Reviewing UK politics in 2019 – political debate

2019 has been a rollercoaster of a year in UK politics. There have been several themes throughout the year, including Brexit, the environment, the NHS, the General Election and the nature of the political debate. In the final of this series, the focus is on the election and the broader nature of the political debate.

If at the start of 2019, someone had told me that the Conservatives would see their largest majority since the Thatcher era before the year was out, I would have laughed them out the door. Theresa May was really struggling to make any progress on Brexit and was hindered by political saboteurs everywhere she looked. And yet, here we are.

The way events have played out in the past few months has sometimes made me think that the whole Theresa May premiership was almost a scheme to enable the rise of Boris as Prime Minister with a strong hand. But, the reality is closer to the election being an almighty gamble from senior Conservatives and advisers that “getting Brexit done” was a sufficient mantra to see them through, even though that had not exactly gone swimmingly for Johnson’s predecessor.

What was particularly striking about the election campaign was that despite so many faux pas and even resorting to hiding in a fridge, Johnson seemed like he could do no wrong. Parties were able to get away with lying and creating fake “fact check” accounts, discrediting the work of fact-checking organisations such as Full Fact and contributing to broader issues with political debate.

First among these is misleading voters by trying to pose as a neutral or unknown source to influence opinion. Not only is it dishonest. It also leads to a sense of distrust – not just in politics but in other institutions such as the media and academia. It also ends with people putting up barriers and becoming more isolated, getting stuck in echo chambers. Great for Facebook targeting – not so great for democracy.

Secondly, this division leads to solutions that only work for a small group of highly engaged people. Everyone else is disaffected and exhausted. As a result, policy-making turns into something that is short term and does not benefit the community in its entirety. It leads to an environment of pettiness when pragmatism is often what is required.

Ultimately, this pettiness turns into a sense of powerlessness and the differences between people become more pronounced, as those in charge start attributing blame to other groups. Take this election for example, where the Prime Minister blamed “remainers” for the delay when his deal had been voted for in principle by those he criticised. Rather than bringing people together, this served to drive a further wedge between 52% and 48% of UK voters.

And this also had a wider impact on attitudes to particular minority groups as people feel entitled and empowered to exclude people or claim “their” territory. While the data is not there yet, I have heard more anecdotes about Islamophobic and homophobic abuse in the last few months than I have before.

This effect can be seen in an especially stark way on social media. Twitter replies on the most innocent of tweets can be a dark place, where personal attacks are rife, and the focus is not as much on what is said, but who is saying it. It feels like there is a void of meaningful debate and engagement around the substance of arguments. Surely for there to be progress, this needs to happen.

Another theme to arise from the election is the avoidance of scrutiny. This has been seen in both the PM and Corbyn refusing to do some of the TV debates, and the Prime Minister refusing to sit down with Andrew Neil for an interview – who had some choice words to say.

This avoidance of scrutiny sets a precedent that senior politicians can act in this way, and treat the public with a casual disregard. The fact that Johnson won by avoiding difficult questions and detail is a worrying trend. There is no easy way to move on but to attempt to foster a culture of people questioning what they read and demanding detail.

While this has focused on the Conservatives mainly, there are some themes here which apply to other parties. Labour activists on social media were cajoling people and spreading fake polls to try bolstering the perception that they were in the lead. Jeremy Corbyn was presenting documents in a not particularly honest way. The Liberal Democrats’ “bollocks to Brexit” strategy alienated leave voters. The Brexit Party seemed to shift its position every five minutes.

Any way you look at it, the election was a disaster for the British public.

What needs to be done is some research into the political climate, and the best way of doing this is listening to people. Perhaps this decade can mark a shift to listening and acting in the interests of everyone, rather than just for those who are engaged and making people believe they have a stake in the future.

How can Labour review its election failure properly?

Tired eyes? Listen to this piece above.

Today, we awoke to reports that Ed Miliband will sit alongside Jeremy Corbyn and others including Lucy Powell (who ran Miliband’s 2015 campaign) on the Labour Together panel.

While the overall idea behind Labour Together is sensible – looking at all of the data, running focus groups and interviewing candidates about what went wrong – the image this evokes is painstaking and rife with division.

It demonstrates the abdication of responsibility by Jeremy Corbyn to accept that he was a major factor in Labour’s defeat on the 12th December. Many Labour supporters I have had conversations with are quite rightly angry and frustrated with the approach to leadership and the people around Corbyn.

To add to this, the responses to the defeat from these circles have appeared self-righteous and ignorant to the truth. It is not possible to say you have “won the argument”, when your party’s election result is the lowest in almost 90 years. An important step is for the people in charge of the party to admit they got it wrong, which is not incompatible with reviewing other things to change. Lessons can be learned from the resignations of those like Gordon Brown, after the 2010 defeat.

A second point is about the members on the panel. This panel does not contain any party leader who has actually won an election or led a Labour Government. It is understandable that Tony Blair has a lot of baggage associated with him (namely Iraq), but one thing that cannot be doubted is he knew how to win elections and get people on side. Admitting him to this forum would provide invaluable insight about what needs to be in place to make the party electable.

There is benefit to Miliband and Corbyn being involved as they are arguably more in tune with the views of many Labour members; and the policy positions have shifted to some extent since the last Labour victory in 2005. Labour as a party is viewed as a broad church, so getting all these views in one place in a constructive manner would help to bring these different elements together.

Furthermore, the image this panel evokes is a divided, indecisive party which is struggling to find itself. It is possible that the process could become drawn out, and factional. This appears to already come across in a tweet from Labour Together this morning using the word “faction”. 

Just this single use of language has far-reaching implications, and only provides the Conservatives with an open goal. Appearance is as important as the substance; the panel needs to be effective and conciliatory, but also needs to be seen as decisive. Otherwise, there is a risk of similar policies to the Brexit ‘final say’ referendum coming through and suggesting a sense of inertia.

While the idea of the panel is not a terrible idea, it needs to be executed in a way that listens, engages and effects change in a decisive, constructive way – conscious of the scrutiny it will receive. It also needs to ensure Labour starts to not only be seen as a protest movement, but also as a viable party of Government. Only then can Labour start to rebuild.

Read more here 👉 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-50888060