A Labour badge at the 2014 party conference. Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
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Want to upset Britain’s flaccid intelligentsia? Join a political party

The London-based commentariat is quick to pontificate about the decline in our political culture, but slow to do anything about it.

There’s that small pause in the dinner party chatter. Women tilt their heads to one side, unconsciously mimicking, Diana. Men push back their chairs and stare at you a in faint amusement. What on earth could you mean? A member of a political party; the Labour party at that! And they had thought you almost interesting, perhaps even amusing. But really…

Being a member of a political party – any party – is today the unpardonable sin. 

It is the sure sign of being just slightly below par; not quite bright enough to see through the shallow platitudes peddled by the political class. You are – in their eyes – rather like the helpless child who has fallen for the fizz, the sugars and the E numbers of some gaudy sweet. There you are, scoffing down the pre-prepared opinions and policies of the party leader, only to regurgitate them like some bloated five year old at the dinner table.

Recently I went to see Ed Milliband give a speech on development at a north London comprehensive. The children loved it. Ed clearly enjoyed the event, answering most of their well-phrased and frequently penetrating questions with some skill; ducking a few. I put a photograph of Ed in full flow on Facebook. A former colleague at the BBC reacted with just two words: “Jaja binks.”

The reference was to Jar Jar Binks – the arguably racist characterisation of a buffoon with staring eyes from Star Wars. It was a jest – clever, cutting and utterly dismissive: both of Ed and of me.

Over the years I have got used to these kind of put-downs.

Of course membership of any political party is at a post-war low. A study by the House of Commons Library indicates that fewer than 1 per cent of the UK electorate is now a member of the Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat Party, compared to 3.8 per cent in 1983 (pdf).

The Conservative Party had 134,000 members, the Labour Party 190,000 and the Liberal Democrats 44,000. Other parties are growing. The Green Party claims their membership has overtaken Ukip. Total party membership in Britain nudges over the half a million mark. It is petty pathetic for an advanced western democracy, when the National Trust attracts over 4 million members.

The odd thing is this: the same acquaintances who are amused by my enthusiasm for Labour are equally quick to pontificate about the decline in our political culture.  They will berate parties for their lack of intellectual rigour. They attack the convergence in the cluttered middle-ground and the bland, beige nature of mainstream politics.

When I challenge them about their own lack of engagement they all have well-honed excuses. Yes, they would, but honestly, who could accept all the detritus that comes with commitment? Labour just does not cut it for them. It is too woolly headed, poorly thought out. How could they accept such an intellectually challenged promises and policies? Their reputations might be tainted by association, and so they remain inactive.

This is the heart of the problem: the slothfulness of Britain’s flaccid intelligentsia.

Not for them the dreary business of being a party member, and confronting in person the problems of potential voters.  All those late nights in poorly heated halls, reading minutes and passing resolutions. All that getting out and knocking on doors on council estates, or handing out scruffy leaflets at windy stations. Who would want to be involved?

The truth, from my experience, is that the rewards far outweigh the time and effort.

I arrived in Britain from South Africa in 1977. There, I had been active in the emerging non-racial trade union movement. I looked around for a party to become involved with. The Trotskyist parties were fractious, dogmatic and held little appeal. The Communist Party was a Leninist hulk and deeply unattractive. So I joined Labour.

Unlike many South Africans I knew, who remained aloof from British politics, I became engaged. Being a member of Labour meant I actually met the working class and broke out of the isolated and privileged bubble inhabited by so many in the middle class.

I came to know and respect men like Jerry Williams. An immigrant like myself, Jerry had come to Britain from Barbados in 1956. He rose to become Camden’s first black mayor. A pillar of the gym that taught boxing to young boys on the estates, Jerry was much loved. Some said he was a less than effective councillor, but I thought he was a real gem.

Since then I have come to know some of the people of Blaenau Gwent – helping my friend, Nick Smith, win the constituency back for Labour at the last election. Going door to door in the sleet in that former mining constituency cemented relationships like nothing else. It took me way beyond the comfort zone inhabited by so many of the sneering, London commentariat.

Commitment to a party does not require a lobotomy; it does not mean placing one’s critical judgement on hold. It is simply vital if we are to keep the engine-room of politics functioning properly and maintain an open, liberal culture. Engagement and energy are the prices one pays for living in a working, vibrant democracy. 

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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Here's what Theresa May could say to save the Brexit talks

The best option would be to invent a time machine, but unfortunately that's not on the table. 

One of my favourite types of joke is the logical impossibility: a statement that seems plausible but, on closer examination, is simply impossible and contradictory. “If you break both legs, don’t come running to me” is one. The most famous concerns a hapless tourist popping into a pub to ask for directions to London, or Manchester, or Belfast or wherever. “Well,” the barman replies, “I wouldn’t have started from here.”

That’s the trouble, too, with assessing what the government should do next in its approach to the Brexit talks: I wouldn’t have started from here.

I wouldn’t have started from a transient Leave campaign that offered a series of promises that can’t be reconciled with one another, but that’s the nature of a referendum in which the government isn’t supporting the change proposition. It’s always in the interest of the change proposition to be at best flexible and at worst outright disregarding of the truth.

Britain would be better off if it were leaving the European Union after a vote in which a pro-Brexit government had already had to prepare a white paper and an exit strategy before seeking popular consent. Now the government is tasked with negotiating the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union with a mandate that is contradictory and unclear. (Take immigration. It’s clear that a majority of people who voted to leave want control over Britain’s borders. But it’s also clear that a minority did not and if you take that minority away, there’s no majority for a Leave vote.

Does that then mean that the “democratic” option is a Brexit that prioritises minimising economic harm at the cost of continuing free movement of people? That option might command more support than the 52 per cent that Leave got but it also runs roughshod over the concerns that really drove Britain’s Leave vote.

You wouldn’t, having had a referendum in inauspicious circumstances, have a government that neglected to make a big and genuinely generous offer on the rights of the three million citizens of the European Union currently living in the United Kingdom.

In fact the government would have immediately done all it could to show that it wanted to approach exit in a constructive and co-operative manner. Why? Because the more difficult it looks like the departing nation is going to be, the greater the incentive the remaining nations of the European Union have to insist that you leave via Article 50. Why? Because the Article 50 process is designed to reduce the leverage of the departing state through its strict timetable. Its architect, British diplomat John Kerr, envisaged it being used after an increasingly authoritarian state on the bloc’s eastern periphery found its voting rights suspended and quit “in high dudgeon”.

The strict timeframe also hurts the European Union, as it increases the chances of an unsatisfactory or incomplete deal. The only incentive to use it is if the departing nation is going to behave in a unconstructive way.

Then if you were going to have to exit via the Article 50 process, you’d wait until the elections in France and Germany were over, and restructure Whitehall and the rest of the British state so it was fit to face the challenges of Brexit. And you wouldn’t behave so shabbily towards the heads of the devolved administrations that Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP and Carwyn Jones of the Welsh Labour Party have not become political allies.

So having neglected to do all of that, it’s hard to say: here’s what Theresa May should say in Florence, short of inventing time travel and starting the whole process again from scratch.

What she could do, though, is show flexibility on the question of British contributions to the European budget after we leave, and present a serious solution to the problem of how you ensure that the rights of three million EU citizens living in Britain have a legal backdrop that can’t simply be unpicked by 325 MPs in the House of Commons, and show some engagement in the question of what happens to the Irish border after Brexit.

There are solutions to all of these problems – but the trouble is that all of them are unacceptable to at least part of the Conservative Party. A reminder that, as far as the trouble with Brexit goes, Theresa May is the name of the monster – not the doctor. 

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