by Stephen Tall on July 12, 2016
In happier, boringer days I once wrote: ‘election results are usually a lot more dull than the speculation which precedes them’. With that kind of prophetic insight, it’s little wonder I ended up running naked down Whitehall.
The Lib Dem collapse, the SNP surge, Jeremy Corbyn’s triumph, Brexit: I predicted none of it because I assumed business as usual would, well, continue as usual.
So I hesitate even to try and imagine what might now happen to Labour, with Corbyn confirmed in his incumbent place on the leadership ballot. It seems likely he will win again. If he does that poses big questions for the 172+ Labour MPs who no-conned him last week.
Can they seriously continue to sit on the benches behind him? If they do, how can they possibly fight an election urging the public to vote for Corbyn as PM? If they don’t, do they go for the nuclear option (an apt choice for Labour moderates fighting the hard-left) and set up a new centre-left party, Progressive Labour, and elect someone plausible as Leader of the Opposition?
I know what would have happened in the old, happy, boring realm of politics: nothing much. New parties go up like rockets and fall like sticks, sage commentators agree. I’ve already seen folk dismiss the chance of a new Labour party as a dead-cert failure “like the SDP was” — seemingly forgetting that the SDP won in the end, it’s just that it was called New Labour.
The political space clearly exists currently, though the signs are that Theresa May has every intention of closing it down. Which means sensible Labour needs to act now if it’s to stand a chance.
But the first step is not to break away. It is simpler than that. Moderate Labour MPs need to choose a leader who can inspire, help him/her put together a post-Brexit platform rooted in progressive values, and stand against Corbyn to fight for it.
They’ll probably still lose, just as the Gang of Four felt they had in 1981. But at least they’ll go down with their heads held high — and, more importantly, demonstrate they’re willing to stand up for their beliefs. They’ll feel a whole lot better doing that than spending the next three months devising the question to which Angela Eagle is the answer.
by Stephen Tall on July 12, 2016
Politics isn’t just fluid, it’s runny.
A couple of weeks ago, I almost took the time and trouble to write a ‘Boris v Theresa’ piece – just as well I didn’t, as it also would’ve ended up spiked by Michael Gove’s knife. I think what I thought then, though to be honest it’s hard to keep track, is that, for completeness’ sake, it should be Boris on the “you break it, you own it” principle; but, for the nation’s sake, it had to be Theresa, the only plausible candidate you’d actually trust not to entirely flunk negotiations and accidentally give away Wales when facing Angela Merkel.
Well, now we do indeed have our very own Mutti. The Brexiteers, who’ve perfected the quitters’ aptitude for utterly shameless irresponsibility, have fled the scene of their crime. The grown-ups are back in charge.
I guess the dream Lib Dem scenario was the triumph of Angela Leadsom, whose epic unsuitability for major league politics, let alone Number 10, was exposed within days of her rise without trace. The spectre of her versus Jeremy Corbyn (whose claims to infamy can now also include a level of sub-Leadsom self-awareness that failing to have the confidence of three-quarters of your work colleagues is actually a bit of a problem) might well have driven moderate voters into my party’s grateful embrace.
But, to be honest, my heart was never in it. Some things are bigger than tribes, and the imminent self-immolation of our economy is sufficient, for the first time, to make me grateful the Tories have re-discovered their ruthless determination to grip power tight by choosing the one leader they have capable of resolving this huge Brexit mess of their own making.
Gone, then, is the brief chimera of a new ‘Free Liberals’ centre party embracing the sensibly pragmatic parts of the Tories and Labour alongside the Lib Dems. Theresa May may be many things — authoritarian, anti-immigrant, centralising — but she is not an extremist. Indeed, she has already made a plausible land-grab for moderate Labour votes by swearing fealty to Milibandism’s vague notions of industrial democracy. If she does backtrack on her promise not to go to the country in the autumn to establish her own mandate, it’s quite likely the Tories coasting on a May honeymoon would win a landslide majority against a terminally split Labour party.
So what as a Lib Dem do I want to see, other than the schadenfreude of public opinion accepting that what the Lib Dems did in Coalition, 2010-15, was a near-remarkable salvage job which thwarted Tory-led disaster until the voters ungratefully tossed it away?
Well, what I’d like to see is the triumph of the liberal mainstream – as I described it last summer:
… to put it another way, that the party should remain committed to ‘a stronger economy and a fairer society’. Partly because it is a belief which genuinely springs from the party’s philosophy. And partly because it is precisely our liberal, rational, pragmatic, flexible, grown-up, balanced, centrist (yes, the C-word!) disposition which gives us the voters’ permission to get a hearing on those outlier enthusiasms which drive many of us activists — wealth and land taxes, civil liberties, drugs legalisation, the EU, environmental sustainability, localism, immigration, prisoner rehabilitation, constitutional reform — but about which the voters tend to be at best lukewarm.
