Ed Miliband on a campaign stop in Salford. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Why I keep holding my nose and voting Labour

Alarming as it is to see the traditional major parties all trying their hardest to look the same, it comes down to who you think is least likely to make things worse.

When I voted in 1997 it felt like a great civic duty. It felt like somebody had to do something to finally get rid of the apparently invincible Tory governments that stretched back almost as long as I’d been alive. To my righteously indignant teenaged brain the Tories winning in 1992 was a terrible wrong, one that my generation was set to help rectify, because those before us had dropped the ball.

Looking back, it’s easy to see how Blair was such a winning candidate. He didn’t stand for anything specific other than not being a Tory, but that was enough for me. When he was bringing in tuition fees just as I started university he wasn’t a Tory. When he was waving his arse at millions of anti-war demonstrators before enthusiastically planning and waging a war of aggression he still wasn’t a Tory. When he was there beside Bush, wearing that sinister hammerhead grin of his as Britain colluded in torture, he still wasn’t a Tory.

I could always look at Blair and tell myself that sure, he had the blood of hundreds of thousands of people on him for his role in the Iraq invasion, but it wasn’t like the Tories wouldn’t have done the same. That became the rationalisation for his worst excesses, that the Tories would have done it too. What Blair did bring was mitigating factors. The minimum wage, the increased public spending, reducing poverty, they took the edge off. For all that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did wrong the last five years of coalition rule have reminded us that, no, they were not Tories.

But we get to 2015 and things feel a lot different. When Rachel Reeves pops up to tell us that Labour will be “tougher than the Tories” a on benefits and when Tristram Hunt proclaims that Labour are “aggressively pro-business” it makes me wonder just who these people are and why are they even in the Labour Party to start with. Who joins the Labour Party so they can be tough on benefits claimants? Who joins the Labour Party for the sake of business interests? I could understand it if these kinds of ideas were held by people who had sneaked into the party and were sitting quietly at the back waiting their time, every party has its oddities, but to have them front and centre with an election coming up? In a country crying out for change it is alarming to see the traditional major parties all trying to look as alike as possible.

Increasingly I feel like a man without a country when it comes to British politics. The rhetoric of the Labour Party doesn’t comfort me in the slightest. I like Ed Miliband, I like that he opposed bombing Syria and I like that he stood up to the Daily Mail over their attacks on his father’s memory. That’s two things already that Tony Blair would never have done, but I still don’t get a sense that he is here to change anything.

We’ve seen the Tories at work in these last five years, dismantling and selling off anything of value within the British public sector like a well-connected crew of thieves. There’s no talk from Miliband about getting anything back. Not the trains, not the energy companies, not the Royal Mail. It feels like there is no opposing force to the Tory party, no major party intent on reversing what they have done. Instead we are presented with the option of having the Tories in power to asset strip the country, or have Labour in power to enter a holding pattern.

I feel no tribal connection to Labour and increasingly I don’t see myself wanting one. I have always loathed the self-congratulatory plundering of the Tory party but as time passes I see less that appeals to me in Labour. When I look at Labour MPs in the House of Commons I get the unerring sense that they have more in common with their Honourable Friends across the room than they have with me. Maybe this was always the case, but at least Tony Blair’s mob made an effort to hide it for the first couple of elections at least.

So why do I keep holding my nose and voting for them in general elections? Fear, I guess. A holding pattern is better than a crash. It’s all well and good to talk about breaking the dichotomy when you’re insulated from the consequences of Tory rule but when you’re hanging precariously above a safety net that could be hauled out from underneath you the perspective changes. I don’t even know that Labour would keep the safety nets, but they’re a better shot than the other lot, so they get my vote. It’s not decision I make with any particular pride.

If this was the only future for Britain, Tory asset-stripping interspersed by patches of torpor under Labour, I wouldn’t have much room for optimism. But I have faith in democracy yet. I think that the Westminster parties have done such a spectacular job of alienating Scotland in recent years that there will have to be consequences and I think we’ll see them in this election. Other parties might do well too, but it’s hard to argue with the influence that forty or so seats in the hands of a party outside of the traditional Westminster coterie will have.

So as I prepare to hold my nose and vote Labour once again I can do it for the first time in a long time with hope that something will change.

 

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

Show Hide image

The biggest divide in politics is not left against right, but liberals against authoritarians

My week, including a Lib Dem membership rise, The Avalanches, and why I'm putting pressure on Theresa May over child refugees.

