2017 General Election Diary Day 8: Some lights in the depths of the tunnel

I achieved something today. By not watching Prime Minister’s Questions at lunchtime, I’ve successfully avoided watching it for an entire Parliament, and I really don’t feel I’ve missed out at all. Now, can I manage to do the same for BBC Question Time if I hold out for the next few weeks?

We seem to be hitting a slight turning point in the election buildup as news turns from who’s not standing to who actually is going to be up for election in June. Having had a week to get themselves together, local branches of all parties are having selection meetings and putting candidates into place, with some former MPs rushing to get themselves back into Parliament. Esther McVey has rushed to fill George Osborne’s Tatton seat, which means that while he’s off to become editor of a newspaper despite having no experience in journalism, he’s being replaced as an MP by someone with journalistic qualifications and experience.

In further ironic replacements, after their former MP Zac Goldsmith quit the party over Heathrow expansion to stand in an ultimately futile self-inflicted by-election, Richmond Park Conservatives have tonight selected a Conservative Party member who’ll be committed to the party’s manifesto which includes Heathrow expansion. The new candidate, coincidentally also called Zac Goldsmith, and sharing a similar background to his predecessor, is clearly not the same person because that would be silly and there’s no way they’d select the man who not only forced them into an entirely pointless by-election but somehow contrived to lose it.

Oh, it turns out they have, and it’ll no doubt turn out he made a pledge not to stand if there was a snap election because all words are now completely meaningless.

Tenuous link news takes us from Richmond Park, where the Greens didn’t stand a candidate in the by-election and supported the Liberal Democrats instead, to Brighton Pavilion where local Liberal Democrat members have tonight decided that they won’t be standing a candidate so as to improve Caroline Lucas’s chances of re-election in the seat. Maybe, just maybe, this might indicate that the circular firing squad is lowering its weapons and realising that there might be a better way of doing things.

One last piece of non-selection news: David Ward is not the Lib Dem candidate for Bradford East. From what I’ve been able to piece together, it seems that a loophole in the rules made him eligible for selection and his local party took advantage of that, and a few discussions at party HQ found a way to close that loophole and kick him out again.

The floaty heads of electoral doom will not be seen this year.
In other news, Jeremy Corbyn has achieved something today in making sure that TV debates won’t happen for this election. If everyone but Theresa May was ready to turn up, they might well have gone ahead and empty-chaired her, but now he’s said he won’t attend if she doesn’t, he’s now taken away any pressure there was on her to attend as well as meaning that broadcasters won’t be rushing to arrange debates without both the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition. So, everyone can join in a slow handclap for the strategic geniuses who though that up.

And finally, we turn to Election Leaflet Of The Day…but there isn’t one. Sadly, the only leaflets to have gone up on the site today (despite me waiting until really late to do this post) have all been local election ones. It’s like calling a snap election when no one’s prepared for it and lots of people are focused on the local elections for the next week means there are few general election leaflets being delivered right now. If you do get one, then do make sure you upload it as right now there’s a good chance it’ll be featured here and it might be seen by dozens of people.

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.

Early morning thoughts after Richmond Park

richmondparkIn a year of waking up to so much bad news, today has finally brought some cheer to 2016 with the news that Sarah Olney has defeated Zac Goldsmith to become the new Liberal Democrat MP for Richmond Park. Congratulations to her and the team who delivered this result – yes, it was a winnable by-election, but it still had to be won, and that takes a lot of effort from a lot of people to achieve.

The #LibDemFightback takes a big step forward

This is a great result for the party – the first by-election gain since Dunfermline and West Fife over a decade ago – and a continuation of the trend from local council by-elections of big swings from Conservative to Liberal Democrat, especially in areas that voted Remain in June. It’ll give a massive boost to campaigners across the country, and will likely result in more media coverage and attention. It may even prove to be one of those by-elections that helps to kickstart a rise in the opinion polls as a result of the new focus and coverage. The result should give Tim Farron and the party a bigger platform, now it’s up them to use it.

