Politics is no longer about Left or Right. Who’s side are you on now?
The People of Richmond in the UK have just fought the first battle of a new war. And they won, using new political weapons. We need to understand what happened here as it is the future.
The voters of Richmond swung from predominantly voting Conservative, to backing the tiny Liberal Democrat party. They abandoned traditional party loyalties to vote against a policy, backing whichever party aligned with a single political reality, but also backing a world view. The Liberal Democrats are clear about being anti-Brexit and pro-EU, and as such mark themselves out therefore as pro-Democracy, openness, and liberalism. It is also interesting that smaller parties openly asked their supporters to rally behind the Liberal Democrat candidate, therefore putting their convictions ahead of their own political ambition.
This strategic approach to voting needs to become the norm across the West if we are to protect our democracies against the growing populist nationalist movements.
When I grew up (20–30 years ago, let’s say) politics was quite clear cut. My first political memories were of Thatcher’s Britain. People were clearly on the Left or Right, Tory or Labour. Some made forays into a more centrist space, but that wasn’t taken very seriously. Labour people always voted Labour, Conservatives always voted Conservative. People’s social and even work lives were influenced by their political affiliation. It was all very binary, with a clear amount of space between the two camps. Nice and tidy.
Then Blair came along. A memory of that election, for me, was people voting tactically. Instead of voting along very traditional party lines, people voted for whomever they thought would remove the Conservative candidate in their constituency. Blair moved politics to the Centre ground, and for a while it was increasingly unclear what differentiated the three political parties. People mocked the politicians for all being the same, but looking back it was a quite calm, pleasant time. I thought that perhaps logical policy based politics was replacing ideological politics. It felt like parties were developing policies that were the best for the job, and free from the shackles of age old principles. Sensible politics inevitably veered toward the Centre ground because extreme and ideological policies never really work. It became hard for politicians to operate in the adversarial system we have, especially in Parliament, when their policies were all much the same.
This ended with Brexit. Politics dominated by a single ideology over everything else was brought back by Farage, Gove, Johnson, and the pro-Brexit camp. It may be that they were in fact driven by self interest, but they used ideology to stoke up passions and create a political culture again in which people are clearly in one camp or the other. There was no middle ground with the Brexit referendum. Things became binary. You were in or out. This pushed people to become so angry with each other because it offered no room for compromise, you could only agree or disagree.
This was a sad moment in British politics. Labour and Conservative voters and politicians had started to work together, share common ideas, find a centre ground that we could all occupy, differing only in nuance. Now we are back into a period of them and us, you or me, right or wrong. We are also back into a political era where ideology drives policy regardless of the cost and damage it causes.
Brexit has now been shown to be socially divisive, damaging our position internationally, and in the British Chancellor’s Autumn Statement the true economic cost was laid bare. Rather than finding millions for the NHS, as the Brexiteers cynically promised, then denied promising, we are to lose billions, according to the Government’s own number-crunchers. The government seem to be pushing ahead with Brexit no matter what, however damaging it becomes. It is just an ideology, devoid of any sense or balance.
And then there’s Labour. Somehow they have gone from a practical party of government back in time to being a passionate, ideological party of themselves. They are failing as an effective opposition, which is allowing the worst government I can remember in my lifetime to carry on unabated. It is sad to see Labour go from a pointless talking shop to a party in government, and then back again to a party barely able to oppose, let alone govern. The fact that they’ve been crushed in the last two by-elections is evidence of this.
But we are not just back in time to the previous status quo. This is a completely new political era.
What is new, and what requires us all to stop, think, and redefine, is that we are no longer on the same political sides we used to be.
Politics in the West appears to be back into the Left and Right paradigm. Are you Democrat or Republican, Labour or Tory? But that comfortable, familiar, and very simplistic defining of political thought no longer serves where the West is heading. There are more complex questions. For starters, are you Brexit or Remain? Are you Trump, or not? Are you Front National, or not?
If you are not for Trump, then you need to prepare to vote for whoever is not Trump, in the mid-Terms and then in the next election. If you are not for the Front National, then in France you will have to vote strategically, for whoever will block Le Pen. If you are not in favour of Brexit, get ready to vote against the pro-Brexit government, even if that means voting Labour or Liberal Democrat for the first time in your life, or even in generations of your family. The people of Richmond have taken that lead and we need to learn from that.
