For those of us who walked away from the Labour Party, unable to stomach the party’s failure to oppose Brexit and to deal with the institutional antisemitism that shows no sign of abating, that party’s period of reflection and long-running leadership election has provided little comfort. I have looked in vain for any sign that there is an understanding of why Labour lost so catastrophically; I do see a lot of trimming, a lot of excuses, and a determination for the sake of unity not to take a good hard look at what went wrong. I’ve already blogged about why I believe that there is no outcome to that leadership election that can save Labour; and Jess Phillips’ comments on bowing out of the leadership campaign seem to reinforce that view. She appeared to be saying that most of all Labour needs to be saved from itself; and until it wants to be saved – which it clearly doesn’t – it’s beyond help.
And it means that as Brexit – the biggest threat to our living standards, our freedoms, our environment, our health and NHS in recent history – is implemented, the principal party of opposition will be embarking on at best a period of navel-gazing or – more likely – a period of intense internal warfare. And this is Labour’s Brexit as much as Johnson’s; the reason why it is happening is because Corbyn’s Labour refused to work with Liberal Democrats and others in Parliament before the election. Labour is complicit not just in the fact of Brexit but in its undermining of democracy.
So, where do people like me – progressive people who have spent an exhausting three years opposing Brexit and trying to establish a rational political discourse in the face of populisms of the right and left – go?
Quietly, at the start of the General Election campaign, I joined the Liberal Democrats. This may seem like a quixotic thing to do for someone whose politics are on the progressive left; the scars of the coalition have not gone away. But, after the huge disappointment of the election campaign, I feel increasingly that this was the right thing to do.
The catalyst was my involvement in the campaign to stop Brexit. Eventually it was a campaign that was lost; although, as I have argued elsewhere, it has not gone away.
My starting point was that Brexit was never simply about whether or not Britain left the EU; it was about the conflict between liberal empirical progressive politics on the one hand and authoritarian populist politics on the other. It was based on that most disreputable of anti-democratic tropes, the claim that a corrupt, non-binding and marginally-won referendum was “the will of the people”. In the eyes of many people, it was about rolling back the social progress that is often caricatured as “political correctness gone mad”, which is really about respecting the rights of people who don’t conform to the speaker’s prejudices; and of course it was about immigration and racism. Not so much politics as full-on culture war; but a culture war in which Labour could not decide on which side it stood.
But, on the positive side, the movement that came together to oppose Brexit expressed a very different set of values; it was open, internationalist, rational. Its arguments were fact-based and reasoned, not splenetic expressions of prejudice or derived from the error that the 2016 referendum was an expression of democracy.
And, deep down, it was based on an understanding that the problems that caused the 2016 referendum defeat would not be solved, but exacerbated by Brexit; that people voted against the EU because the political system had failed them, but that those failures were wholly home-grown. It was a rational response.
And it was huge. A million people on the streets of London twice: six million signatures on a petition to revoke Article 50. But it was above all a grassroots movement (one that was in my view badly let down by the coalition of London-based organisations that claimed to speak for it); the biggest sustained grassroots movement that Britain has seen in modern times. It may have been caricatured by commentators like the egregious Owen Jones as “the longest Waitrose queue in history” but at its heart were values of civility, community and openness. Its language and methods were open, inclusive, positive, forward-looking. It aimed to secure a decent future, not indulge in nostalgic fantasies for a past that really never existed. This was what progressive politics looked like, and it was exhilarating.
The core values of the EU are set out in Article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty. In particular:
It shall combat social exclusion and discrimination, and shall promote social justice and protection, equality between women and men, solidarity between generations and protection of the rights of the child.
It shall contribute to peace, security, the sustainable development of the Earth, solidarity and mutual respect among peoples, free and fair trade, eradication of poverty and the protection of human rights, in particular the rights of the child, as well as to the strict observance and the development of international law, including respect for the principles of the United Nations Charter.