Progressive alliances can work

Richmond Park offered us a sight not seen since the 80s: multiple party leaders campaigning for a single candidate. The decisions by the Greens and WEP to not stand candidates in favour of endorsing Sarah Olney were as welcome as they were unexpected, and the narrowness of the result (Olney’s majority is smaller than the Green vote in 2015) means they were very likely a critical factor. I’ve said before here that we need to find ways to work together, and this bold step will hopefully lead to a whole lot more. Caroline Lucas and Jon Bartley deserve a lot of praise for making this happen, and for facing down those in their party who were opposed to it. Hopefully, this is the start of something between the parties, not just a one-off.

The question of working together could be a key issue across a lot of parties over the next few months, and might prompt some interesting divisions and new alliances. We’ve seen Scottish politics shift massively over the last few years as independence and unionism become the two key poles of political competition, might the rest of the UK now follow suit and realign around pro-European and pro-Brexit poles? When a Tory MP is cheering on a Lib Dem by-election victory, the tectonic plates of British politics might just be shifting a little bit more.

Labour losing their deposit: all of this has happened before and will happen again

Labour’s vote share fell from double figures to just 3.7% and they lost their deposit. Surely, this must mean they’re going to be wiped out at the next election? Maybe, except exactly the same thing (right down to the 3.7%) happened in the 2000 Romsey by-election, and they did OK in the 2001 election, as I recall. They also slumped lower than that when the Lib Dems gained Newbury and Christchurch at by-elections, which didn’t harm Blair too much in 1997.

Yes, the circumstances are different, but this feels more like a good old fashioned tactical squeeze of the Labour vote rather than some Corbyn-related calamity. Anecdotal evidence from people campaigning in Richmond Park was reporting a big anti-Goldsmith switch from Labour voters, eager to punish him for his nasty campaign against Sadiq Khan in May. There’s not really much good news for Labour in this by-election, but the bad news isn’t as bad as some will make it out to be.

Elsewhere

meiI’ve written a piece for the Mile End Institute on the Richmond Park by-election and how it might change British politics. At some point I may write a generic companion piece to that and many other bits of writing by me and others on ‘why this event will cause few if any changes to the way things are’. But you can assume the content of that without me writing it, I’m sure.

Richmond Park: Don’t write off working with other parties

The AlternativeOne thing I wanted to write about after being at Lib Dem Conference in September were the fringe meetings about working with other parties. One was Caroline Lucas, Lisa Nandy and Chris Bowers, talking about their book The Alternative, while the other featured Lucas, Norman Lamb and Peter Kyle talking about similar issues as part of a Social Liberal Forum fringe.

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that the fringes didn’t result in a spontaneous desire to co-operate between the three parties, but I think they gave everyone there a decent amount of food for thought, and having read The Alternative since, it’s clear that people aren’t just thinking that shouting ‘progressive alliance!’ enough times will overcome all obstacles.

One line that’s stuck with me from the first meeting was something Lisa Nandy said: ‘we’ve all won fought and won lots of battles against each other, and while we were busy doing that, the Tories were winning the war.’ That’s what makes it especially interesting to see that she’s one of the Labour MPs who’ve called for the party to consider not standing a candidate in the Richmond Park by-election. Part of that comes from the rather odd situation of a by-election caused by an MP resigning to protest against Government policy only for the governing party to not stand a candidate against him. With the Tories having already left the field, it’s perhaps easier for Labour MPs to suggest their party does the same. (And according to this Guardian article, there’s a similar discussion going on in the Greens)

It’s an interesting idea, and perhaps a reflection of the interesting and febrile political times we’re living in that these suggestions have been made. It’s perhaps also a reflection that some people haven’t recognised this in the reaction I’ve seen from several Lib Dems online. There’s too much ‘we shouldn’t work with other parties’ and ‘those quotes will look good on the squeeze leaflets’ and not enough reflection on the possibilities that are opening up. Yes, if this was to happen, it might lead to the party having to make difficult decisions in the future, but if you want to change things you’re going to have to make difficult decisions and find ways to compromise with others. You can try glorious isolation in your idyllic world of never compromising, and maybe you can spend some time there mocking the Corbynistas for being naive about how to change things (it’ll stop both of you from looking in a mirror and making any discoveries about yourselves, anyway).

I stand by what I wrote back in July about similar reactions to the launch of MoreUnited:

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.

It’s fun to fight battles against each other, I admit that. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to win the war once in a while too, though?