Category Archives: politics and life

George McFly from Back to the Future, with a "kick me" sign on his back.

“Ballots, butts and Battlestar Galactica” – ten years on from the AV referendum

Tomorrow marks the 10th anniversary of the AV referendum, and I felt I should mark the date somehow. For me, the AV referendum was the event that finally broke me, in terms of my political career. It’s possible that if I hadn’t had such an awful experience being involved in Yes to Fairer Votes I would have burned out and quit anyway, but it wasn’t so much the straw that broke the camel’s back as it was the wrecking ball.

It’s a date which has been largely ignored, save for a single a documentary on Radio 4’s Archive series by Chris Mason. You can read my own contemporary account of what happened in my article for Liberator Magazine (issue 346) and my follow up review of Don’t Take No For An Answer by Ken Ritchie and Lewis Baston. I don’t especially recognise the person who wrote those articles; my life is very different now. After quitting the Lib Dems in 2012 and taking voluntary redundancy from Unlock Democracy in 2013, I had a breakdown, went through a period of long term depression and finally found myself in my current career, selling tabletop games in my local game shop. I’ve occasionally dipped a toe back into politics and campaigning since, but it hasn’t stuck and, if anything, merely served to remind me that I’m better off out of it.

But I do have a few observations about the whole affair, which I thought I would try to summarise here.

1. I should never have been anywhere near the campaign

Back in February 2010, at a time when I was writing regular pieces for the Guardian’s website, I wrote the following:

Very few people who think AV would be an improvement are actually passionate about it, so who will fight the campaign for a “yes” vote? 

It’s a good article and, unlike a number of the articles I wrote afterwards attempting to roll my position back, I stand by it. Nick Clegg famously described AV as “a miserable little compromise” and on this, I Agree With Nick. The problem was, I found myself shortly thereafter tasked with the job of helping to actually win a referendum campaign for AV.

One thing that quickly became apparent, as mentioned by Clegg in the Mason broadcast, was that none of the keen proponents for AV, particularly some of the loudest voices within Labour, were anywhere to be seen when the referendum kicked off. The Electoral Reform Society, which had done much to lay out the groundwork for persuading Labour to back the adoption of AV as a manifesto promise in 2010, found itself in the midst of a power struggle when the director at the time, Ken Ritchie, was in the process of being eased out of the organisation. The only people willing to spend the best part of a year working long, thankless hours in an attempt to achieve this minor reform, were people who would have preferred something more. Again in the Mason program, Nick Tyrone is very keen to put the boot in here and dismiss these activists as “comic con types” (Tyrone appears to think he’s living in an early 80s teen sex comedy in which he gets to be a jock laughing at the nerds, about which more later), but these were literally the only people willing to do the work, more often than not unpaid.

We knew this was a strategic problem for the campaign. The question therefore remains: why did the Lib Dems make a referendum on AV a key sticking point in the coalition negotiations? You could be forgiven for thinking, based on Clegg’s interview in the Mason programme, that he viewed it as a way of fobbing off the activists so he could get on with the Important Work of governing with the Conservatives, and set us up to fail. You will have to make your own mind up about that. Nevertheless, as he acknowledges, it would go on to poison the coalition well and undermine his work subsequently.

Either way, it wasn’t a campaign that I should have been involved with. It’s not that feel I screwed up the job before me as the social media manager, just that I contributed to the accusation that the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign was dominated by hypocrites who didn’t want AV either.

My personal problem was that in order to not be involved, I would have had to quit my job at Unlock Democracy. Alternatively, if Unlock Democracy had taken the brave decision to stand by and let the other organisations get on with it, it would have almost certainly lead to it losing its funding from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust (a point which had been made to us obliquely on more than one occasion). In the event, by 2013, JRRT chose to withdraw funding and as a result I was made refundant. Hindsight is a beautiful thing, but if I’d had my time again, I sorely wish I had leapt before I was effectively pushed out.

2. No-one ever talked to me about the EU referendum

It’s hard to disagree with Chris Mason’s opinion that this “forgotten referendum” was a dress rehearsal for what was to come in the form of the EU referendum five years later. What I found interesting was quite how quickly it was forgotten. In the immediate aftermath, I remember there being a lot of talk about political reformers and politicians needing to learn the lessons from the disastrous campaign so as to never repeat the same mistakes. I remember the ERS commissioning a group of academics to produce a report which I was interviewed for, although I’ve never seen this report.

