Hello world

Jo Swinson during a visit to WeWork in Marylebone, London, where she launched her campaign to succeed Sir Vince Cable as leader of the Liberal Democrats. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Friday May 31, 2019. See PA story POLITICS LibDems. Photo credit should read: Yui Mok/PA Wire

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.


  1. Welcome back James, as ever you write the words and thoughts that crawl around my head when I’m awake at four in the morning. I didn’t realise just how awful a time you’d had, so sorry – when you went to bed, I went to Somerset. Your words are needed now – hope you are able to keep sharing them.

  2. Very welcome back, James! I am very sorry to hear about your mental health illness but very glad to see you back on form. You say: “I feel massively responsible for the coalition government, and everything that has followed – including Brexit and the current crisis the country is in.” I think you are in the clear on that. In all the many, many discussions I have been involved in about the coalition, I can honestly put my hand on heart and say that no one has ever even whispered “I blame that James Graham”.

  3. It was worth it !
    Even if you only “crawled back” to join The Liberal Democrats to remind people that – Clegg was following a very personal agenda in coalition with his fellow Conservatives.

    Since the beginning of 2019 the party that you have rejoined has moved changed almost beyond reconition from the wreck ofthe Clegh catastrophe.
    Other parties have changed as well.
    In the elections a few weeks ago we witnessed a collapse of Labour support which is unprecedented since the foundation of The Labour Party.
    Across the whole of the UK they managed only 14% of the vote.
    For the first time in a hundred years Liberals in London gained more votes than Labour or any other party.
    Not one single Labour MEP was elected in the whole of Scotland.
    Voters have deserted Labour in their millions. Let’s face it – 2019 would not have been the best year for you to join The Labour Party.

    Unlike you I did not support Jo Swinson in the recent leadership election.
    Nor did I support anyone else.
    I have so far been encouraged by the new leader of The LibDems.
    She is not perfect and she suffers a potentially self-detrictive blindspot when it comes to the politics of Scotland.
    But she is breath of fresh air and clarity after mumbling old Sir Vincent with his nostalgia for his years as a City Councillor in 1970s Glasgow
    (whose Labour Party at the time one of the most reactionary ever).

    I look forward to more stimulating blogs from you in the future.

  4. Hi James, I’m glad to read this and that you are back, even just as a commentator – your voice is one I’ve always respected hugely. (Except for the notion that you bear responsibility for the coalition to which I say Pah!) I’m deeply sorry to hear of your mental health struggles- thank you for sharing. I definitely encourage you to ensure you have strong boundaries as you dive back into politics online. It sounds like our personal and political journeys haven’t been dissimilar and in hope one day we can have coffee and catch up in person! x

  5. Develop the hard skin 😉 I have been Liberal/ Lib Dem member since 1972 when at school. Always ups & downs. At Brecon I met several other long term activists, ALL now feeling more enthused than in many years. Enjoy your renewed involvement

  6. Delighted to hear from you again, James, and sorry you have had such a challenging time.
    Hint: How about a post for Lib Dem Voice?

  7. Yay – Another voice of sense and reason is back. Even if at times you share the ‘WTF is going on’ sense of bewilderment that most of us feel much of the time. Please keep on blogging and provoking discussion and debate.

  8. Welcome back! I remember the days of Liberal Drinks in London fondly, you always challenged me, and definitely helped me see more sides to an issue – I’m a better person for it.

    I certainly sympathize with mental health issues and trying to deal with all the crap – it lead me to completely divorce myself from all politics, the petty infighting and attempted entryism in my union was the last straw – that left me with too many sleepless nights.

  9. James, funnily enough, I still quote your wise words about the Party Presidency on occasion, which is a mark of respect for the thoughtfulness with which you observe politics and political parties. It’s good to have you back, on whatever terms you see fit.

    Blind loyalty and supine agreement to Party orthodoxy tend to lead to conservative, cautious policy making, so anyone asking us to think a bit should be welcome.

    We won’t always agree, I suspect, but it’s a price more than worth paying…

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.