We don’t need an election – but a general defection

A week is a long time in politics. This has, I think, been the longest week I can remember. Rewind just seven days and we were waking up on that fateful polling day, with most Remain voters like me cautiously confident that we would pull through and that disaster would be averted.

Instead, political and economic chaos reigns. The Prime Minister has resigned and a Tory leadership election is well underway. All of the candidates would take the country to the right as well as out of the EU; the only question is whom you think would do it least horribly. Debating with Jeremy Cliffe of the Economist yesterday, he suggested that Theresa May would be better than Boris; Chris Terry, weighing in, advocated May’s ‘ruthless competence’ over Boris as an ‘unprincipled liar’.

I can’t personally look past May’s authoritarian record as Home Secretary (particularly on migration and surveillance), her obvious lack of interest in campaigning strongly for the Remain campaign, and her commitment to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights. Boris may have demonstrated that he is unprincipled, power-hungry and largely incompetent, but he should be made to lie in the bed of lies he helped create.

The benefit of a Boris leadership will be that two of the main Vote Leave figures – Johnson and Gove – are likely to be held responsible for whatever deal comes out of the Article 50 negotiations with the remaining 27 EU member states. As this deal now seems almost certain to be EEA membership with no concessions on freedom of movement, it is going to be disappointing in the extreme for large numbers of the 17 million Leave voters – probably the majority.

As I’ve written previously, the consequence of this will be a betrayal narrative whereby UKIP gains support, perhaps seizing a sizable chunk of those 17 million and adding to the nearly 4 million they won last year. The question will be whether they can turn this into electoral success. In this light, today’s news that Arron Banks – who has been Banksrolling both UKIP and Leave.EU – is considering setting up a new party is highly significant. UKIP’s problem so far has been spinning their growing, seething mass of resentment and protest into the pure green of Commons seats, and that’s largely because they’re incredibly ill-disciplined. It’s also because their one MP, Douglas Carswell, appears to disagree with Nigel Farage on everything other than EU membership itself.

Banks is wealthy enough and committed enough to see this transformation through, and when set against the referendum result, the rise in far-right activism (and racial abuse and violence), and the economic chaos that is going to envelop our country for years, the drumbeat of fascism is set to ring louder and louder in our ears.

So now we turn to look at the other casualty of the week just passed. The Labour Party is going through its death throes. Jeremy Corbyn and his small band of strong-willed acolytes appear to be hellbent on driving the party into the ground. It now seems clear that the leadership actively obstructed the Remain campaign, rather than simply soft-pedalling on its own activities. How complicit Corbyn himself was in this is unclear but he doesn’t seem to be able to control his own aides, particularly Seumas Milne. People talk about Corbyn having ‘delivered’ the Labour vote, but this has been contradicted by many senior Labour MPs including Sadiq Khan, who has said very clearly that in important areas Labour voters had no idea which way the party was facing.

Corbyn himself has since refused to resign even when 80% of his own MPs withdrew their support. When set against Cameron’s gracious and immediate resignation, this is an unprecedented, unjustified and deeply dishonourable decision. Meanwhile, he continues to put the support of Labour members – around 250,000 people – ahead of the voters who desperately need an effective opposition. And worst of all, his cabal appears to be threatening MPs with deselection in order to shore up his position.

But we can’t entirely let the Labour MPs off the hook. They acted quickly in the aftermath of the referendum campaign to try to jettison their leader. But they’ve somehow got into a situation where his position is untenable, but failed to identify a clear candidate to challenge him. It seems to me that this is because they know two things. Firstly, whoever challenges him may have an uphill battle to win over members. Secondly, even if they do win the leadership, they will have to try to reconcile the extreme disparity inherent in their party’s support.

In my view they are most likely to try to do this by moving on the migration issue – becoming even more anti-migration in an effort to keep their northern and Midlands heartlands from falling into UKIP’s lap. This fateful decision will make them unelectable in the more liberal constituencies; they may even find that their grip on London begins to loosen. Their unique selling point will have been lost both to UKIP, which will outflank them on rhetoric, and the Tories, who will continue to outflank them on competence.

It’s a gloomy story. Reading the commentary of pundits over the course of the past week, it’s also one for which very few people can see a happy ending. I will admit that I am more pessimistic about the state of British politics than I was even just last year, when my own party lost all but 8 of its 57 seats.

But there is a way back. And it isn’t through a hasty second referendum or a snap general election. People will need breathing space to think through the simplest way forward: the way that will allow a genuine opposition to develop, one that opposes both a national and international settlement characterised by insularity, fear and protectionism, but also promotes genuine cooperation, targeted redistribution of wealth, and a fair deal for local communities. Most of all, this opposition has to have a clear, coherent message to fight the resurgent racist nationalism that is currently enjoying open season.

This opposition can only be created within one party while the electoral system we have continues. And the only party currently capable of providing such an opposition is the Liberal Democrats. We are the only party that stands across the United Kingdom; the only party that has a clear policy on continuing EU membership; the only party with a leader who is not in the process of resigning.

So it is now incumbent on any MP (or indeed any member or activist) in any party who considers themselves generally humanitarian, internationalist, open to the world, pro-immigration, pro-trade, in favour of progressive taxation, moderate, anti-fascist – in short, liberal – to consider defecting to the Liberal Democrats. Ask yourself this question: what am I realistically going to achieve if I stay where I am?

If you’re in the Tories, your party is about to be captured – irrevocably – by either a crazy-haired clown who hides his racism and thuggery behind jaunty classicisms and changes his views more often than I change my socks, or a ruthless person who has used her years in the Home Office to make life hell for millions of workers and students and to threaten our way of life by insisting that we should all be monitored by a surveillance state so all-encompassing that it could teach the Stasi some new tricks. Neither of them appear to have any interest in Britain’s place in the world whatsoever.

If you’re in Labour it’s even worse. You’re led by the ultimate lame duck, someone whose authority is now so denuded that your party’s status as the official opposition was officially challenged today by the Scot Nats. He doesn’t appear to believe in politics at all and is forcing your MPs to hammer their heads and hearts repeatedly against a brick wall to no discernible purpose.

Now think about what it would say if you did make the switch. I know we are a very small party right now. But the benefits are very clear:

  1. It will give you a renewed, distinctive platform to articulate more clearly your views on the referendum and the negotiations that must now take place;
  2. It will give the Liberal Democrats another powerful and authoritative voice. At the moment we lack a large number of voices to make the case and our leader Tim Farron can only do so much;
  3. It will help to shift the conversation away from the current chaos engulfing your current parties, giving them time to regroup and ensuring that we do not miss the chance to nip racism and fascism in the bud;
  4. It will strike an important note of consensus and collaboration in a political system currently defined by division, suspicion and mistrust;
  5. Most of all, it will be a place of optimism and hope where you are welcomed, rather than a party dominated by suspicion, cruelty and often outright hostility between supposed colleagues.
We don’t need a general election straight away and in any case it now seems clear that one will not be called. Instead, we need a general defection, so that when the time comes – and it will, perhaps sooner than we think – we are prepared and able to stand up for the values that didn’t just define our political parties, but our country, for generations.

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