It was genuinely surprising to me that in the run up to the EU referendum, no-one from the Remain campaign ever approached me about my thoughts on what they should and should not do. Perhaps this is ego talking, but I’m not aware of anyone in the campaign being approached.

It seemed remarkable to me that no-one seemed to think they had anything to learn from us. But then, if I was a Cameron-supporting, pro-Remain Tory who had been on the No to AV side and was aware of what a brutally effective campaign that had been, I would have moved the earth to avoid holding a second national referendum in the first place. It isn’t just the Lib Dems who were guilty of hubris.

3. It was Lord Sharkey’s campaign

I’m not writing this to especially condemn the man – there has been far too much water under the bridge since – but it seems very weird to me the degree to which Lord Sharkey‘s role in the campaign has been downplayed and even airbrushed out of history. He isn’t mentioned once in the Chris Mason programme, not even in a side note that No to AV Matthew Elliot’s analogue in the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign had declined to be interviewed. And yet it was my recollection that every single significant appointment or campaign decision had been made by him. No one has ever challenged this as far as I know. He’s just been essentially scrubbed from the record.

This was very much at his request. Right from the earliest stage I recall him saying that he had two conditions: that he be in absolute control, and that his name be kept out of everything. But ten years on, it is hard to see why this omerta is still being respected by all involved. It isn’t as if he is a private figure; he’s a member of the UK legislature. As far as I’m aware, he remains the honorary treasurer of the Hansard Society.

The fact is, while I think the campaign was pretty doomed from the start, it remains my belief that he made a number of decisions that only served to make the situation worse. But more than anything else, what I found hardest to take was his complete disappearance after the referendum had concluded. I guess I’ve never encountered a situation where a leadership figure has refused to be held to account either in public or in private to such an extent before.

4. Matthew Elliot is an evil genius

While Matthew Elliot’s role as director of No to AV is less of a secret, I feel that his contribution to the political norms we now live under has been massively understated. The Chris Mason documentary does a lot to correct this record, particularly with regard to his contribution to the Vote Leave campaign, but in general he is allowed to continue unmolested in his career.

Contrast that to Dominic Cummings. My namesake’s political drama Brexit: the Uncivil War, sought to portray Cummings as the sole genius behind Vote Leave, with Elliot as something of a witless stooge going along with Cummings’ schemes. This was to entirely ignore Elliot as the person behind the No campaign of the North East Assembly referendum in 2004 as well as the director of the Taxpayer’s Alliance; he is one of the architects of that style of campaigning and he has honed his skills over many years.

It’s no great surprise that Cummings has since emerged as a bumptious buffoon, incapable of surviving in government, and one whose sole belief – in himself – has proven to be woefully inadequate. I suspect that Elliot likes it this way, and is perfectly happy for Cummings to steal the limelight and brickbats while he gets on with actually achieving things (which in his case is currently destroying the British state from the inside out).

While Elliot hasn’t managed to keep himself out of the headlines to quite the same extent as Lord Sharkey, his ability to evade scrutiny is nothing less than remarkable. He deserves credit as one of the key figures behind this new doctrine of politics, that being that it should be entirely shameless and regard the truth and honourable conduct as inconveniences to be shed at the drop of the hat. I hope posterity won’t forget him in the way that contemporary media frequently does.

5. Nick Tyrone was the biggest winner of Yes to Fairer Votes

My career weirdly mirrors Nick Tyrone’s. While the AV referendum was the finishing of my political career, it was the making of his. He went from an obscure film producer with almost no political or campaigning background who just happened to be the husband of Nick Clegg’s Director of Policy, to the head of the Radix think tank. He fell out with the Lib Dems pretty quickly post-2015 as the party sought to distance itself from the “coalicious” period and these days has very much positioned himself in the same right wing circles as, well, Matthew Elliot.