And it seems to me that those values are Liberal values: they are indistinguishable from the statement of values set out in the preamble to the Liberal Democrats’ constitution:
“The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full. We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity. We believe that the role of the state is to enable all citizens to attain these ideals, to contribute fully to their communities and to take part in the decisions which affect their lives.”
And, after those months of fighting to stop Brexit, I realised, not only that they were my values too, but that in the Corbyn years the Labour Party had walked away from those values; the crude statism of the Labour manifesto, the appalling antisemitism, the failure to oppose Brexit, its bogus claim to be the party of “the many” when so many of its key economic policies were basically bungs to the affluent middle class which made no difference to the lives of those in the greatest need, were no longer compatible with that. And above all the political methods of Corbyn’s Labour – what in my book I called its privileged hobbyism – stood in stark contradiction to that. You do not need to wade very deep into the sewer of Corbynist social media (Twitter especially) to understand that, or – as I have done – to see and hear the behaviour of Corbyn’s self-appointed outriders at meetings. Sometimes a political party is best defined by the nature of the discourse it regards as acceptable.
But the crucial point is a simple one that Labour missed, and which is responsible in part for its thrashing at the ballot box last December: that the political divide in Britain has changed – it is now between internationalist liberal progressives on the one hand, and populist English nationalist authoritarians on the other. And until Labour realises that it cannot straddle that divide – that it must choose one side or another – it will remain irrelevant. And the people who run the Labour Party now, the Corbynists, who operate according to a Leninist view of the world, are on the authoritarian side of that divide. Whatever the outcome of the current leadership election, I do not believe there is the slightest prospect of that changing.
So why the Liberal Democrats? After all, their election result was terrible too. And what about the coalition?
My own view is that the Liberal Democrats offer the last remaining party space in British politics where it is possible to argue for liberal progressive values; Labour used to but in the post-Corbyn era no longer does so. On the other hand, the Liberal Democrats’ basic value system is one where that debate can flourish; it is the natural home for the values that animated the anti-Brexit campaign, the biggest grassroots campaign that Britain has seen for decades. One condition of doing that is that it must repudiate the Coalition; a devastating mistake, and one which was brought about by its abandonment of its core values; the Liberal Democrats’ Corbynist moment. It has to acknowledge that, intellectually and philosophically, the Orange Bookers were entryists who based their position on what was a demonstrable lie: the claim that Labour overspent in office and trashed the economy. Liberal Democrats must remember that they are the party, not of Clegg and Laws, but of Beveridge and Keynes.
So it’s essential that the Liberal Democrats repudiate the Coalition: and that the next leader is someone who is untainted by it. Liberal Democrats must move into the progressive space vacated by Labour; and that means, among other things, being the unequivocal opponent of austerity that Labour has ruled itself out of being.
But what the Liberal Democrats do, most crucially offer, is a place where the grassroots opponents of Brexit can muster; a party that shares their – our – values and aspirations; a safe space where we can develop our internationalism, our progressivism, our opposition to populism, our determination to effect change without being denounced as Blairites, centrists, or whatever Owen Jones’ insult of the week might be. It is a place where we can get away from the constipated economic thinking that produced the last Labour manifesto and start addressing those issues that can only be dealt with internationally – like climate change. Brexit is happening, but we can start do develop and promote and alternative set of values that can move us back towards Europe when the sheer idiocy and destructiveness of Brexit become clear. It is a space where politics is untainted by the self-righteousness of people who claim in the same breath to be anti-racists and internationalists and at the same time promote a vile and institutional antisemitism.
Ultimately the political battle over the next few years is a continuation of the battle against Brexit; and that was a battle for liberal progressive values, for a type of politics that is democratic, inclusive, open; a politics that values people for the sake of their common humanity, not for the tribe to which they belong. In the age of Trump, Putin and Johnson we need to make a stand for truth-based democratic politics. Looking across the British party spectrum only the Liberal Democrats offer the space where that can happen.