Sunday, January 26, 2020

Me and politics

With Change candidates and Luciana Berger (front left) in Liverpool 

I started 2019 pledging to work hard to build a new political movement, getting selected to stand in an election. I ended the year totally disengaged. Here's what happened.

I never made a secret of how much I opposed Jeremy Corbyn and his fellow travellers. I never wanted Corbyn on the ballot in 2015. I never accepted that he was credible, nor did I ever think it would work. Even if he did prove popular, I couldn't in all conscience want them in power.  But from that time on, though I would continue to read widely, would support events for groups like Progress and Blue Labour, and I still wrote a lot, in truth I dipped in and out of local activity. However, unlike Corbyn I campaigned to Remain in the EU like I meant it. In local elections I supported candidates I considered competent and who ought to be on the local council and was genuinely pleased when the Labour Group took control of Stockport. I stopped going to meetings in 2017 and though I campaigned for Andy Burnham to be Mayor, and for Jonathan Reynolds in the next door constituency in the General Election of that year, I was well on the fringes. There were rows along the way, I fell out with people, distanced myself from others, made a really foolish tactical decision, but during that period our house got attacked and a window smashed. There is only one person I know who would be angry enough to do that to anyone at this address, and self-righteous enough to think it was a justified response. But what disheartened me more than anything was the sense that they'd won. This was amplified by the compromises good people in Labour were having to make to accommodate Corbynism, and for me it was too much. Not when the depth of the thuggery and anti-semitism was so apparent.

But while there are so many Sliding Doors moments where I made small tactical decisions that may have worked out differently over the last five years, I only have to think of the colleagues locally in Labour who gave me the most encouragement. One was completely stitched up by the party and prevented from standing to be an MP, another has stepped down from politics altogether. Others keep their portfolios in different local councils and do an honest job looking out for their constituents in what must be the most undervalued and misunderstood role in British politics, the ward councillor. Partly because of the high standard, dedication and professionalism of people like them it's not a job I could do to that acceptable standard.

In the end leaving Labour wasn't hard. But I didn't do the whole show of cutting up my card and writing a long letter to the constituency chair. In the end I just stopped paying subs, eventually getting a very nice email from her checking whether I'd lapsed, thanking me for 'helping us raise our game', and passing on her best wishes to the family. It felt sad, but also a relief.

I'd always got on very well with Ann Coffey, the Stockport MP, and liked the cordial and thoughtful policy forums she would host in the constituency, separate from the toxicity of the CLP meeting. She was forthright and imaginative in how she thought about policy challenges, but resolute in her outright opposition to Corbyn. When she bravely stepped forward as one of the original Independents who quit the party in January 2019 I reached out to support her straight away. If I'm brutally honest, I was surprised so few others locally did.

Come April time, although Luciana Berger, Chuka Umunna and the rest were grabbing media headlines, they must have been disappointed more MPs didn't join them, but they made a stand against the fractious nature of politics, especially as there didn't seem to be a way of breaking the Brexit deadlock. With Theresa May extending her withdrawal of the EU and pointless European Parliament elections looming, I applied to be a candidate for Change UK. 

I was interviewed in London by Sarah Wollaston and Gavin Shuker, met a few other would be candidates (the identity of some would make your jaw drop). I was really thrilled to be selected to be on the top half of the slate. The other North West candidates and our tight group of supporters were great. We had illuminating and fascinating conversations and ideas, and they all came to the campaign with such a generous spirit and a remarkable can-do attitude. But the whole campaign was tough. Nationally it was a bit of a shambles, and on the ground the going was rough at times. We were spat at, jostled, verbally abused, though for the most part we supported one another and it was good fun. I also got a kicking on social media from the left, which caused me problems at work, and showed what a shabby rabble they are capable of being, but also how personally resilient you have to be.

Continuity Change, Manchester, Summer 2019
We all know the result, we got wiped out and the whole project fractured. But I firmly believed that we had to be part of a renewed radical centre and in those frantic days afterwards - when we all had an opinion - I urged MPs and candidates to stick together as a group and draw other parties to a new project, offering to host a gathering in Manchester to chart a way forward. We did that and it was energetic and optimistic, but it still felt like we were swimming against a tide. It just wasn't our time.

However, we weren't doing so from a position of strength, which meant we had to effectively join with the LibDems. After Chuka joined them, I sat at home one night and ticked a box to apply to join and waited to see what would happen. A few days later, I got a message from a Conservative acquaintance intimating he knew what I'd done and that it was gossip worthy - was I going to be a local candidate? By the end of the week I was called by the local party who said they'd need to come and have a chat. Long story short, it was less of a negotiation than an interrogation, never once was I asked what I might be able to contribute, and most of the conversation involved going through a dossier of rude things I'd said on this blog and in election leaflets. Basically, they didn't want me.

That was a fairly existential moment. Given my job, and my network, I talk to people with interesting ideas about policy development all the time. But my personal conduct, my style, owes more to commentary and journalism than party discipline. I bristle at cynical pavement politics, playing to prejudice, doing the easy thing, rather than the brave thing. Politics should be about leadership and service, not one at the expense of the other. I firmly believe communities that are engaged and passionate have endless possibilities to achieve more. My amazing wife has set up a youth social action group at our church, which proves that. And I really love the energy of a social movement like the People's Powerhouse which builds on my own lifelong passion for a renewed civic politics of a devolved England. But at the same time I also like the bustle of a campaign.

And so it came to December and apart from giving my son Matt lifts to Altrincham to campaign in Labour's key target seat, I sat out the 2019 General Election, just doing some events and media work. I voted Liberal Democrat, despite huge misgivings over their campaign. Appalled as I was by the terrible choice I had - the nation had - my only feeling when the exit poll came out was vindication. I'm aware that can be seen as a terrible indulgence, but it was always going to lead to this. Jeremy Corbyn was never going to win, nor was he going to end homelessness, injustice and poverty in one sweep. 

I genuinely don't know what to do now. This piece has been cathartic to write. Yes, it's all about me and what I've done, which is awkward, but hopefully I'm going to have time to write other analytical pieces and move on from this now, because obviously the world doesn't revolve around me. I'm still in touch with a great network of activists in Labour, the LibDems, and most of the ex-Change candidates. And yes, I'm even friendly with a few Conservatives. My job requires me to have a grip on what's going on politically, and my interest in the shifting sands of politics never wanes. But I don't need politics the way some people do. Maybe that's where I need to be, just on the edge. Afterall, there's plenty of material for another book!

Next: The sheer scale of Labour's defeat

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