There are increasing rumours that Jeremy Corbyn is about to come out in favour of a second referendum.
It is too little, too late.
Of course, Labour’s numbers are needed in Parliament to deliver the opportunity to go back to the people. However, A People’s Vote is not, for many of us, an end in and of itself. It is a means to an end, to remaining in the European Union. For many of us, too, Brexit is something else and more fundamental: it is a proxy for a debate about the kind of country we want to live in.
Do we want to live in a United Kingdom that is optimistic and tolerant, that is internationalist and a leader in the community of nations, that celebrates diversity, that champions small businesses and innovation? Do we want a country that wants to reform and strengthen our democratic institutions, and place tackling the climate and environmental challenges of our age and inter-generational fairness at the centre of our politics?
Or do we want to live in a country that wants to subordinate the rule of law to a nebulous concept of the popular will, framed by a past that never was, that indulges the election of representatives with the vilest of views on a divisive platform of isolation and victim-hood? That doesn’t care about the internal inconsistencies of Farage’s behaviour with his words, or this new force’s inherent lack of internal democracy, where otherwise reasonable people support the most unreasonable and objectionable policies, in support of an incoherent and undefined objective?
This is about world views. This is not about process.
However, process seems to be the singular obsession for the Labour Party. Just as it is still debating a People’s Vote, it is expelling Alistair Campbell for in exasperation supporting a party that clearly wants one, Jeremy Corbyn’s media outriders explaining why this is in line with process (though curiously silent on other, more awkward examples). And it is embroiled in a shameful investigation by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission into allegations of anti-Semitism about whether or not its processes were adequate and up to the job.
Just let that sink in. The EHCR has only investigated one other political party: the British National Party, the political repository for Britain’s fascists.
A People’s Vote, party expulsions, anti-Semitism failings, all of this shows a party that is so wrapped up in managing its internal contradictions that it has no energy left to focus on the absolute and immediate threat that the Brexit Party represents. Farage is propagating a world view, not simply a position on Brexit. He is framing a narrative of betrayal and victimhood, with Labour and the Conservative Party squarely in his sights.
This is the ugly, brutal war of identity politics that
no-one wants, but that everyone is going to have to fight. The local elections
and the European elections demonstrate that the Liberal Democrats are
One swallow doesn’t make a summer. Arguably, nor does two. However, these two sets of elections do bode well for a fundamental shift in the political weather for the Liberal Democrats, who are positioning themselves as the serious challenger to Farage’s world view. It is a stark contrast with a Labour Party that seems obsessed with the processes for managing its warring factions or containing – perhaps even defending – its more unpleasant tendencies.
We do not have time to let the mendacity of Farage take root and take hold of our politics. We do not have until the end of September for Labour to decide whether or not it backs a process to potentially enable a counter-view to Farage’s narrative to prevail. If Labour want to remain relevant, it needs to be the standard bearer for Remain’s world view now – not in four months’ time.
It needs to come out clearly and back not just a process, but a coherent view that can prevail over that of a party that is not seeking to negotiate or compromise with the rest of us, and that is appropriating the language of democracy in order to subvert it.
If Labour even had its hands on that standard, its broken fingers are being prised from the shaft by Remainers who are more than prepared to fight for the country they love – and the European identity that defines them – under the banner of the Liberal Democrats.
Tonight, we find out the results of the European Elections. Here in the UK, they will not be pretty.
Whilst we lumbered towards polling day, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party enduring daily humiliation on the national media as they alienated more and more of their base vote, Lewis Goodall spent time observing the phenomenon that is Nigel Farage and his political reincarnation as leader of the Brexit Party.
Goodall filmed his experiences, from the party’s inaugural rally
and throughout the campaign, for Sky News. It makes for chilling viewing and reveals
just how much our politics has changed, despite the fact that our two principal
protagonists have not. He revisited his arguments in this piece
for the Guardian:
Brexit now isn’t even his principal concern, its failure the mere embodiment of a wider malaise. Instead, the collapse of the Brexit process is proof of his new analysis: that British democracy does not work and does not even exist. Worse, that every organ of the state and political life, be it the parties, the media, the courts – parliamentary democracy itself – are malign and work against the interests of “the people”. Never before have we had a major political force that operates with that basic reflex.
