Tag Archives: brexit

Hello world

Content warning: contains discussion around mental health, depression and anxiety

Hi there, dear reader.

You may notice that I haven’t been blogging much recently. Um, at all, to be precise. Indeed, aside from the occasional spurt of enthusiasm, I haven’t really been blogging with any degree of regularity since 2010.

Why is that? Well, lots of reasons. I was briefly banned from blogging during the AV referendum campaign, during which I worked for the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign, and I didn’t really get back into the habit from then on. Even before then, I found winning the (hah!) Lib Dem Blog of the Year Award back in 2007, weirdly intimidating – shades of imposter syndrome I guess. Fundamentally though, my output declined as my mental health fell apart, culminating in me essentially not getting out of bed from 2014 to 2017. And that mental health decline coincided as my disappointment with party politics, and the Lib Dems in particular, grew.

I should stop here and point out that this is not a case of causation. I don’t blame my mental health on how the Lib Dems governed themselves (and for a while, the country). It’s far more a case that as my mental health declined, I found myself less able to deal with the adversity I faced, and that largely came from within the political party I had spent by that point over a decade organising within.

I quit the Lib Dems in 2012 quite suddenly, after months of attempting to keep it together. At the time, I was one of the main organisers of the Social Liberal Forum, and one of the few people who set that organisation up who hadn’t by that point either gone into government or defected to Labour. It was hell. Instead of doing any work to help the organisation’s goals, I spent sleepless night after sleepless night having what I now recognise to be severe anxiety attacks.

So, to be clear, I don’t blame the Lib Dems for the state of my mental health. Nonetheless, it did utterly break my heart. I helped set up the SLF because I saw the writing was on the wall and that Nick Clegg was steering the party in a direction that I couldn’t follow. Despite the howling criticism at the time about “factionalising” the party, my biggest regret in life is that we didn’t start that process much sooner than we did.

I remember the evening that the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition was announced, in May 2010. It was quite a surreal period walking around Westminster during that time; you had the palpable sense that no-one was in charge of the country – it felt quite liberating and a tiny bit terrifying. I ended up voting for the coalition at the party’s special conference, but nonetheless regarded it as a crushing defeat. I wouldn’t have done if I had conceived the degree to which Clegg would press ahead with his personal agenda at the expense of the party (the “compromises” the Lib Dems made over higher education, free schools and NHS reforms were all personal hobby horses of his, not things imposed by the Tories), and if I’d predicted that the Tories would, in 2015, manage to win a general election outright (I massively overestimated Labour’s ability to capitalise on the coalition’s unpopularity).

The truth is, I feel massively responsible for the coalition government, and everything that has followed – including Brexit and the current crisis the country is in. That’s a feeling that has had the effect of completely eating up all of my self confidence and sense of any moral authority. It’s hard to write when every time you do, you’re overwhelmed by guilt and self-loathing.

It’s odd therefore, that I’ve found myself crawling back to the Lib Dems. In fact, I’ve done it twice. I rejoined in 2015 and even did a bit of campaigning in the 2017 general election, only to be again disillusioned by Tim Farron’s faltering leadership, and allowed my membership to lapse again. By contrast, Vince Cable was a far more effective leader than I predicted. He certainly seemed as rudderless as I predicted, and the party seemed to spend two entirely fruitless years obsessed with meaningless internal reforms that didn’t seem to go anywhere, but you can’t argue with the last set of elections, so he must have been doing something right.

When the leadership election was announced, I knew that I couldn’t sit outside and had to join, to vote if nothing else. Jo Swinson has been a personal friend of mine for 21 years, and if failing to do more to tackle the Orange Book takeover is my greatest political regret, then helping to get Jo elected in 2005 for the first time is my proudest moment. 

The question is, am I going to end up being disappointed again? On substance, I’m pretty happy with what she’s said and done thus far. In terms of presentation, well, last week was a bit of a mess. Her team need to do much better and avoid pitfalls like that if they are going to maintain the momentum that she has been building.