The temptation for the party is, however, pulling it in the opposite direction: to assert dogmatic positions which at least offer the possibility of building a core base of support (understandable enough if you’re polling 8 per cent on a good day). Thus we lay claim to be ‘the voice of the 48%’ — as if, in any way, those 16 million voters are a unified bloc rather than a loose collection of groupings spanning a range of enthusiasm which were persuaded to vote Remain.
It’s a canny enough electoral tactic — witness the 15,000 new party members who’ve rallied to the cause — though I’m a lot less convinced by a strategy which pledges a British return to the EU at the next general election. Not least because, assuming Article 50 has been triggered and seen through by then, our only route back into the EU is likely to be on terms no party would wish to put to the electorate: joining the Euro, return to full freedom of movement, budget contributions that might, actually, this time be at the NHS’s expense.
That, I can only guess, has been reckoned to be a problem for another day. Until then, if you want a party of EU-fetishists, we’re your guys. It’s a USP, for sure, just not one that floats my boat.
Perhaps whatever new SDP Mk II which rises from the ashes of Corbyn’s scorched earth Labour leadership might offer a rallying point, as well as some tempering restraint; just as its original incarnation did to some of the more, erm, idealistic Liberal party policies in the 1980s. But, overall, that decade isn’t one many progressives want to see on a political tape-loop.
by Stephen Tall on July 8, 2016
Honestly, I’ve not known what to write this past fortnight: so much things to say.
But, then, so’s everyone else. I was at a big dinner last night in the Remain stronghold of Oxford (numerous ‘in’ posters, and even a pristine EU flag, still defiantly displayed), saying farewell to my old boss, Tim Gardam, principal of St Anne’s. Lots of people I knew, but hadn’t seen in some time, which is usually the cue for amiably redundant small-talk.
Yet, without exception, the conversation turned immediately to Brexit and their wretched dismay. Of course if Leave had won, plenty of their voters would also have been despondent; but they at least would have taken solace in gallant defeat.
For those of us who voted Remain — the majority of working Britain — there is instead just grim dejection. The 23rd June represented a rupture: not just from an institution which, however imperfect, has helped bind together the UK with our neighbours; but also from our fellow citizens.
Suddenly those of us who would regard ourselves as non-judgemental cannot help ourselves: we know that Leavers walk among us – they must do, they won – and we start instantly sizing up total strangers, wondering if they can be ‘one of them’ based on nothing more than crude stereotyping.
It’s not pretty, I know. But I can’t apologise, I’m afraid: if you voted Leave you’re diminished in my eyes.
Because for me it’s personal. My partner is Spanish. She first came to England on an Erasmus scholarship. She later returned to work as a teaching assistant in Oxford, where we met. In a parallel Brexit universe we would never have got together. In the Brexit universe to come, we will have to queue separately in the airport, she with our son who (thankfully) also has a Spanish passport. She wasn’t surprised by the result – she’s endured enough xenophobic backchat over the years, experienced a side of our nation I haven’t.
I know, of course I know, that plenty of Leave voters (and certainly not those of you I know personally) did not do so out of spite. There were valid reasons for voting to leave the EU — its remoteness, indirect accountability, over-reach — I’ve even said (and I meant it) that I could imagine doing so myself.
But, then, I also explained why I knew in the end I couldn’t: because of whose team it would place me on: Farage, Galloway, Trump. For every person motivated solely by the respectable principle of sovereignty, who simply wants to ensure the UK parliament makes our laws, there was at least another one who just wants to see those bloody foreigners sent packing. And in the end your votes counted equally for the same side.
Unfair? The decent Leavers, and I know there are lots of you, will say yes. But this is how it feels for we Remainers who were defeated. We didn’t just lose an intellectual argument; we lost a slice of who we are.
When he’s older I’ll have to explain to my son why we voted to leave the EU. Perhaps by then everything will be sorted. Once the high emotions of the last couple of weeks have subsided, Theresa May will patch together an agreement with Angela Merkel, and there will be some limited restrictions of free movement in return for the UK retaining access to the single market. It’ll all be sensible enough and we’ll muddle along okay.
But I know, you know and he’ll know that’s not what motivated 17 million to vote Leave on the highest turnout in a generation. For a lot of those people — I don’t know how many, none of us does — it was simply that they didn’t want more immigrants, people like his mother, in this country.
I’m not sure how he’ll take that. I’m still shocked by it. The depressing thing is: I don’t think he will be.