that happens, then the important issues for the Liberal Democrats are how to organise and co-ordinate a whole new wing of politics, which is an entirely different mindset to operating a party in the centre of it. It also puts Labour into a whole new set of troubles, trying to straddle a division and hold itself together while forces within it are pulling it in vastly different directions.

Farron’s having to play coy on the ‘which side do you support?’ question right now because giving a definitive answer weakens the party’s position, but if things keep changing, it might not be him who gets asked that question in the future.