Sat 15 August 2020

Former senior Lib Dem researcher Gareth Roberts on the wake-up call provided by the 2019 General Election result which means he can no longer sit on the sidelines and lament his feelings of political homelessness.

How did you feel at 10pm last Thursday when the BBC declared that the exit poll was projecting a Tory majority of 86 seats in the 2019 General Election? Despair? Anger? Joy perhaps?

For me, it felt as though the last breath of hope had been brutally kicked from my despairing lungs. 

I watched the coverage for a bit as John McDonnell wilted and Priti Patel grinned and the Tory candidate for Blyth Valley triumphantly took the garland of victory from a dejected looking man representing the Labour Party. When tired despondency caused the BBC’s clever graphics to merge into a depressing gloopy tsunami of blue, I went to bed. At that point I was still living in a Labour seat. 

That had changed by the time I woke up. 

The constituency in which I live – a former mining area that is defiantly, resolutely working-class; which doesn’t boast a single public school and has seen its manufacturing industry crumble along with its boarded-up town centre – had returned a Conservative MP. Something that it hadn’t done since 1935. 

How did I feel about this? No doubt about it, anger came first. Then shame.

I was angry because I genuinely feel that the Boris Johnson Government, with its weed-like roots trying to find traction in a Brexit that doesn’t exist beyond the baseless rhetoric that has been spouted for the past three months, will be disastrous. “Get Brexit done” – get what done? 

The shame arrived with the realisation that my generation is culpable in allowing the Conservative Party to win an overwhelming majority, despite the fact that it has presided over a decade of austerity and economic malaise and is led by a man who has been discredited for his dishonesty and charlatanism, a man who wouldn’t even say how many children he had fathered.

We now face a very uncertain future in terms of public policy and governance. We are told that Johnson is a man who is not burdened by any deeply held political principle but I take no comfort in that. If, as is likely, Brexit does not herald some kind of economic and social panacea, I have no doubt that the Tory reaction will be to revert to its tried and failed formula of cutting taxes and public expenditure and not being overly bothered by the rights of minorities or the furtherance of any kind of progressive social agenda. 

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Just as terrifying is the fact that some of those who masterminded this Tory triumph have little regard for the conventions and customs of our democracy. Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s closest advisor, has already stated his desire to review the relationship between government, the legislature and the judiciary – a proposition as attractive as putting a hungry slug in charge of a store full of lettuce. 

We should be ashamed that this has been allowed to happen and that the social contract that enabled those of us from ordinary backgrounds and state schools to grow up healthy and housed and educated is now in jeopardy.

Yes, this process was started by the governments of yore which introduced tuition fees, PFI funding for hospitals and allowed the calamity of the banking crisis to seep into the funding of public services. But, the shame of what is about to come and the way it will impact upon the lives of future generations, seems more profound because it could so easily have been prevented.

We failed.

A Duty to Leave the Sidelines

Too many of us in the past few years have sat back and watched as the Labour Party was taken over by those whose agenda is unapologetically to ensure that it would never again be run by those who they deride as ‘moderates’, ‘Tories’, ‘neoliberal Blairites’ or worse.

We’ve stood back and watched as Jeremy Corbyn’s Momentum backers have tightened their grip on every facet of the party from policy to party discipline. It has ended with a monumental rejection of the leader of the Opposition. I can’t calculate the number of times that I have had a conversation with an erstwhile Labour voter, who has told me that: “I’ve never voted for anyone but Labour, but I could never vote for Corbyn.”

Labour is the party into whose hands we entrust the protection and preservation of the state for the good of ordinary people. We cannot afford for it to remain unelectable. We cannot allow it to become little more than a cult. 

Sadly, the response of its leadership to its devastating General Election defeat has given no cause for optimism. There is no acceptance that the leadership was poor, there has been no acceptance that many of the policies were ridiculed as being unobtainable and fanciful. Crucially, there has been no realisation that the Labour Party is ineffective when it is insular and ideologically pure, but achieves most when it has been able to reach out beyond its traditional core electorate and appeal to those whose primary concern is not the plight of the Palestinians or re-nationalisation of core industry, but simply a desire for an equal opportunity to fulfill their potential and that of their family and community. 

Labour has to provide that and has to be trusted by ordinary people once again. And those of us on the left-of-centre of the argument have a duty to help it to do so. We can no longer sit on the sidelines, putting out our clever tweets and boasting about how many Trots or Tories have blocked us whilst simultaneously bemoaning the fact that we feel disenfranchised and political bereft. 

Nor can we cling on to the hope that some great new centre-left party will emerge from the ashes of the 2019 General Election which embraces everything we believe in and can be popular enough to smash out of the shackles of our first past the post electoral system. Nor are the Liberal Democrats the answer to our prayers – as demonstrated by its naïve and petty leadership and stubborn refusal to accept that the programme of austerity that they so enthusiastically followed whilst it was in Coalition with the Tories was a disaster. 

Bemoaning the lack of alternatives and declaring oneself politically homeless is an indulgence that is no longer acceptable. We on the centre-left have a duty to be there when the Government forgets the promises it has made to ordinary people – because it will. 

Because of this, I have decided to join the Labour Party.

I have no hidden agenda, no desire to drag it in any direction. I’m not interested in factions or cliques or fostering disharmony. I simply realise that, now more than ever, people like those who live in my community need a dynamic, realistic, effective and, most importantly, electable Labour Party. Helping to ensure that Labour provides this alternative is the very least that those of my generation can do.  

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