I found his contribution to the Chris Mason piece interesting. There’s a point in which he talks about the campaign’s “plans” to buy a number of inflatable bottoms and invite members of the public around the country to kick them so as to “kick their MP up the behind”. It’s an old story, presumably true, and emerged soon after the campaign had concluded. But Tyrone must know that for all its mistakes, it was never seriously considered by the campaign as an option; rather it was a suggestion by the increasingly hapless advertising agency that had been hired by the campaign (Lord Sharkey, an alum of Saatchi & Saatchi, insisted that traditional advertising would win us the campaign). Tyrone must know that this was never seriously considered, let alone implemented in any way.

His loathing for the campaign is pretty obvious, and his ire seems particularly focused on the “electoral reform geeks” who dominated it (despite this, and his personal antipathy towards electoral reform, his first job following his work on the campaign was for the Electoral Reform Society). There’s a weird story he tells on his own blog about how, after the referendum campaign, he came across a group of campaigners playing a game based on Battlestar Galactica. He was so outraged about this that by his own admission he went around telling everyone who would listen about its, quote, “insidiousness,” presumably as some kind of proof of how inept the pro-AV activists were.

I know what he’s referring to, as the game was hosted by me (after work hours, regardless of how much he insists otherwise). Indeed, the Battlestar Galactica board game is beloved by many and is still one that I play from time to time.

It’s a fascinating insight to me, because it shows quite how far apart we are. What he calls insidious, I regard as a pretty innocuous attempt by a group of colleagues to let off some steam after a pretty awful few months. But it also highlights quite how inept his attempts at damaging us was; as he acknowledges himself eventually the story grew in the telling until the legend became that Clegg himself had been involved. No-one cared that a bunch of staffers had been minding their own business enjoying themselves one evening; it just became another stick to beat the deputy prime minister with.

I’ve obviously managed to turn my geeky gamer interests into a career, which I’m sure Tyrone would regard with contempt and confirmation of all his prejudices if he found out. All I can say to this is, that as far as most members of the public are concerned, Tyrone’s past decade of greasy pole climbing is likely to be regarded as far more “insidious” than my own career change in that time. It is remarkable to me that someone who is now paid to advise politicians on what they should think and do should have this blind spot.

In Conclusion

If this feels like I’m blaming others for my misfortune, believe me: no-one feels more responsible for how the AV referendum went down, or has wracked their brains over what I could have personally done better more than me. If I didn’t feel responsible, and inadequate, my political career would not have imploded the way it did.

Rather, for me, the AV referendum marks the changing of an era in politics, in which the shameless populist style of campaigning that Matthew Elliot and the like took hold, and people like me found they lacked the temperament even to stick around. I have enormous respect for people on the moderate left who continue to persevere for a more principled, open and honest politics but the AV referendum made it clear that I lacked both the patience and wisdom to continue under this current climate.

I don’t really know what the way forward is. The genius of Matthew Elliot’s style of campaigning is that while it is unfair and uncivilised the worst response to overly focus on that fact. At some point, some savant in political ju jitsu will hopefully be able to somehow find a way to counter that. In the meantime, the public’s response seems to simply be to switch off entirely and give the most corrupt government in history a free pass.

Is there anything to learn from the AV referendum? Maybe not; or at least, those lessons needed to be learned before the EU referendum. But we should at least remember it as the time that something fundamentally broke in British politics. Who knows? Maybe our culture war loving government, in asserting that history can only be remembered by public statuary, will commission a bronze politician’s bottom for people to kick in Trafalgar Square?

Westworld Season 3: how not to portray a global crisis

So I binge watched Westworld Season 3 this weekend, as the riots in reaction to the police murder of George Floyd across the US unfurled and with the global coronavirus pandemic in the background. And it felt weirdly out of time, a weird mash up of media from the past which hasn’t dated well.

Spoiler warning in case you don’t know and do care, but this season of the TV show centres around the idea that an AI has been built which can predict everything everyone will ever do (with a few exceptions, the “outliers”) and has been used to secretly control the world. Delores, the android “host” who is the main protagonist of the first two seasons of the show, is now wandering around the real world and attempting to disrupt the plans of this AI and its controller-slash-puppet Serac. Maybe she wants to end humanity. Maybe she wants to free it. Who knows? You get the drill.

