It is hard to follow politics and not feel disconnected. This is an odd phenomenon in our 24/7 news channel, social media, multi-channel, multi-platform, your-call-is-important-to-us world.
Politics on social media is illustrative of this feeling because the posts tend to fall into three distinct groups:
- First, are the personal attacks on individuals or groups as a short cut for attacking their policies or positions. “X is a prat, therefore do not listen to the prat.”
- Second, is to stridently link two statements to make an even more strident concluding thought. “X is just a plausible prat, look here at this five second clip from 1987 when X said Y about Z? We know Z turned out to be a right prat, so everything X says now must be ignored.”
- Third, is to nonchalantly assert clarity and proclaim the will of the people. “It is absolutely clear, totally crystal clear, that what this means is clearly the will of the people.”
To ram home the strength of feeling, we can include in all three categories an intolerant pre-emptive attack on the reader. “And furthermore, if you disagree with my analysis you are at best anti-democratic, possibly even a Nazi.”
The impact of all such messages is to derail conversation, diminish the quality of debate and to lob in views like hand grenades. Political discourse on social media is now little more than people putting their fingers in their ears screeching “LA, LA, LA” while others play in a free to enter who-can-shout-loudest contest.
Meanwhile the grown-up media quite likes the noise. It can look down its nose at Twitter, but also indulge its own version of racy commentary by including all the shouty culprits under the thinnest of thin pretexts of asking them “tough questions”. It is all so predictable, and familiar, and dull – anyone remember Bill Grundy interviewing the Sex Pistols on TV in 1976?
I have three points that I want to make, and I will try not to fall into the traps I have described.
Until May 2019 I was a long-standing member of the Labour Party, indeed in 2015 I was an official candidate, but before the European election I resigned as a member and voted Green. The Labour Party cannot always be in Government and all politicians make mistakes. It is the fiercest fire pit for feedback, where everyone can have an opinion, but where few have responsibility. I will spare you the handwringing, because my position is simple – I do not believe in being a member of a political party and not feeling you can vote for it. In this European election I could not vote Labour.
Labour should be a force for good. Not with a divine right to virtue, but because its purpose is to represent all of us, and be a positive influence for fairness, equality of opportunity and freedom. However, when members are clear that a major policy is wrong, it is only sustainable to ignore this gift of constructive challenge if the leadership absolutely nail electoral success. In the most recent General Election, Local Election and now in a European Election, Labour has nailed little except perhaps its own foot to its mouth. The strategy, or the execution of the strategy (or both) have failed. In these circumstances ignoring the membership’s clearest concerns is an epic fail.
On Brexit, those who support leaving have hardened their views and those who support remaining have hardened their views too; but still the turnout was less than 40%. Brexit was not important enough for 6 out of 10 people to express an opinion!
Is Brexit really more important than the climate crisis, or the poverty we see in foodbanks and homelessness, or the compassionate care of the elderly, or our funding of mental health provision, or our concern for human rights at home and internationally, or the need for communities to have secure employment, affordable housing and accessible health care? Or for business to thrive to generate the taxes that fund our community interests?
These issues to me feel like a silent mural to a country’s decline.
No side can claim it has an overwhelming mandate, and I suspect the split between Leave and Remain will be a feature of our political life for a generation or more. This will not be resolved by a clever gif, no matter how many retweets; and no amount of earnest “threads” will convince opponents.
We need conversation. We need to listen to each other. We need not to be tribal. We need to recognise that we might be wrong. We need to trust more. We need to challenge quietly. We should accept that we can admire conviction without accepting conclusions. We can compromise without being a hypocrite. We can change our minds without being treacherous. We must advocate without personal attacks. We should criticise, but without sneering. Above all we must learn to hold out a hand to welcome people with opposing views.
I am a Labour man, and I voted Remain in 2016. I might be wrong, but when I come back to Labour again, I hope soon, it won’t be a change of leader, or Government or policy that persuades me. It will be when I am asked how I feel, and to feel I have been listened to. I do not need for anyone to agree with me, but I do want to feel listened to.
Political leadership is really rather cowardly if it is little more than a slogan, or a campaign, or based substantially on charisma. Political leadership, however, is brave when leaders choose to listen, show they have listened and then either have the courage to debate if they believe in a different course, or implement brilliantly when aligned.