Debate is raging - but the parties just seem to be drying up

People want ideas, they want to be heard, challenged and confirmed. But our political parties have little to offer them.

Last Sunday, I got up early and trooped off to do a panel on "free will" at the Battle of Ideas, the big annual shin dig of the Institute of Ideas (IoI). Yes, no one made me.  But instead of lying in like a normal person, I did it because I was interested in the issue and doing panels makes me think about what I’m going to say – even if that’s not always obvious when I say things. I was also nosey about the event, its scale and the people it attracted. And I wanted to know what had happened to the slightly strange bunch who had migrated  - or not - from the Trotskyite Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP ) of my student youth – to the IoI.

I laughed when I entered the cinema auditorium at the Barbican. The last time I'd been in the room with my wife to watch a film, she took her coat off to hang it on the seat in front, not realising a man was sitting there. He was like a budgie in a cage at bedtime. It suddenly went even darker. My wife didn’t realise her error and I giggled in nervous horror as the rather befuddled man just sat there for some time. Surely the room couldn’t be as much fun again. Sadly it wasn’t quite.

The panel had a philosopher, a psychologist/scientist, a sociologist and me. There was never going to be agreement on whether we had free will from such a wide-ranging panel. And there wasn’t. I never was much good at philosophy, too abstract and too clever for me, and how the brain works just feels too remote – it just works - and I should have been interested in the sociologist but she was from Canterbury University, the hot bed of the IoI/RCP, and so we got a freedom from regulation line they always trot (stop it) out.  It’s like the thinking person's Jeremy Clarkson. Get rid of all these silly, nannying regulations and let people be grown ups. Somehow that’s supposed to kick-off a revolution!

I decided to pick on the audience and tell them they were a bunch of turbo-consuming drones. That always goes down well with highly intellectual, confident and articulate groups who also bother to get up on a Sunday morning and certainly don’t want to pay to be offended.  It always amazes me that people who make meticulous selections about exactly what they wear – a very certain shirt and a very certain pair of glasses – then claim they are not shopping donkeys following a very particular organic carrot dangled before their nose – refuse to accept the consumerisation of society and their lives. Anyway, enough of my sub-Bauman, its all just like The Matrix, rants and back to the IoI/RCP and what it says about the political mood.

They claimed that as many as 2,000 people trooped through the Barbican over the weekend of the event. There were a huge array of panels, battles and sponsors. Surely they couldn’t all be part of the Trotskyite conspiracy (of which you can read more in the LRB)? They certainly could not. But the fact that a small and impressively well organised group could mount such a sustained intellectual endeavour – even for highly dubious and nefarious ends – holds an intriguing mirror up to the rest of us. And maybe one more useful than found in a budgie cage that only lets us talk to ourselves.

People want ideas, they want to be heard, challenged and confirmed.  They want to speak out. From ideas festivals and book festivals across the country – debate is raging. My next outing is to Frome for an Independence Day event about the threatened domination of a proud and diverse town centre by a supermarket behemoth (the rant will start again). So I go back, as I seem to again and again, to the disconnect between all this energy (even when it's obviously daft) and vitality and the political parties that just seem to be drying up (an honourable exception would seem to be Tim Montgomerie over at Conservative Home, who bursts with ideas, resources and right-wing optimism). I don’t know what the 200 or so in the room left thinking, but it certainly wasn’t that any mainstream, that is non-Trosykyite, party had any interest in debates about free will or much intellectual debate at all really.

The "cant live with them, cant live without them" ambivalence towards party politics will rumble awkwardly, infuriatingly and creatively on. How can parties lead and listen, link the desirable to the feasible, be in power and not just office? And how can groups outside become more political by joining the dots between our desire for equality and our need for democracy and sustainability?  Can anyone address the causes and not just symptoms of world in which the planet burns and the poor get poorer?  This is where we should be having the real battle of ideas.

PS I did another meeting in the week, this time in Liverpool for Compass, the organisation I chair. It was on co-operatives and what we hoped to be their second coming. It was fantastic.  The audience knew far more than me, John Goodman from Cooperatives UK was informative and humble and there was a brilliant bit when one participant admitted to being a member of both the Labour Party and the Green Party – grounds for expulsion from either, or both if they found out at the same time. But it was a logical step – they believed that both parties were necessary and alone both insufficient. It’s a pointer to the future that people create for themselves, rather than fit any last century mould.

Neal Lawson's column appears weekly on The Staggers.

Speakers at the Battle of Ideas festival.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones. 

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What does it mean for Ukip if it loses in Stoke-on-Trent Central?

The party’s prospects are in question if it fails to win over the “Brexit capital” in Thursday's by-election.

“The Only Way Is Up!” blasted through a hall in Stoke-on-Trent Central on a damp Monday evening earlier this month. It was the end of a public Ukip meeting, in which Nigel Farage and his successor and by-election candidate Paul Nuttall made their rallying cries to an audience of around 650 supporters.

But even then, a fortnight ago, the note of triumph in the dance classic was tinged with uncertainty. “We’ve won the war, but we’ve yet to win the peace,” Farage admitted to the sympathetic crowd. And while this message is supposed to make Ukip’s fight relevant even in the context of Brexit-bound Britain, it betrays the party’s problem: the battle that was its raison d'être is over.

Failing fortunes

Since then, the party has had more to contend with. Its candidate in the Labour seat has been caught lying about having “close personal friends” killed at the Hillsborough disaster. This comes on top of a number of other false claims, and an investigation into whether he falsely registered his home address as being in the constituency.