It is a boost for us that Nick Clegg has agreed to return to the front line and be our Brexit spokesperson. I hadn’t even had a chance at our meeting to make him the offer when he said: “Before we start, I’ve been thinking about this and want to take on the fight over Europe.”

With Labour apparently willing to give the Tories a free pass to take us out of Europe, the Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party that will go into the next election campaigning to maintain our membership of the EU. The stage is remarkably clear for us to remind Theresa May precisely what she would be risking if we abandon free trade, free movement, environmental protection, workers’ rights and cross-border security co-operation. More than a month on from the referendum, all we have heard from the Tories is that “Brexit means Brexit” – but they have given us no clue that they understand what that means.

 

Premature obituaries

Not long ago, the received wisdom was that all political parties were dying – but lately the supposed corpses have twitched into life. True, many who have joined Labour’s ranks are so hard left that they don’t see winning elections as a primary (or even a desirable) purpose of a party, and opening up Labour to those with a very different agenda could ultimately destroy it.

Our experience has been happier: 20,000 people joined the Liberal Democrat fightback in the wake of the 2015 general election result, and 17,000 more have joined since the referendum. We now have more members than at any time this century.

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Journalists have been asking repeatedly if I want to see the break-up of the Labour Party, with moderates defecting to the Liberal Democrats. I have been clear that I am not a home-wrecker and it is for Labour to determine its own future, just as I focus on advancing the Liberal Democrat cause. Yet I have also been clear that I am happy for my party to be a home for liberals of whatever hue. I enjoyed campaigning in the referendum with a variety of progressive figures, just as moderates from different parties shared platforms in 1975. It struck me that far more unites us than divides us.

That said, not all “moderate” Labour figures could be described as “liberal”, as John Reid demonstrated as Labour home secretary. The modern political divide is less left v right than authoritarian v liberal. Both left and right are looking increasingly authoritarian and outright nasty, with fewer voices prepared to stand up for liberal values.

 

What I did on my holidays

Time off has been virtually non-existent, but I am reading A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell (about loss of trust in politics, the media and just about everything). I’m also obsessively listening to Wildflower by the Avalanches, their second album, 16 years after their first. It’s outstanding – almost 60 minutes of intelligently crafted dialogue, samples and epic production.

During the political maelstrom, I have been thinking back to the idyllic few days I spent over half-term on the Scottish island of Colonsay: swimming in the sea with the kids (very cold but strangely exhilarating ­after a decent jog), running and walking. An added bonus is that Colonsay is the smallest island in the world to have its own brewery. I can now heartily recommend it.

 

Preparing for the next fight

The odds are weirdly long on an early general election, but I refuse to be complacent – and not merely because the bookies were so wrong about Brexit. If we have learned one truth about Theresa May as Prime Minister so far, it is that she is utterly ruthless. After her savage cabinet sackings, this is, in effect, a new government. She has refused to go to the country, even though she lectured Gordon Brown on the need to gain the endorsement of the electorate when he replaced Tony Blair. Perhaps she doesn’t care much about legitimacy, but she cares about power.

You can be sure that she will be keeping half an eye on Labour’s leadership election. With Jeremy Corbyn potentially reconfirmed as leader in September against the wishes of three-quarters of his MPs, Mrs May might conclude that she will never have a better chance to increase her narrow majority. Throw in the possibility that the economy worsens next year as Brexit starts to bite, and I rule nothing out.

So, we are already selecting candidates. It is vital that they dig in early. As we are the only party prepared to make the positive case for Europe, such an election would present us with an amazing opportunity.

 

Sitting Priti

David Cameron pledged to take an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from camps across the Continent. I am putting pressure on Theresa May to turn that vague commitment into a proper plan. Having visited such camps, I have been fighting for Britain to give sanctuary to a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied children, who are currently open to the worst kinds of exploitation. We have heard nothing but silence from the government, with underfunded councils reporting that they are not receiving the help they need from Whitehall.

Meanwhile, it remains government policy to send refugees to Turkey – whose increasingly authoritarian government has just suspended human rights protection.

As if all of this were not grim enough, we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, who has said that she thinks aid should be used largely to promote trade. As someone who wants our country to be respected around the world, I find this plain embarrassing. Actually, it’s worse. It’s shaming. As with Europe, so with the world: the ­Conservative government is hauling up the drawbridge just when we need more than ever to engage with people beyond our shores.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. To join the party, visit: libdems.org.uk/join

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue