Your Voice: Division haunts the left. Richmond Park is our chance to lay it to rest

Your Voice: Division haunts the left. Richmond Park is our chance to lay it to rest

by 30th October 2016 0 comments

Powered by Guardian.co.ukUkip does not intend to contest the Richmond Park byelection triggered by Zac Goldsmith’s petulant resignation. There is something delightful in the news, since it means that, were Goldsmith elected as an independent, he would be, in our hearts and minds if not on paper, Ukip’s second MP, which chimes nicely with his racist and narrow-minded mayoral campaign, and works well with Ukip’s stance on the environment (which is to contradict each other wildly).

Even though my ardent hope is for Richmond Park’s former Tory MP to lose, disgracefully, there is still much to learn from this moment. If the right knows one thing, it’s how to cooperate. On the left, meanwhile, we feel our way towards a progressive alliance much more timidly, even when we know we’re sunk without it. The Tory chaos surrounding Brexit is the point at which we realise how many fundamental values the left shares – on a spectrum from the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, to the architect of New Labour, Peter Mandelson (on the single market); and from Caroline Lucas, for the Greens, to the Lib Dems’ Paddy Ashdown (on freedom of movement). The Richmond Park byelection is the moment for us to decide where exactly our mouth is, so we can put our money there.

This has opened up divisions in the Labour party already. On one side are Lisa Nandy and Clive Lewis, as well as Compass, calling for Labour to step aside completely, leaving the fight open for the Liberal Democrat, Sarah Olney. On the other, Red Labour scotches this idea and wants to field Barnaby Marder, with the enviable slogan “Feel the Barn”. I personally favour the open primary over the electoral stitch-up – when the candidate is chosen only by the abdication of the other candidates, and voters have had no hand in it. The result may be an alliance, but the process hasn’t been very progressive.

Which of those two options we end up with is an important question. But first, we on the left need to kill off some ghosts. Halloween may mean Haribos to you; to me it means paying tribute to the noble dead notions of leftwingery gone by.

When it comes to speaking and acting in unison, what is it that we’re so afraid of? Well – zombies, obviously. Just when you think the politics of Tony Blair and Mandelson have finally perished, they pop back up again: Blair on the Today programme last week, Mandelson in the Mail on Sunday. This is Blair at his most dangerous: when he is organised, and when he makes sense. “If it becomes clear,” he said, “that this is either a deal that doesn’t make it worth our while leaving, or, alternatively, a deal that is going to be so serious in its implications that people may decide they don’t want to go, there’s got to be some way, either through parliament, through an election, possibly through a referendum, in which people express their view.”

This cannot be written off as tyrannical egomania, the final twitching of a corpse who hates democracy: it is true. A vote was cast in which a majority of people expressed their will for something, but nobody said what. It is not undemocratic to want a little more detail, to worry about the long-term feasibility of having to bribe companies to stay here, to think that the single market is no small thing from which to exile oneself. We must learn to take allegiance wherever we find it, because the alternative is, frankly, what lost the remain side the referendum: arguments in silos, all caveat and no driving purpose.

There is a continuing terror of politicians in disguise. Is Olney a true Lib Dem, or is she a Tory in liberal clothing? Didn’t she once tell Twitter that she found Theresa May impressive? Why doesn’t she just join the Conservatives, if she finds them so competent? Come to that, hasn’t Marder called himself a socialist before, which is a little bit like being a Trotskyist, which is a lot like wanting a Soviet society of state-run industries and gulags, if you remove all considerations of proportionality and meaning?

We have to let politicians vary quite widely in their views on personalities, issues and ideas, on the understanding that we’re all tacking in the same direction. If that sounds unsettling and weak, again, consider the alternative: to keep on losing.

Perhaps the most understandable fear is that any alliance, between any combination of centre-left to green-left parties, spells the end for Labour, whose internal tensions are only ever alleviated when it can promise electoral dominance. It may be comprehensible, but it’s yesterday’s politics, and traps us in this egregious dichotomy where either Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters must take the whole country with them, or he must be obliterated to make way for “sensible” Labour. It’s time to start considering a new reality in which the two wings of Labour, whether as two separate parties or within the same party, draw energy from one another and the vision they share.

Finally, there isn’t so much a fear as a love affair on the left with intractable difference, the reassurance of a stalemate. We can see this with Heathrow: the unions and the greens on opposite sides, one fighting for jobs, the other for the climate. Differences of this sort are inevitable. Indeed, underneath them is one of the most profound questions dividing all politics: whether we should keep on chasing growth indefinitely – so that each generation may be richer than the last, in perpetuity – or whether we should start modelling for ourselves a future of no growth, where generations reap different rewards, of leisure or community or peace.

It’s a sound and reasonable question, but the developments of today’s politics threaten jobs and climate, growth and the future, trade and equality. The strongest and most coherent voices of hard Brexit are openly seeking a bonfire of regulations. They are laying this fire in our sitting room while we fight over whether to save the sofa or the curtains. There is something fascinating in the comfort we take from the familiarity of irreconcilable differences.

This love of division cannot be discarded lightly – loyalty, to a leader or a party, is a powerful galvanising force and it’s unclear, on the progressive side, how it will function without its guiding principle: hating all the other parties.

Yet now, with the Conservatives in the grip of their most awful ghouls, we have an opportunity without precedent to lay our own fears to rest.

Your Voice article by Zoe Williams for The Guardian.

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