The season seems to enjoy cribbing from every sci-fi film you’ve ever watched. There’s a lot of Blade Runner, or more precisely Blade Runner 2049 (particularly in the soundtrack, which I have to say I was not a big fan of). We get plenty of Robocop. Incongruously, the AI Rehoboam’s graphical interface looks like the language the aliens use in Arrival. But the core concept, that a computer can perfectly model everything about you by reading your search history and social media posts – itself an expansion on the idea in season two that you can understand everything there is to know about someone by how many people they rape and murder at a novelty theme park – is one plucked straight out of failed Battlestar Galactica spin off show Caprica.

I thought it was a dumb idea on Caprica and I think it’s a dumb idea here. But I guess you could say that about a lot of sci-fi ideas – what matters is the story you tell with it. The problem with Westworld (and Caprica as far as I can remember) is that all of the social implications such technology like that would have in the real world is left in the backdrop in order to focus on the idea of a bunch of protagonists having a metaphorical and literal punchup.

I’m reminded of a Scientific American article from last year which talked about how Game of Thrones went from telling sociological stories to psychological ones – at a huge cost. To be clear, Westworld has always been more interested in psychological storytelling, but as it moves out of its themepark origins and into the wider world, it seems quite striking that its focus hasn’t also widened.

But it isn’t just that the huge sociological implications of a macguffin that can, um, control social progress, is kept in the background – it’s the way it is done. Because at the midpoint when Delores and conspirators manage to release the data so that everyone has access to their personal data telling them when they’ll die, how their marriage will fail, etc., the response of the general public is to riot.

At this point, the comparisons shift from Caprica to another Jonathan Nolan scripted piece of media, The Dark Knight Rises. If you recall, that film rests on the premise that if you cut a city off from the mainland and lock the police underground then it will immediately descend into chaos, and this is analogous to what happens in Westworld as far as we can tell (as I said, it’s left in the background and thus not really explored). At the time, people including myself lambasted The Dark Knight Rises for being a rightwing edgelord wank fantasy in which the public are essentially one meal away from descending into barbarism and that it is up to Great Men to maintain control. This is essentially the same idea in Westworld. It ends on a hopeful note with the character Caleb entrusted with the control of Rehoboam and the possibility that it won’t immediately lead to the end of civilisation, but the odds given are not that great and even then its all down to Caleb as one of the few individuals capable of True Free Will (which the story illustrates by the fact that he is capable of shooting people in the face a lot but resists the temptation to rape Delores in a flashback when he receiving military training in the theme park).

Westworld isn’t the first example of modern media to espound this thesis; indeed its part of a trend and some examples aren’t even written by Jonathan Nolan. But the last few months highlight how flawed this thesis is and how hollow this drama subsequently rings.

We’re in the middle of a global pandemic and although it is far too early to write the history books on it just yet, a few things appear to be emerging. Firstly, the response of the public hasn’t been to riot but to help. Secondly, governments which put the most stock into the Great Man Theory have, to put it mildly, been struggling. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Dominic Cummings have built their careers on the idea that the public is a rabble to be controlled, but when an actual crisis has come along they have been shown to not be up to the job.

And as for the riots? Well, there’s no doubt that people do riot. But much of the rioting in the US right now, as opposed to the protests, seem to have been deliberately provoked by the police – and that’s even if you leave to one side the fact that the protests were kicked off by flagrant police brutality in the first place and the numerous attacks on journalists. You know where there aren’t riots right now? In the cities where the police have joined the protests.

Watching these fictional riots while cities across the US are facing very real crises was uncomfortable, mainly because they appeared to just exist in the background while white people debate the future of humanity. In fact it is striking at how this season hasn’t dealt with race at all. You can arguably justify it in the first two seasons as they were set on a theme park, but with the focus switched to the wider world it wasn’t a topic that seemed to come up at all, which for a show purporting to bombard us with truth bombs about human nature seems more than a little cowardly. It does touch on class, even if it is much more interested in the wealthy than the poor, but I just can’t see how you can decouple race from class these days. Even the strong black characters of the past seasons, Maeve, Charlie and Bernard, were relegated to relatively background roles this season. Maeve spends most of the season out Surac’s dirty work for fairly unconvincing reasons, Charlie has been replaced by a duplicate of Dolores before she goes rogue herself (again, for not entirely clear reasons – her story just sort of runs out). Meanwhile Bernard just… wanders around.

Maybe this is making a smarter point than it first appeared, and they’ll show up next season to fix the mess everyone else has now left – but I’m sceptical. Fundamentally, I’ve had enough of media feeding me this pessimistic vision of humanity: it isn’t rooted in the world I see around me and it feels increasingly like an agenda to shape how people perceive it. If all that Westworld has to say to is that humanity is doomed without strong leaders to tell us what to do, then I for one have had enough. The first season was a fun enough little story which played around with time and neatly subverted the plot of the original film, but it has struggled to have anything to say ever since.

Election 2019: my Lib dilemma

By even more than my usual standards this is a dreadful ramble, being as it is an attempt to nail down my thinking about the state of the Liberal Democrat and Labour parties right now. tl;dr: I’m just so tired of this shit.

So, now that both the Lib Dem and Labour manifestos have been launched, I find myself in a bit of a dilemma: I definitely prefer the Labour version to the Lib Dem one, with one very major exception (which ought to be obvious but don’t worry folks, I’ll be joining the dots below). Worse, I actually prefer Labour’s campaign thus far.

Disclaimer: I haven’t read either manifesto in very great detail, and this isn’t really the focus of this article other than first impressions and where the parties are placing their emphasis. If you think I’m misrepresenting either manifesto here, feel free to point it out in the comments below.

I voted Labour in both the 2015 and 2017 general elections. In 2015 I had no qualms about doing so; in 2017 I was very deeply conflicted about it and nearly couldn’t go through with it. I’ve hated how Labour have conducted themselves so much that I went into this election pretty sure there was no way I’d do it again.

This is an election of grim ironies. Labour under Corbyn has turned “Blairite” into a catch-all insult. We are to believe that Blairite = melt = moderate = centrist = liberal = neoliberal = conservative = fascist — such has been the level of discourse within the left over the past four years that these words no longer have any meaning other than to other people. And yet, just as moderate-hating Labour supporters were keen to brag about how moderate Labour’s 2017 manifesto was, this manifesto wouldn’t look that out of place with 1997 Tony Blair’s irritating grin beaming off of it (to add more irony, the wavy text on the front is more reminiscent of the Kinnock-era Labour Party Logo — I guess it was commissioned by Michael Foot technically?). Indeed, the keynote policy of a windfall tax is a carbon copy of Blair’s own 1997 windfall tax, right down to it raising approximately the same amount of money in real terms. In that respect, at least, I think the Lib Dem manifesto is at least more honest, pledging to raise taxes a little for all people rather than pretend it can just be covered by easy scapegoats.

But, to be fair to them, it is on the economy that their manifesto feels much stronger. While the Lib Dem manifesto says good things about devolution and creating opportunity, the emphasis in the Labour manifesto is on levelling up. And this is important. We are in the mess that we’re in as a country right now in no small way because of how lopsided our economy has become, and how large swathes of the country has been left behind. Politicians have been keen to brag about how their policies have strengthened the economy over the past few decades, much less keen on ensuring that the country as a whole sees those benefits — and that’s been a crashing failure.

The signs are that Labour understand that problem; I don’t really get a sense that the Lib Dems do. To be fair to them, they do also have a welcome focus on wellbeing and shifting focus of economic policies away from growth — but it feels like a bolt-on to the economic policy at the end, not a core focus.

Obviously, my big issue with the Labour manifesto is Brexit. Again, it’s deeply ironic that the leader who has defined himself in opposition to centrism has made his position on the single most important policy of the day a matter of the most studied triangulation that would make Bill Clinton blush. My biggest problem with Labour’s Brexit “policy” (scare quotes very much intentional) is that I don’t believe it, and don’t believe it is credible. I don’t believe that Corbyn will negotiate a Brexit deal, based on his priorities, and then expect the Labour Party to sit out a subsequent referendum. I don’t believe there will be a subsequent referendum if Corbyn thinks he can possibly get away with it. The Lexiteers in Corbyn’s inner circle have made it perfectly clear that they will not allow a referendum to happen, and if you think they will you need only look at how this policy was agreed upon by Labour conference — forced through by a chair who could plainly see that the vote was split and refused to take a card vote.

