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.

Diane Abbott and Professor Philip Cowley at the Mile End Institute

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.

(original version here)

Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Councillor. Ran the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.

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