It is often said that history has a habit of repeating itself. Over the past few years, many of us will have looked on in horror as politics has once more drifted from the centre, back towards extremes which dredge up and amplify the divisions in our society through divisiveness and hate.
One thing that is particularly striking about the political shift away from the centre ground is the way an idealistic utopia has been conjured up, both by the far-right and the hard left. Vacuous slogans such as ‘Make America Great Again’ and ‘Take Back Control have become common place in our everyday vocabulary although nobody really knows ‘at what point in time were we so great?’ or ‘what controls are we supposed to be taking back?‘. It is sold as the ‘change politics’ but is little more than a rehash of old policies, a reverential look towards false illusions of the past which have been revised for modern day political gain. As the revival of the far-right across Europe has shown, this isn’t a problem that is exclusive to the UK but the political upheaval in this country is an indicator of the problems moderates have faced worldwide.
Those of us towards the centre ground are, at least in part, to blame for this by failing to sufficiently anchor political discourse and public opinion. We have become careful and timid, too apologetic for the past and lacking the bravery to promote our beliefs and values. Some with great talent and experience have been allowed to leave the political arena whilst those who have remained have stagnated by the constant grind of elections.
2015’s Labour manifesto was a culmination of these problems. It wasn’t particularly bad, but it wasn’t particularly good either. It was just, well, average. Yes, it was costed down to the penny (a situation borne out of our failure to defend our economic achievements under the last Labour Government) but rarely has being really good at Excel inspired a General Election victory. We were good on pointing out how bad the Tories were, promised to reverse many of their cuts and to reinstate Labour successes, but we failed to effectively articulate an alternative future and a vision of how Britain could look under Labour.
There were some policies which hinted at a radical, progressive agenda, such as a million ‘green’ jobs; sadly nearly all were light on details, lacked coherence and were ultimately unsellable, banished to the footnotes. Our strategy was to not to rock the boat with non-offensive policies and gain the bare minimum of swing voters needed. We banked on the fact that Cameron and Co. were not much loved, the Lib Dems even less so and UKIP would not win many seats but would become king-makers in marginals by taking more votes from the Tories than us.
There were also been hints at an identity crisis. The issue of immigration clearly underlines this conflict. Inherently, those who would describe themselves as left of centre are pro-free movement and pro-immigration. However, there was a realisation that a significant proportion of the electorate were concerned about immigration, not least in the traditional Labour heartlands where UKIP have been making inroads into the Labour vote. At best this resulted in mixed messaging; at worst we ceased to believe what we said or said what we believed.
We weren’t aiming to ‘win’ the General Election; we were trying not to ‘lose’. By that token alone, we did not deserve to win. That is not to belittle the incredible work by hundreds of Parliamentary Candidates or by their thousands of volunteers but more a recognition that we weren’t bold enough, not positive enough and not confident enough to win the General Election.
All the while, the Conservatives are now making sure we remember the good ol’ days, by reintroducing that much missed selective education system for 11 year olds, fondly reminding us of when we ruled the waves and making sure that we know EXACTLY which foreign workers are ‘coming over here and taking our jobs‘. Other rumoured additions include bringing back rotten boroughs as part of the boundary review, reinstatement of workhouses and the establishment of a Maggie National Holiday. Yes, voting Brexit has not only meant Brexit, but it has also unleashed a time warp where we have ended up in a nightmarish conservative paradise that I have only seen in black and white.
That’s not to say there aren’t some excellent politicians still effectively campaigning on incredibly important issues. See Stella Creasy campaigning on the plight of child refugees. Watch Lisa Nandy forcibly holding Theresa May to account on the child sex abuse inquiry. Look at what Sadiq Khan has already achieved in 100 days as London’s Mayor. The difficulty has been in developing and communicating a collective identity, one which has Labour ideals and values at its core, whilst being an attractive proposition to the electorate of this country. It should be us who has ownership of the future, not leaving it to those who pose a threat to all the progress we have made and all that we could achieve.
A political vacuum bereft of leadership, ideas and, some might say (unfairly I believe), passion has developed at the centre of politics. The right and hard-left have taken advantage of the weak state of moderate politics, both at home and abroad, with demagogues emboldened, gaining traction by linking terrorism and economic depression with immigration. They look backwards towards a past that has never existed, fueled by fear, division and inequality; it is nationalism for the 21st Century.
We must find the strength to lead, have the bravery to be radical, rediscover our energy and establish a unified, cohesive identity. We can point out how dangerous, how divisive, how wrong those towards the extremities of our politics and society have become, but until we effectively sell our vision for the future, we will continue living in their non-existent utopia of the past.