I get that this seems like an obscure detail to get hung up on, but it’s in details like these that decisions gets made. The agreed upon policy was that after negotiating a deal, Labour will have an emergency conference to decide what its policy should be. The way Labour’s constitution is formulated easily allows for Corbyn to push through a motion reversing the policy of a referendum. I’m not saying he’ll definitely do it, and I’m not saying it wouldn’t massively backfire on him. What I am saying is that he’d like to do it, that many of his closest advisers intend for this to happen, and that he has form in shooting himself in the foot in the name of ideology — I present his entire 4+ years handling of the Brexit referendum and beyond as evidence.

And if he can’t stitch up conference, again like Blair, he simply ignores it — as is the case of Labour’s position on immigration. It’s hard to dismiss this as anything other than a dog whistle and it suggests that Labour’s Brexit positioning is hardening again. In 2017, they proudly stood on a platform to end free movement as part of their preferred Brexit deal, a position which they have spent the last two years slowly softening thanks to pressure within the party. Now we are likely to see them once again make it part of their Brexit deal. Assuming they do go ahead with a referendum (which assuming Labour wins I’ll concede is probably the most likely outcome eventually, regardless of what Corbyn wants or tries to do), we are likely to see it once again fought on immigration and a repeat of all of the ugliness that we saw in 2016. Corbyn is doing this with his eyes wide open.

The cynicism is breathtaking. In an interview before the manifesto was finalised, Len McCluskey stated his opposition to free movement, arguing that “If we don’t deal with the issues and concerns, we will create a vacuum that will be filled by a far right seeking to become the voice of the white working class.” In that respect he’s right: if people don’t see the benefits of immigration then we are playing into the far right’s hands. But the answer to that is to deal with those underlying issues, which is what a manifesto is meant to do, not give the far right what they want anyway with a pat on the head and a wink. Ultimately, this reads like a vote of no confidence in Labour’s wider economic policies — an admission that Labour don’t really feel they’re capable of rebalancing the economy. And I struggle to get past the fact that if McCluskey and Corbyn get what they really want and we leave the EU, he’s right: their economic policies won’t be worth a damn if they are having to also deal with the political, diplomatic and economic fallout of Brexit.

For me, the dog whistling about immigration and the charges of antisemitism are impossible to divorce. When Corbyn was first elected leader, I felt minded to defend him on the latter issue. The fact is, there most definitely are people on the right of Israeli politics who seek to use charges of antisemitism as a deflection over criticism over Israel’s treatment of Palestine. We’ve seen plenty of bad faith arguments being employed, such as Maureen Lipman’s claim that “Corbyn made me a Tory” four years after telling people to oppose Labour in protest over the position of Ed Miliband (who happens to be a secular Jew) on Palestine. And you are deluding yourself if you think that the Tories’ rightward shift is in any way more in the interests of British Jewry than Corbyn in Number 10: I hope more sensible people can see Johnson and company’s far more explicit Islamophobia and see that as a red flag and a warning of what to expect.

But none of that is to deny the charge that antisemitism exists within Labour and has been allowed to fester. There are simply too many examples of explicit antisemitism and we have seen too little action. The fact that Richard Burgon remains a shadow minister after is not only saying that “Zionism is the enemy of peace” but then denied saying it speaks volumes.

The problem is, it’s a complex issue which is more about how people on the hard left view the world than explicit racism. When Corbyn sees a mural leaning into fairly blatant antisemitic tropes, he doesn’t recognise it as such because what he does see is a mural about evil capitalist bankers plotting wars and division on the backs of everyone else. I don’t actually doubt his sincerity when he argues that he simply didn’t look closely enough at the image: he saw what he wanted to see. I’m completely confident that most people on the hard left who share his world view don’t see this as antisemitic and sincerely believe you can divorce these tropes from their source. The problem is you can’t, and this worldview is entirely at odds with the world works.

There is no grand global capitalist conspiracy to keep us under heel; that tragedy is, as Marx himself spelled out 150 years ago, there doesn’t need to be. You don’t even need to be a Marxist to see that without any form of regulation markets lean towards monopolisation, poor standards and the privatisation of wealth. And while I’m as in favour of greater lobbying transparency as anyone (it was my job to campaign for it for a decade, after all), the problem isn’t people working in the dark over some wicked grand design — it’s individuals and companies looking out for themselves and their short term interests. Even when you look at worrying trends such as Russia’s interference in the democratic process worldwide, it’s important to remember that this isn’t merely a case of Putin pulling the strings; it’s Putin finding allies who feel they can profit equally from the fallout and taking advantage of problems countries like the UK had festering for decades. The fact that there is no grand plan is far more scary than the comfortable fiction that there is one.