I find myself in the odd position of being deeply sceptical of leaders in general, and considering them to be a necessary evil, and yet believe in Jo personally. I think she’s smart enough to take the Lib Dems forward, and has the emotional intelligence to navigate a very tricky and fraught political situation that inevitably require compromise on all sides. I know she isn’t the crypto-Tory that Twitter likes to constantly reassure me she is. Of course, by having a friend in a senior position during such a time of political crisis means that I have to churn through a daily tide of bile and vitriol, and I’m struggling to develop a thick enough skin after years of sitting comfortably on the fence. It doesn’t help that some of this bile is coming from personal friends who I respect, and indeed love. Hopefully I’ll find a way to navigate through all this in time.

Why not stay neutral? Why not even simply jump ship and become a Labour supporter? After all, I’ll always be on the left of the Lib Dems and in many fundamental ways (wealth taxes for one) would consider myself to the left of Jeremy Corbyn.

I did in fact vote Labour in the last two general elections. In 2017, it was strictly tactical but in 2015 it’s fair to say that I supported much more of the Labour manifesto than I did the Lib Dems’.

Weirdly, I’ve never felt more alienated by Labour than I currently do. It isn’t simply about Brexit, although that forms a large part of it. Corbynites seem entirely convinced that the only objection anyone could possibly have to Corbyn is his policies and that everything else is a pretext to cover for opposition to his socialism. My answer to that is: what policies? I’m sure he has some, but aside from things like his support for the Tory welfare cuts in 2017 and opposition for free movement of people I struggle to be able to name any of them.

And that’s the rub for me; we can argue about whether the ability to win elections and govern effectively became too predominant in the era of managerial politics (which appears to have well and truly come to an end now), but the Corbyn and his supporters appear to think they are entirely irrelevant. Under Corbyn, the worst of hard left politics – the type I used to have to deal with in student politics which typically ended with my friends getting beaten up – has merged with the worst aspects of the same Labour tribalism and triangulation that Blair, who they avow is to be regarded as the Great Satan, relied upon. It’s a toxic mess and one that at worst has lead to a growth in leftwing antisemitism. An alarming number of formerly sensible people seem at best complacent about this and at worst apologists for it. At a time when racism and white supremacy is on the march, this is something I find quite chilling. I could never be a part of it.

So I’ve rejoined the Lib Dems and, for the first time in 2012, have decided to out myself as a supporter. I’m currently terrified that I’m going to get let down again; but I do have faith in Jo that it ultimately won’t be. Is that all I have? Time will tell.

This has been a very self-indulgent, meandering blog post, but I’m going to publish it anyway. At some point in the last few years, I lost my voice and all of my optimism – and that sent me into a vicious cycle that I’m still recovering from. Somehow I need to get them back; nihilism is now killing the country and the world in the way that it was eating me a few years ago. Right now, just believing that a better, kinder world is possible feels like a radical act. I sincerely doubt I’ll ever be the political activist that I used to be, but if I can at least just put my thoughts into words again, that would be something.

Brexit and the austerity paradox

Here’s a conundrum. I think it is widely understood now that at least one major factor for why the Remain side lost in the EU referendum campaign was that a significant number of people in the poorest parts of the country did not feel that they enjoyed any of the economic benefits of being a member of the EU and wanted to give the political establishment a bloody nose. There were certainly enough of those voters to make the difference between staying in and leaving the EU, given how close it turned out to be.

So if we’d spent the last decade investing in those parts of the UK and ensuring they saw greater economic renewal, more jobs and a higher standard of living instead of forcing austerity on them, driving up reliance on foodbanks and increasing human misery in the process, we wouldn’t now be seeing the sort of meltdown that we’re witnessing going on in the City right now.

Here’s the thing though. The City had made it perfectly clear that it wanted that austerity. Indeed, the City has quite a lot of form when it comes to threatening governments with economic hardship if it doesn’t get its way. During those infamous “5 days in May” in 2010 when we had no functioning government after the general election, the mood music coming from the Square Mile was grisly. The constant refrain, especially from the Lib Dems in the coalition, was that if we didn’t follow this path economic disaster would follow. I lost count the number of times that Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander over-egged the pudding and claim that we were on the brink of economic disaster on the scale that Greece has experienced over the last few years.

