By Martin Vogel
The hounding out of the Labour Party of a pregnant, Jewish MP is both upsetting and unsettling. Who can contradict the despair experienced by Daniel Finkelstein on witnessing the episode?
“When I watched Luciana Berger deliver her speech resigning from the Labour Party I cried because of its integrity and bravery and grace. And I cried because in my entire adult life what happened yesterday is the one of the lowest, most dispiriting political moments for British Jews. I cried because I despair at what has happened. I cried because I don’t think it is over.”
That the formation of The Independent Group of MPs has elicited a doubling down by Corbyn supporters on their intolerant and antisemitic bile only underlines how precarious is democracy’s reliance on the civil resolution of difference. We may not have reached the nadir. Anna Soubry’s denunciation of entryism and tyranny among the Conservatives shows that both main parties are infected. Yet, in the courage of the eleven MPs who have now quit the two main parties, lie grounds for cautious optimism. They are calling time on the violent discourses that have overcome politics.
“It wasn’t just remarkable for the sight of former political opponents sitting together, or for its news value. It was remarkable because of what it represented. It stood against the poison of the age: the constant toxic tribalism that has infected our political debate. It wasn’t just that they sat together. It was that they smiled together. They were getting on. Something important was happening. This was a cultural moment as well as a political moment.”
Of course, there are grounds for scepticism. Chris Dillow makes the pertinent observation that the indies have no critique of austerity and capitalist stagnation – no small point, since these are factors that fuelled the alienation behind the populism and Brexit that the defectors dislike. What about climate change: the issue that brought thousands of school children onto the streets in protest at the negligence of their elders? One could go on: the extinctions crisis; surveillance capitalism; the casualisation of jobs; homelessness?
The truth is innovation is needed across the policy spectrum. If The Independent Group, as occupiers of the centre ground, become perceived as advocates of the failed status quo ante, they may not have much impact. But they show signs of adopting a 21st Century networked leadership model which could yield relevant and progressive approaches to the complex and systemic challenges of our age. The FT commentator Robert Shrimsley seemed dismissive of what he called their “bizarre invitation to the voters to help crowdsource their policies.” But this is precisely the right approach to complex issues, which are defined by the fact that we can’t know in advance the best way to address them.
Chuka Umunna was frank that they did not have ready answers to big questions. It would be invidious to pretend otherwise. It’s necessary to tap into diversity of insight. But the approach makes sense politically too. In our post-deferential times, an attempt to build a movement with a pre-packaged policy agenda would be doomed to failure. It would simply be a rubber-stamping exercise which would contribute only to exacerbating the alienation the Indies seek to overcome.
Chuka Umunna has also articulated that this is an attempt to create a progressive politics out of the aligned yet different political traditions of the centre. Supporters coming together from these traditions, finding their affinities and mediating their differences, have a material role in shaping what this new politics could be in practice.
The Independent Group have already pulled together an impressive network of social media followers. To fulfil Chuka Umunna’s promise, they’ll need to bring followers together in real life, in engaging events of creativity and deliberation. One outcome of the defections is that it has raised the cost for those dissidents who remain in their parties. It throws a spotlight on those former colleagues who claimed to be standing in solidarity with Luciana Berger and those who reach for the notion of Labour’s “broad church” to justify staying put. Various commentators have noted the contradictions. Here’s Rafael Behr:
“It is ridiculous to campaign for your party while dreading the prospect of its leader becoming prime minister. It is possible to stay with Corbyn or fight Corbynism, but not both.”
And Stephen Bush:
“They need to accept that the price of remaining within the Labour Party is fealty to a leader they don’t like, the return of members they would rather see banned, and a response to anti-Semitism they find derisory. That’s the price of staying in: and if they find it is one they are unwilling to pay, they should find the stomach to risk life outside the walls of the party’s broad church.”
And Sara Gibbs
“If you have committed to staying in a political movement no matter what it does, no matter how toxic it becomes, no matter who it harms, because you’re that movement ‘to the core’, that’s not principle, it’s religious devotion. It’s not admirable, it’s mindless & embarrassing.”
It’s not surprising that a handful of MPs taking a stand for decency has struck a chord. As Gina Miller says:
“The antisemitism in the Labour party, the Islamophobia in the Conservative party, and the thuggish new tone to political discourse have all combined to alienate vast swaths of the electorate.”
Businesses are fed up with this too. Britain’s political and societal disarray is cited as “country risk” behind the disinvestment of Japanese corporates. The Independents have raised the possibility that things could be otherwise. And, as Oliver Kamm notes, this simple act of leadership is to be applauded:
On the most basic issues of governance – the constitutional constraints against arbitrary power, the full citizenship of everyone under the rule of law, and participation in a system of alliances to tame an anarchic international order – both main parties have abandoned the people they profess to serve. This may prove no more than a footnote in the history of British politics but a declaration of simple decency has merit regardless.
Filling the vacuum between the increasingly extremist main parties is not simply a question of policy positions – perhaps not even largely, as the unashamedly sketchy policy prospectus of the Indies signifies. It entails a style that engages in conflict respectfully, is attentive to civic harmony and seeks to move forward by finding consensus amid differing opinions. It is the abandonment of this style, as the main parties have migrated to the ideological extremes, that causes concern for the health of democracy.
The centre ground needn’t be bland. Radicalism of ideas is necessary, given the environmental, economic and social challenges we face. How we find it calls for distributed leadership and civility of discourse. The first steps of the Independents could yet take us in that direction.