You should take the charge of antisemitism within Labour seriously because you should believe the victims of any form of racial or ethic abuse and stand in solidarity with them. But even if that wasn’t the case it should concern you because underlying it is a toxic world view that will influence how Labour governs. The problem isn’t merely the more blatant abuse — it’s the spectrum that it lies on. And when we see McCluskey and his fellow Lexiteers seeing this an election as an opportunity to throw migrants and settled European citizens under a bus for political gain (regardless of the mealy-mouthed language he couches it in), it’s all part of a similar trend which casually dehumanises people who are politically inconvenient to them.

Labour has always had a tribal problem. It’s been bizarre watching Tom Watson reinvent himself over the past decade from Labour’s headbanger in chief (jeez, in a previous life I used to run a parody website about him) to the “above it all” gracious statesman he likes people to now see him as. It reminds us that much of the mindless tub thumping that has characterised Corbyn’s leadership was around long before he got to take charge. But the combination of it with the plain nastiness of the hard left has been a tough thing to watch over the last few years. I used to think that over time it would burn itself out and the grownups would slowly begin to reassert itself; now I think the way it resolves itself will be much more convoluted and painful.

And it is worth emphasising how nasty the hard left can be. I feel that the generations ahead of me don’t really get what the fuss about Militant was; my awakening was joining the Lib Dems in the mid-90s and meeting teenager after teenager whose Lib Dem parents had had to deal with threats to murder their children delivered by brick through their living room windows at 2am. I’ve seen friends beaten up for the “crime” of winning a student union election. I’ve sat in Stop the War coalition meetings seeing the AWL gleeful at the fact that we had failed to stop the war because it now meant the “gloves could come off”. And I’ve seen friends lives and careers ruined because some trumped up little twerp sees himself as the next Gramsci and is going to use their position to take over some minor voluntary sector organisation in the name of The Cause. Tom Watson really wasn’t the great force in politics that his admirers think he was, but what is replacing him looks set to be far worse.

So, to recap: on strict policy lines I can absolutely see the attraction of Labour’s manifesto but the Brexit policy and the culture of the party behind it makes me sceptical that it can deliver. So it should be a slam dunk for me to back the Lib Dems, the party I spent most of the last three decades supporting, in this garbage fire of an election. So why do they have to make it so damn hard?

Because here’s the plot twist. With all that said about Corbyn — for all his failings that make me deeply wish almost anyone but him was leading the Labour Party right now — there is no possible outcome of this election that I can see that doesn’t involve either Corbyn or Johnson in Number 10. It’s one thing two years into a parliament for the Lib Dems to fail to offer Corbyn their support in trying to muster up the votes needed to install him as Johnson’s replacement — the numbers weren’t there even within the Labour Party for that to happen. It’s quite another thing to rule out backing Corbyn under any circumstances, as the Lib Dems have now done.

It is worth pointing out that the Lib Dems have equally ruled out backing Johnson under any circumstances too. But assuming that the Conservatives win a plurality of the seats in the House of Commons (currently the most likely scenario), here’s what this new formulation of equidistance means in practice:

  • with Corbyn unable to secure a majority, the Queen will invite Johnson to form a government;
  • Lib Dems vote against and Johnson fails to secure a majority;
  • Corbyn is invited to form a government; Lib Dems vote against and Corbyn fails to secure a majority;
  • repeat for two weeks until another damaging election is called (in which the Lib Dems will be wiped out), OR the Lib Dems abstain and Johnson becomes Prime Minister by default, OR the Lib Dems massively climbdown and agree to back Corbyn, breaking an election promise and having given away all of their leverage.

I can’t see any other outcome. There’s absolutely no reason for Corbyn to stand down at this stage — he will rightly be able to claim a fresh mandate and with no independent MPs for the Lib Dems to hide behind, the smaller party will have no negotiating position. I’d like someone to be able to convince me I’m wrong, but I just can’t see it.