I can mock Clegg and Alexander, but the fact remains that there was some truth in this. The City was telling us to follow a course of action, and were threatening to punish us if we didn’t get in line. They had the whip hand, just two years after wrecking the global economy when you would have thought there would be a little more contrition.

In retrospect, I wonder: would the market have been able to cope with a little less austerity if what it got in return was the UK remaining in the EU? With the benefit of hindsight, I think the answer is yes. And yet here we are now, staring at economic disaster, with no political leadership in Westminster, and with the money men more in charge than ever. There is talk of sensibly abandoning austerity, but only because the economic case is pretty hard to dismiss (just as it was in 2007). And in the longer term, it looks like we’re going to be more dependent on the good will of the markets than ever. Far from having our sovereignty return from Brussels, it’s been punted a couple of miles down the Thames.

For several decades now, there has been an agenda to decouple politics from economics, with both politicians and business alike preferring to pretend that never the twain shall meet. There is only one economic model that works, and politics should focus on non-economic matters. So at the same time as we see all political parties becoming uncritical market capitalists, we see identity politics and nativism take hold. The reality is that the two are fundamentally intertwined. There are deep political consequences to economic decisions, which in turn can – and has – had fundamental economic consequences. Somehow, and I don’t know how, we need to create a greater awareness for how the decisions made on the floor of the stock exchange impacts daily life in Hartlepool. The alternative is a political system which continues to consume itself and drive itself increasingly to extremes, which in turn leads to economic ruin.

Brexit: if you think Corbyn is the problem, you haven’t been paying attention

I don’t think I’ve ever been as appalled by UK politics as I am at this point. That the Leave campaign won the referendum on a pack of lies is a fact in this post-fact world that even its own leaders have implicitly acknowledged by their equivocations, downcast faces and vanishing acts. We are in the midst of undoubtedly the worst financial crisis since 2008, and the level of racist attacks appears to have skyrocketed, but the political and media class have locked themselves into Westminster to focus on their intrigues and petty rivalries. The journalists I follow on Twitter have never been more delighted by the Tory and Labour leadership crises, pigs in shit blithely ignoring the outside world as if it was an unwelcome distraction from the main event. Only Nicola Sturgeon and Tim Farron have shown a shred of political leadership since Friday. It has been gobsmacking to watch, and utterly repugnant.

While acknowledging that it is part of the problem, I don’t feel I have much to add in terms of analysis of the current state of the Conservative Party. A bunch of overgrown schoolboys have played around in politics as if it were nothing more than a game, and now appear to be waking up to the fact that the stakes were in fact very real. I don’t know how it will all play out for the simple fact that I have consistently underestimated Boris Johnson’s ability to survive from political crises of his own making. I don’t have any analysis of why this is; I’ve never understood his charms I’m willing to accept at this point that there are supernatural forces at play here and that only a beheading, stuffing the corpse with garlic and burying it at a crossroads has any chance of stopping him being elected and remaining Prime Minister for the next 50 years. I mean, he survived that Boris Bus debacle – how bad does it have to get?

On Labour, I have a little more to say. It has become painfully apparent over the referendum campaign that Jeremy Corbyn simply isn’t up to the job. He is incapable of commanding respect amongst the PLP, incapable of thinking strategically, incapable of making a good speech and incapable of seizing a political opportunity when it lands on his plate. The problem is, leaving aside the facts that a) there is no guarantee that they will end up with someone more capable, and b) the party has demonstrated it is incapable of any degree of unity for years now, I don’t think you can look at those results last Thursday and conclude that Corbyn is even Labour’s biggest problem. What we witnessed was a party that was incapable of reaching out to its own core communities outside of the major metropolitan areas scattered across England and Wales.

I’m grateful to John Harris’s reportage from around the country, showing the depth of alienation and utter contempt that people in the poorest and most deprived communities across the country have for Westminster politics. What we saw on Thursday, was those people flicking Westminster a massive V-sign. Yes, a minority have fallen for the Brexiteers’ lies and even turned to outright racism. But for the most part, it appears to have been as prosaic as the fact that if large swathes of the country aren’t seeing the (very real, very significant) economic benefits that the UK enjoys from immigration, free movement of people and its membership of EU, they are likely to see very little downside to voting to get rid of it all. They’re wrong, and I guarantee they will come to regret it as the economy tanks and Westminster opts to force them to bear the brunt, but I can understand the feeling all to well.