I think he is right. This is a new politics and we ignore it at our peril.
“Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are.” ― Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince
This Farage is angrier. His politics is darker.
He is conscious he has been a figure of ridicule and now he
It is not a single decision around Brexit that is motivating him, but the destruction of our current politics and, along with it, the institutions that ensure a functioning liberal democracy in which debate and reflection and consideration predominate. He is aided by the catastrophic failure of the two main parties to use our democratic institutions to deal with the consequences of the 2016 referendum.
Those of us who know Farage to be a liar, who call out his
hypocrisy, his abuse of public funds and his complicity in the breaking of
electoral law, simply reinforce his victimhood narrative of betrayal.
We would say that, wouldn’t we? After all, aren’t we are
part of the establishment that has failed to deliver Brexit and that has
Think about the origins of this new politics.
The 2016 referendum forced a binary choice on people. It demanded people pick a side. What was not properly understood at the time by Remain, yet exploited brilliantly by Leave, was how that choice could serve as a summary of political grievance. Neither group is homogeneous and yet that experience has created a more durable identity than traditional party loyalties.
“A man who is used to acting in one way never changes; he must come to ruin when the times, in changing, no longer are in harmony with his ways.” ― Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince
On reflection, this should come as no surprise to us.
Our institutions of representative democracy are designed for iterative decision-making. For compromise. They are not designed to service the implementation of an advisory referendum as some bastardised version of direct democracy.
In 2015, David Cameron’s Conservative Party traded a long history of mastering the politics of pragmatism for short-term fixes to appease its own internal Euro-theological insurgency. As a consequence, it now risks schism, unable to contain its once-broad church in a single political entity.
The Labour Party has a similarly potentially catastrophic
faultline, between Brexit-inclined socialists and pragmatic, internationalist
social democrats, both claiming the heritage of a rich and diverse Labour movement
as their own.
The divisions in both parties have been driven by their respective leaderships attempting to address the results of the 2016 referendum, conscious that Leave ‘won’, and terrified of alienating those Leave supporters for whom their new identity is a better shorthand for their politics than their traditional party loyalties. Our existing party duopoly is proving unable to adapt on its own terms to the brutality of this new politics of identity and, simultaneously, maintain a steady political course using the traditional levers of democracy.
Amid this collapse in confidence and the resultant vacuum of
leadership, the Brexit Party has arrived.
In six short weeks, it has capitalised on the inertia of the
main political parties, advancing an identity politics that is powerful enough
to attract support despite the myriad accusations that, if true, should be more
damning of the political hypocrisy of Farage and friends than even of Boris or
Do not think this is just luck or happenstance. It is a deliberate
play to capture the political mainstream.
Think about Sam Holloway’s brilliant investigation
of the Brexit Party’s candidates on Medium. Or think about Byline’s forensic
examination of Farage’s PayPal finances, even before considering the
friendly £450,000 bung
from Aaron Banks.
Surely anyone alarmed at the state of our democracy would
run a mile from such charlatans. And yet, those who see their political
identity wrapped up in Brexit, and specifically the ‘betrayal’ of Leave, can
subordinate any such critical reflection to enthusiasm for an entity that
encapsulates their identity in a new political force that is single-minded and
invigorated with ruthless organisation, money and American-style campaign techniques.
Remainers complain about Farage’s airtime. I know I have. In truth, though, he has been on the battlefield, whereas May and Corbyn left it. Remain voices are fragmented and spread across smaller parties and locked inside – but apart from the leadership of – the Conservatives and Labour. His rallies, his talk of flags, of betrayal, all fuelling a betrayal myth and a sense of victimhood that gives permission to his supporters to shout ‘traitor’, should terrify us with its implications. He is marrying an old narrative to new techniques taken from Trump and Italy’s Five Star Movement.
And we should not be surprised that politics is now so much
So many of the causes we, as liberals, have championed have been based on self-expression, on providing space for people – rightly – to be who they wish, love who they wish, and act how they wish. That has provided space for others who feel their own identity threatened to congregate behind those who, in the end, are crooks, liars and hypocrites looking for a political opportunity to exploit. They have been offered a more appealing story, one that resonates with their sense of identity, and whilst we might hate it, that story is succeeding where ours is failing.
Crucially, the narrative Farage is creating is based on negatives that need not be proved and cannot be disproved: he is not justifying what has been done, he is pointing out what hasn’t and turning that into a simple and powerful political message.
Where does this culture war between two political identities
It could lead to the replacement of the Conservative Party by Farage’s Brexit Party, or its fundamental remoulding in its image. Neither are edifying prospects. The Conservative leadership candidates seem almost wholly seized of the need to tack towards the winds on which Farage sails, pitching themselves according to their preferred constituency of interest, but not challenging the course. What will that leave them to say to their Remain voters, who are inevitably younger and politically agile?
For Labour, in some ways the situation is worse.
Deputy Leader Tom Watson fears
a wipe out if they cannot agree on a People’s Vote. But this is no longer
about process or, ultimately, even Brexit. It is about what Brexit represents,
for our nation’s future, our children’s prospects, and the kind of politics we
want to characterise our country. It is not just their failure to commit to a
People’s Vote that risks consigning Labour to the sidelines, and ultimately to
history, it is Labour’s failure to commit to Remain, to continue to deny that this
is a very different political battle, where its protagonists cannot rely on the
weight of historical forces, but must harness the energy and anger of now.
So, there has to be a strong chance that one side in this culture war will be represented by either the Brexit Party or a Conservative Party that eventually adapts in an isolationist, nationalistic direction to survive. At the same time, Labour, obsessed with process, and riven by conflicts over ideological purity versus pragmatic politics, its factions determined to prove they are the genuine torchbearer of the Labour movement even at the risk of even greater disconnect with a tired and angry electorate, could find itself increasingly distrusted, irrelevant and incapable of representing the other.
Naturally, both Labour and the Conservatives will take their lessons from tonight’s results.
McDonnell began expectation management on Sophie Ridge this morning, acknowledging they were going to take a drubbing but that their approach was the right one, of appealing to both sides. That is to misunderstand the unpleasant dynamic of this political battle. It is a conflict between two different world views. One must prevail before healing and reconciliation can begin. To pretend it is not there is to patronise and disrespect an electorate that cares so much about it that voters are prepared to abandon long-held political identities to give voice to their view.
The Conservatives, similarly, have been managing expectations, talking up the possibility of being wiped out in these elections. Theresa May having failed to introduce the politics of compromise to a charged and binary debate, the Tories are now embroiled in a leadership contest which will see them tugged further and further to the right, desperate not to cede the mantle of Union Jack patriotism and the language of national self-determination to the cyan arrows of the Brexit Party.
“All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger (it’s impossible), but calculating risk and acting decisively. Make mistakes of ambition and not mistakes of sloth. Develop the strength to do bold things, not the strength to suffer.” ― Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince
Whatever the results prove to be, Liberal Democrats – and our
new leader, whoever that is – face a very difficult choice.
Our politics eschews the dangerous fundamentalism of
identity, whilst at the same time respecting the individual and the role of
community. We want to see a coming together, just at a point when our politics
has been framed as its most divisive. We prefer the rational politics of
discussion, negotiation and compromise to a language that uses the metaphors of
Despite my own instincts, I am coming around to the view
that we need to accept this new framing and not fight it, not in the short
term. Instead, if Labour and the Conservatives are so paralysed by their
inability to manage the complex competing interests within, the Liberal
Democrats must articulate the counter narrative in a simple way, whatever the
devastating effect on the traditional structure of our party politics.
The fact that our historic bases of support have been
destroyed is possibly – and ironically – our greatest asset. We cannot rest on
our laurels. They are being remade, in the local elections and the European
elections, in a fundamentally different way – not geographic, not rural or
urban, but amongst those who see Remain as a better expression of their
political values. Where there is latent support, in parts of the country that
retain a historic loyalty, it should bolster our reinvention, not define it.
“Some people seem to look at the issue the wrong way round –
they seem to think the first question is leave or remain, as if that is an end
in itself. I think they’re wrong. The first question is what kind of society do
we want to be?”
People are not
stupid. They have already asked themselves that question.
They have listened to politicians of all parties and they have
chosen the box that most accurately summarises their political identity. The
Conservative and Labour leaderships have accepted the result of the 2016
referendum unquestioningly. They have seen Brexit (whatever that is) as a
political destiny that must be fulfilled whatever the cost, whatever the
challenge. Then, in their failure to make clear offers to the 94% who have adopted
the labels of Leave and Remain, they have reaffirmed those labels as more
reliable political identities.
Of course, some have since reconsidered and feel they were lied to, or that the conduct since has been disrespectful to the result, so they have moved from one box into the other. But those boxes are there and remain strong – and perhaps even stronger than the way in which people previously shorthanded their politics.
Corbyn’s mistake is to believe he can simply disregard the
choices people have made and appeal above their heads in a way that enables him
to ignore the deep divisions in his own party and hope to move the agenda on.
He cannot. Because in doing so, he is not listening to and respecting the views
of people who are defining themselves by labels that represent fundamentally
different outlooks on the sort of country and world they wish to live in.
If the Liberal Democrats want to break open those boxes, as
our fundamental philosophical values dictate, if we want to bring our country
together, to return to a more rational and liberal public discourse, we need to
put ourselves in a position to drive that change.
That means not fighting the next General Election as if it is the previous one, as we sometimes do. It means not re-fighting the 2016 referendum. And it means not fighting the General Election we would like to fight, on a platform of complex, positive messages that seek compromise and healing, if that does not address the way voters see themselves.
It means fighting the next election for the election it is almost certain to be, on the appalling battlefield of binary identity politics. It means completing our transformation into being the ruthless opposition to Farage and becoming the point of congregation for all those whose values are best summarised by the identity of Remain. It means looking to the same techniques as those adopted by the Five Star Movement and even Trump, at least in terms of how to propagate a message and organise to win, if not content.
In doing so, it means working within a political framework
that reinforces binary politics. A House of Commons that services a government
and opposition, not a fragmentation on either side. A media that, schooled in such
parliamentary politics, struggles with anything more complicated than a discussion
between ‘for’ and ‘against’ without resorting to crass
and inadequate vox pops.
‘Bollocks to Brexit’ is an encouraging start.
Some have decried it as vulgar, a contribution to the coarsening
of our politics. However, it is everything that statement stands for that
matters. Its adoption by people who would not normally use such language, but
who fear a world that is positive, internationalist, respects and protects the institutions
of liberal democracy, is determined to combat climate change, is
intergenerationally fair, and thrives on technological innovation and
small-scale entrepreneurship rather than corporate behemoths, is under serious
Our challenge will be ensuring that, in leading with such a
sharp edge, the messaging head does not become detached from the body of values
behind. We should never resort to the lies of Farage. We should also show a
measure of respect for the supporters of our opponents that we can expect not
to be returned.
However, it also means prosecuting the case on behalf of
those millions of people who believe in a positive, open future for Britain without
apology or equivocation, confidently, and knowing that the only way to rebuild
our political system is to use this moment to own it and subvert it.
We need to harness the anger and fear of Remain to drive a positive vision of the United Kingdom, that tells an exciting story about who we are. A story that, ironically, is more in touch with our historic values than anything offered by Farage and that might just signpost a way to a kinder, gentler politics.