The thing is, I get it. There’s a soul-deadening hypocrisy in our political discourse that dictates that when the Lib Dems fail to court Labour they are condemned for tribalism while nobody expects Labour to court the Lib Dems. We’ve seen this with tactical voting and the debate over standing down candidates; people are very quick to express outrage over the Lib Dems’ determination to fight in Canterbury and yet Labour have not come under any pressure to do the same in any Lib Dem-Conservative marginals. On an emotional level I share the Lib Dem frustration over this. I just think that if you’ve spent years attacking your rivals left and right for pursuing Brexit unicorns, arguing that your belief in a political Loch Ness Monster isn’t an especially credible position to take.

The tragedy is, this is so unnecessary and so distracting from the party’s anti-Brexit core message. I would dearly loved to have seen the Lib Dems look at each Labour MP in turn, stand down in the marginal seats where the MP has a strong Brexit track record and continue to oppose the sitting MPs who lack one – this isn’t about pacts, it’s about messaging. I get that part of the thinking behind ruling out any coalition is to avoid the debate degenerating into an obsession with rehearsing the coalition talks before they’ve even happened, as legend has it was the case in 1992. But a formulation must have been possible which didn’t involve pledging something that is impossible to actually deliver; accepting Corbyn can’t be got rid of is not the same as, for example, saying that Seamus Milne shouldn’t be let anywhere near Number 10.

I’m not suggesting for a minute that crafting the right message around possible coalitions and deals is easy. What I am saying is that the current position ruling out any kind of deal at all is completely at odds with reality and that the party has had time to game plan a different option.

At the heart of this problem is the elephant in the room: the 2010-2015 Lib Dem-Tory coalition. The Lib Dems can argue until the cows come home that they are not picking sides between Labour and the Tories, and insist that they are criticising both parties equally — but people will assume that they are hefting to the right if they don’t see more being done to attract the left than they have done in this election thus far. The Labour answer to each and every Lib Dem criticism of them is the coalition and the Lib Dem voting record during that period. Now, I personally feel that ultimately the coalition has proven to have been a mistake. Nonetheless I can sit here and explain how that is the nature of coalitions for junior parties to have to support a lot of the senior party’s policies, that the party made a sacrifice in the national interest and that the alternative to the coalition would have been a far worse Tory government. But trust me, no matter how right it is, that argument doesn’t land. If you want to look like you aren’t crypto-Tories to any soft Labour supporters, you don’t have to spend your lives apologising for the coalition years but you do need to send a very clear signal that you aren’t the Tories in disguise.

As it stands, the Lib Dems positioning has felt from my perspective that it is as opposed to Labour as it is to Brexit, and that doesn’t feel like the hopeful message I was hoping the party would adopt in this election. It feels nihilistic. It feels like nostalgia for the salad days of “coalicious” when the Tories were our moderate, reasonable, only very slightly evil friends who only had our best interests at heart. In short, it feels like the empty, vacuous and dishonest politics of Clegg which I thought the Lib Dems had moved on from.

I was kind of just sad about this and the party’s failure to get its message across until I saw it’s baffling decision to release an attack video on Corbyn, featuring a Corbyn puppet attacking reality. Just about the best thing I can say about this video, which has now been taken down, is that it was such a spectacular miscalculation that it hasn’t even worked as a dead cat earning the Lib Dems lots of appalled media coverage in the way that the Tories’ fake factchecking service and Labour manifesto have. I thought the even-handed attacks on Labour were part of a well researched targeting operation focused on getting disaffected Tory voters on side and that it’s only alienating me because I’m awkward; now I’m starting to think that it’s more about how the party’s senior advisors and strategists really thing — and that’s an incredibly depressing thought.

For all this, I think I will probably still vote Lib Dem. I live in Hendon, a constituency that was extremely close for Labour in 2017 but one with a heavily Jewish population where the Lib Dems actually won in the European elections this year. With tactical voting websites split over whether I should vote Labour or Lib Dem and Labour failing to campaign in any meaningful, visible way, my suspicion is that the Tories are a shoo-in and so I might as well vote for the least bad option. I just wish I felt like I was a part of a greater cause this time around rather than having to choose between two distasteful options.