That it has come to this ought to be a wake up call. To his credit, it seems pretty clear to me that Jeremy Corbyn understands this, and understands that without a significant and meaningful redistribution of wealth the mood in those communities is only going to turn uglier. But it is equally clear that a significant number of Labour MPs don’t and see the solution lying purely in triangulation. It is plain to see that for an awful lot of Labour politicians, the solution lies now in adopting a string of anti-immigration and anti-free movement policies regardless of the bad economic case – just as long as they don’t look as punitive and nasty as UKIP. We’re in the scary situation right now where it is becoming apparent that the Tories are now busily building the case for a Norwegian-style relationship with the EU – where we accept free movement, the imposition of EU regulation and pay roughly the same as we do now but get none of the democratic rights we’ve taken for granted – while what noises we have coming from Labour is that free movement is unacceptable to them. With UKIP now a very real threat in their heartlands, the triangulators are prepared to make the Tories look like wishy-washy liberals when it comes to immigration – presumably in the full knowledge that this will only encourage UKIP and the Tories to push even further to the right.

Triangulation is not a new thing – when it comes to economic policy, it’s got us in a lot of the mess that we now find ourselves after all. But when it comes to immigration, it takes on an all new terrifying dynamic. We’ve already seen that a scary number of racist individuals and groups have seen the referendum result as a starting gun for a campaign of terror and intimidation (again, to be clear, I’m not saying all Leave voters are racist – just that all racists are Leave voters who now believe 52% of the country agrees with them). Imagine how bad that will get if we start seeing the sort of Dutch auction on immigration policy being proposed belligerently by the likes of John Mann and in more velvet tones by the likes of Tom Watson.

And of course, it almost goes without saying that it is simply not the case that this is an automatic vote winner. The SNP haven’t hoovered up Labour support in Scotland by adopting an anti-immigrant position – quite the opposite. Where people do see the economic benefits of immigration, anti-immigrant sentiment is way down. It wasn’t Jeremy Corbyn who persuaded Islington, one of the most deprived boroughs in the country, to support Remain by 75%; it was the daily experience of living in an area with high immigration.

If Jeremy Corbyn had spent the last two months going around the country calling for England’s more deprived communities to better reap the economic benefits of the EU and immigration than they do at present (which to be fair to him he did say, sotto voce), then there’s at least a chance he could have turned it around. But it wasn’t just him. It certainly wasn’t a position being championed by Labour In – dominated as it was by centrists in the party. And while Jeremy Corbyn voluntarily gave up his opportunity to share platforms with David Cameron and use it to press him on this matter, it was the position of all the candidates who stood in last year’s Labour leadership election to adopt the same self-defeating no-platform policy.

I’ve been talking about Labour, but to be frank, this is the Lib Dems’ failing as well. While they don’t have the same platform in deprived northern communities that Labour enjoys, they too should have made this case. And if Tim Farron’s welcome stance to stand in the next election on a position of remaining a member of the EU is to reach out beyond the party’s metropolitan base, he too needs to be making the case for redistribution of wealth. This policy will prove a mistake if it ultimately amounts to little more than a plea for business as usual; the City has to be made aware that there is a price that it needs to pay.

Where do we go now? I have no idea. The whole situation is a bloody mess and while I’m sceptical that the markets can wait as long as Labour and the Tories want to get their acts together, we at least have a period during which the rest of us can allow the referendum result to sink in. I don’t think the United Kingdom is going to survive this. I wouldn’t especially begrudge Scotland for leaving us, and the only thing stopping me from saying the same about Northern Ireland is the fear of what might happen if the unionist communities there feel they are being abandoned to their fate. My hope is that the political system of what country remains will be able to crawl out of the quagmire that it is in now, but I’m very scared that the situation is going to get much worse, and much more violent, before we finally turn a corner.