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.