In fact, the political landscape is dividing into something more fundamental and essential even than that. Over the coming years, maybe decades, politics in the West will become about the raw essence of what ‘The West’ is. Are you for democracy and freedom, or for some new form of Fascism? It is about Western Liberalism versus Nationalist Protectionism, but it will also become about the rule of law, and the foundations of democracy, truth versus lies, corruption versus transparency.
America has every likelihood of becoming a gangster state under Trump, where truth, the rule of law, and corruption become the main topics in the political landscape, replacing the traditional Republican-Democrat dialogue. Under the Conservatives in the UK already we have seen truth and democracy challenged, from the lies told by the Brexit campaign to the attempts by May to operate outside the constraints of Parliament. Avoiding Parliament avoids public scrutiny, which comes back to truth and transparency. Challenging the Judiciary, as she and her Cabinet did recently, threatens the rule of law. The UK version of this has been subtle, but has aroused some passions. In the US, Trump has been far more extreme, and his recent appointments of a string of financiers and Billionaires points towards a Berlusconi type fiasco of a government — certainly not draining a swamp.
In this new political battleground, the side that is against the democracy, freedom, and openness we’ve generally enjoyed since the War is well organised, and fairly well defined. UKIP, the Front National, the Trumpists, Orban, and others increasingly see themselves as a global movement, and are seen by their supporters, such as Putin, as a defined group with a common ideology and identity. They are not the political mainstream and are not making traditional alliances. Whereas Regan (Republican) was close to Thatcher (Conservative), and Clinton (Democrat) was close to Blair (Labour), Trump (Republican) is close to Farage (a member of the European Parliament). The old natural alliances no longer exist.
The opposition, meanwhile, is still divided out between different parties still playing the old political games of left and right, this or that minor political ideology. Being so divided they are a weak opponent to the anti-Democrats, the Nationalist Protectionists. In upcoming elections, their supporters will fight a weak and uncoordinated battle. Labour if evidence of this, but it goes beyond single parties to the way the mainstream parties engage with each other. In France there are three parties fighting the election. Votes will be split between the traditional left and right, or for the Front National. If those who oppose the new anti-democratic, illiberal politics had their act together they would be voting as a block against le Pen. I fear that will not happen.
In America, politics risks slipping back into the old Democrat versus Republican game. That game is no longer the one being played. Anti-Trump Republicans now need to join forces with the Democrats and fight back for control of their country. Whatever you call that anti-Trump movement, whether it’s just under the umbrella of the Democratic Party, or whether it is something new, those who are not in favour of what Trump stands for need to unite and fight side by side as one political force. History will have deemed it worth a party sacrificing an election in order to stop the thing Trump represents. This will be the new politics, and it started when Republican politicians came out against Trump, but it needs a lot more than that.
So what is this new political movement? It is not The Left because it includes The Right. It is not Labour or Democrat. I think it is important to define what it is so people can recognise themselves in it, and join it. Asking Tories to vote Labour or Republicans to vote Democrat may be hard to stomach, but asking people who are pro-Europe, pro-Democracy, and pro-Truth to gather under one banner may be an easier sell.
The political discourse is no longer divided between Left and Right — there are plenty on the Right who are horrified by what’s happening, and on the Left who favour political strongmen and ideologies. The battle is essentially Democracy and Truth versus those who will undermine it.
So those who are pro-Democracy need to group together under a single message, have a single strategy, and act as one. The opposition is strong, united, and doesn’t care about the rules. Fighting clean, and fighting with the old political weapons will not work; that is the Light Brigade charging against cannons. Historically, the liberal intellectuals never do well in times like these, they generally end up in gulags or in front of firing squads. They need to fight a tougher fight.
We need to adapt fast. For starters, the pro-Democracy, rationalist political leaders need to see the next round of elections across the West in this context. This next round of elections is not about whether or not they or their party wins. It is about whether the current Western liberal democratic order continues to exist. Our mainstream political leaders should be ready to sacrifice their seats to protect their countries. I would like to see a French election in which the two traditional party’s leaders ask voters to vote strategically against Le Pen. In the UK I would like to see the Centrist, Liberal, pro-Europe Liberal, Labour, and Conservative politicians come together as a united opposition against any Brexit policies they see are damaging the UK.
By-elections and the next election should be fought around weakening May’s government, even if that means voting strategically and against old-school political lines. And in America, everyone who opposes Trump needs to unite, forget their other differences, and put up a massive, vocal opposition to every lie he tells, and every thing he does that is corrupt, stupid, or dangerous.
These are new times. Think about how you fit into the new political landscape, and quickly. The forces that seek to undermine the post war democratic era the West has enjoyed are in the ascendant.