The liberal hypocrisy over the Arizona shooting

The knee-jerk hysteria blaming Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck risks sinking to the level of the far righ

I'm not sure whether John Wilkes-Booth was a Republican. His shooting of Abraham Lincoln tends to indicate not. Lee Harvey-Oswald described himself as "a hunter of the fascists". That was after his defection to the Soviet Union. When Samuel Byck plotted to murder Richard Nixon, one can assume it was not Nixon's fanatical liberalism that offended him. Ronald Reagan's would-be assassin John Hinckley Jr reportedly acted out of an obsession with the actress Jodie Foster. None, to my knowledge, had any connection with Sarah Palin.

The reaction to Saturday's shootings in Arizona, or the left's reaction to the shootings, has been a case study in partisan, knee-jerk hysteria. In fact, it's been a case study in the sort of partisan, knee-jerk hysteria that is usually the preserve of the far right.

As nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green lay dying, there was no need to call the police. We already knew the culprits. "Glenn Beck guilty," tweeted Jane Fonda. "Mission accomplished, Sarah Palin," blogged Markos Moulitsas, founder of Daily Kos.

Let's for a moment set aside the sheer tastelessness of the attempt to appropriate mass murder for political purposes literally within minutes of it happening. Let's park the self-indulgence of people who claimed a shooting that robbed six families of children, fathers, mothers, husbands, wives and grandparents was "an attack on us all".

Those arguing the Arizona shootings are the product of US right-wing politics, and are demonstrative of a new culture of violent political intolerance, do not have a shred of evidence upon which to base their case. None. All they have to deploy are the same narrow-minded, reactionary, "guilt by association" smears that foster the very extremism they attempt to decry.

"The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on this country is getting to be outrageous," said Arizona's Pima County sheriff Clarence Dupnik. At least Sheriff Dupnik can claim direct association with Saturday's appalling events, and the strength of his response is understandable. But factually, he is wrong. The last time the United States witnessed a sustained programme of organised political violence, bigotry and intimidation was in reaction to the civil rights advances of the 1950s and 1960s. And it was organised, endorsed and appeased by, among others, Southern Democrats.

The US does have a history of isolated attacks directed against its elected representatives. But the thing that connects almost every one of the perpetrators of those crimes is their easy access to guns. My understanding is that Gabrielle Giffords was an opponent of gun control. In 2008 her spokesman voluntarily told local media that she was the owner of a Glock pistol.

We should also remember there are those in the UK that carry guns. Two of them are the Special Branch officers currently detailed to escort our own Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, who has required their protection since voting to increase tuition fees. As we decry the political culture that begets violence in the States, perhaps we should cast a critical eye closer to home.

The US commentator Michael Tomasky is among many who have identified "the violent rhetoric that emanates from the right wing of American society" as contributing, even subliminally, to the shootings. But is "violent rhetoric" the preserve of the right? When John McDonnell expressed a desire to travel back in time and "assassinate" Margaret Thatcher, I don't recall the left rising in condemnation. Nor when Ken Livingstone expressed a wish to see the Saudi royal family swinging from lamp-posts.

The outcry from liberal commentators would at least have more weight if it carried the virtue of consistency. Instead, it is infected by hypocrisy. The very voices condemning the malign impact of Sarah Palin's website are the same ones that were raised in indignation when it was suggested that Pastor Jones, the Quran-burning preacher who was planning to march through Luton with the English Defence League, might be banned. Palin's graphics were deemed an assault on our freedoms. An intimidatory march through Britain's Asian communities is apparently fundamental to them.

Palin and Beck should be condemned, but not because their politics resulted in six people being shot dead in an Arizona shopping mall, appalling though that incident was. They need to be condemned because their politics leads to a quarter of a million people being killed in Iraq. Or because their policies on "abstinence" lead to hundreds of thousands dying of Aids. Or because their penal policies lead to thousands being executed by the federal state.

The American right is fast approaching its day of reckoning. It will be delivered not at the barrel of a gun, but at the ballot box. If we stoop to their level, all we will do is see that day delayed.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.