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22 December 2014

Politicians ought to have a pint with their opponents more often

Politics without blind tribal dogma? I’ll drink to that.

By Simon Danczuk

Who would go for a pint with Nigel Farage? Ed Miliband told the Daily Mirror he’d have a drink with the Ukip leader and Guardian columnist Marina Hyde said Farage was the only party leader she’d sup with. But when I decided to join him for a “seasonal sherbet”, as he put it, all hell broke loose.

Never mind this is supposed to be the season of goodwill. Some people in my party decided I’d betrayed the Labour movement and committed an act of high treason. In the predictable abuse that popped up on my Twitter timeline, an employee of the PCS trade union even went as far as suggesting I should be deported.

This kind of hysterical reaction shows everything that’s wrong about modern politics. Warring tribalism, entrenched dogma, simplistic slogans and facile posturing is helping no one and the public knows it. Since I became Rochdale’s MP in 2010, I’ve become acutely aware of the huge challenges in my constituency – and I know some problems are so big they’ll require cross-party cooperation.

That’s why I’m happy to meet politicians from all parties to see if I can find any common ground. I often enjoy meeting those who I’m least likely to agree with. Because, as the saying goes, “A wise man can learn more from his enemies than a fool from his friends.”

In my book this is grown up politics. Tribalism only gets you so far. You have to understand what’s happening around you. Politics is slowly coming to terms with the fact that a silo mentality is dangerous. That’s why there are more and more opposing politicians going for a pints with one another these days. It’s just not reported.

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I ditched partisan politics to work on a cross-party basis earlier this year to help get the Home Secretary to launch a national inquiry into child sexual abuse. It was the most edifying work I’ve been involved in this parliament.

There are plenty of other examples too. Just look at Bristol. It’s no surprise to me that this city is going places under its independent mayor. George Ferguson is pretty much the antithesis of tribalism and has Greens, Liberals, Conservatives and Labour councillors in his cabinet.

You don’t have to be a serious student of politics these days to see that the old model of doing politics is breaking down. We need to look at new ways of doing things. Uncertainty plagues our politics and there’s a growing sense that we’re heading towards unchartered territory. 

Farage thrives off this chaos. He laughed at the fact that commentators are continually proved wrong and no one really has a clue. The only thing we’re certain of is that politics in its current form isn’t working.

What surprised me most, though, was that he came across as a real student of Labour politics and spoke knowledgeably about Labour politicians of the past.

The irony here for me is that if current Labour politicians knew our history better then Ukip wouldn’t be making any headway in the north, particularly on issues like immigration, which worry many of our traditional supporters. We’d do well to remember that over 100 years ago the founder of the Labour party, Keir Hardie, for example, was critical of the owners of a local ironworks for driving down wages of Scottish workers by using foreign labour. And let’s not forget that Jim Callaghan, a Labour Home Secretary who would go on to become Prime Minister, warned that excessive immigration in a small number of concentrated areas could “aggravate” social problems.

These were early warnings of the downside of globalisation long before Ukip was even imagined. If we want to create confident and strong communities then this tradition needs to be rediscovered to show working people we’re on their side. Labour has to tackle touchstone issues like immigration head-on, not leave it to siren voices in Ukip who only want to sow division and fear.

But back to the pub, and, while it would be easy for me to denounce Farage, I’ll readily concede he’s good company. He’s happy making jokes at his own expense and is fun to be around. This is not necessarily the best measure for someone running the country, though. Otherwise we’d have Peter Kay in Downing Street.

But I genuinely think it’s helpful sometimes for politicians to try and find some common ground with political enemies. As Bill Clinton once said, “Our differences do matter, but our common humanity matters more.” Debating with someone over a pint or two helps concentrate minds on the real differences between parties and might go some way to replacing empty sloganeering and yah-boo politics with a more sophisticated approach. And that can only be a good thing for politics in the long run.

Simon Danczuk is Labour MP for Rochdale

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