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 wants vengeance.
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 betrayed democracy?
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 McDonnell.
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 about identity.
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 lead?
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 conflict.
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.
Corbyn’s analysis of Brexit is wrong. In a speech before the European Elections he said:
“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 threat.
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.