After these scandals – and a campaign seemingly unable to turn out apathetic voters (which I covered a couple of weeks ago) – Ukip’s chances in the West Midlands seat look worse than expected.

Initially the main challenger to Labour, Ukip is now being predicted for third or even fourth place in the seat, behind a Tory party that essentially stood aside to give Nuttall room, and to focus on a concurrent by-election campaign in Copeland.

It’s in Labour’s interest for the campaign to continue looking like a close Labour-Ukip fight, in order to keep hold of tactical voters. But both the Conservative and Lib Dem campaigns are feeling more buoyant.

“We are relatively confident that Ukip are not going to win, and that is quite a change,” the Lib Dem campaign coordinator Ed Fordham told me. “That has actually relieved lots of voters of the emotional risk of letting in what they perceive to be an unpleasant, far-right option . . . and voting for who they would like to represent them.”

One local activist chirped: “It will hopefully be a terrible result for Ukip.”

So what will it mean for Ukip if it loses?

Great expectations

Ukip has a lot riding on this seat. Farage called the by-election “absolutely fundamental” to Ukip’s future. Its new leader, Nuttall, took the risk of running as the party’s candidate there – riding his reputation on the by-election.

This created a lot of hype about Ukip’s chances, which the party has privately been trying to play down ever since. Even before the scandal surrounding Nuttall, he was emphasising that the seat had only been Ukip’s 72nd target, and told me he had taken a gamble by running for it. “The way it’s being written up as if this is the one – it wasn’t,” he insisted.

But Stoke-on-Trent, where 69 per cent voted Leave, has been labelled the “Brexit capital”. According to political scientist Rob Ford, the author of Revolt on the Right who has been studying Labour’s most Ukip-vulnerable seats: “It should be a pretty favourable seat for them, pretty favourable demographics, pretty favourable [negative] attitudes about the EU, very high Brexit vote there and so on.”

In other words, if Ukip can’t win here, against a weak Labour party, where can it win?

Struggle for seats

Brexit is central to Ukip’s by-election campaign. The party has highlighted Labour’s splits over Europe, pointed out the Labour candidate Gareth Snell’s Remainer credentials, and warned that the government needs to be held to account when negotiating Britain’s exit.

But Ford believes this rhetoric is unlikely to work, since the Tories are already pursuing a “hard” Brexit focused on immigration control. “A difficulty for Paul Nuttall and Ukip is that people are going to say: why would we vote for you when we’re getting what we want from the government? What’s the point right now?” he said. “I can have all the Brexity stuff, all the immigration control stuff, but with none of the incompetence and serial lying about Hillsborough – I think I’ll take that!”

So if rerunning the EU referendum doesn’t work, even in such a Brexit-heavy seat, this means trouble for Ukip elsewhere in the country. A Ukip councillor in a top Ukip target seat with similar demographics to Stoke believes it’s “crisis time” for the party.

“It is very sad to say, but Ukip has lost its way,” they told me. “It’s still a strong party, but after losing Nigel, it’s lost a little of its oomph. The new gentleman [Nuttall] has been silly with the comments he’s made. That’s a big worry in some regards. You need to be a people person. It’s a serious situation at the minute.”

If Ukip can’t prove it can win parliamentary seats – even in favourable by-elections – then it will be difficult to prove its authority as a political party come the general election.

Leadership lament

Should Nuttall lose, Ukip’s leadership will come into question. Again. During a tumultuous time late last year, when the favourite Steven Woolfe left the party after a physical altercation, and Diane James quit the leadership after 18 days, commentators asked if Ukip was anything without Farage.

When Nuttall eventually took over, the same voices warned of his threat to Labour – citing his northern and working-class roots. It’s likely this narrative will change, and Farage’s golden touch pondered again, if Nuttall fails to win.

But rather than panic about its national leader, Ukip must look carefully at those who commit to the party in local campaigns. On the ground in Stoke, running Nuttall as a candidate instead of a local Ukipper is seen as a mistake.

“I don’t know why they did that,” one local activist for an opposing party commented. “If they’d run Mick Harold, they would’ve won. He’s a Stokie.”

Harold, the deputy chair of Staffordshire County Committee, and chair of Ukip’s Stoke-on-Trent Central/North branch, won 22.7 per cent of the vote for Ukip in the constituency in 2015. He insists that he stands by his decision to step aside for Nuttall, but does highlight that Ukip should increase its vote share.

“If we’re increasing our percentage share of the vote, we’re still moving forward and that’s how we’ve got to look at it,” he told me. “I got 22.7 per cent in 2015. I would think this time we’re going to certainly get somewhere around the 30 per cent mark.”

Would it have been more likely to achieve this with Harold as candidate? “Whatever happens, happens, we’ve just got to move forward,” he replied. “If you’ve made a mistake, you move on from it.”

I have heard similar misgivings from local activists in other parts of the country – people who have achieved impressive results in local elections and the general election, but haven’t had much thanks from the national party. “We need to get professionalised now,” one such campaigner said. “Because we’ve got grassroots people who are not career politicians [doing all the hard work].” They say their local party is fed up with leadership being dictated by “personal grudges” at the top of the party.

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As I’ve written before, I don’t think this is the end of Ukip. Once Brexit starts to bite, and it’s clear immigrants are still needed to fill jobs, there will be resentment enough to make space for them again. But losing Stoke will highlight the challenges – of purpose, leadership and local organisation – that the party will need to overcome for its next stand.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.