Playing politics

Party politics are a bit of fun - as long as you're not the game

26th November 2018

Once again, an interviewer has asked a Labour MP if they can be “friends” with Tories. Once again, the answer was “no”. And so, like clockwork, the fauxtrage machine sputters into life, churning out thinkpieces denouncing the left’s obsession with “purity politics”.

You can understand why this question was put to McDonnell. The ten minutes’ hate against Laura Pidcock for saying something similar after her election last year was a remarkable success, measured in terms of opportunities for banal, empty posturing and performative outrage about nothing. Asking this question of the shadow chancellor is a great chance to for people to mount their hobby horses all over again.

The response to McDonnell, like Pidcock last year, was to act as if he had said he would shun every Tory voter in the street. Professor Brian Cox, strings duly tugged, said that it was a tacit endorsement of a “one-party state”, a statement that would have been absurdly hyperbolic even if McDonnell had, in fact, said, “All Tories are bastards.”

In fact, what he said was: “I work with Tories on the basis of cross-party agreements etc. I’m perfectly civil and I’m perfectly willing to engage in conversation etc.”

In other words, he has a professional working relationship with other MPs in the house, even those on the opposite benches, but he doesn’t feel like he can overlook their ideological positions and the impacts of their policies enough to become actually friends with them.

This is a perfectly fine and reasonable position to take. All of us will have people we need to work with who we don’t necessarily get along with. Even those we have perfectly amicable relationships with don’t need to be our friends, per se, and it’s perverse and odd to suggest otherwise.

Those who don’t debate their opponents are avoiding the hard questions, apparently

The reason behind the overreaction is that the outrage is entirely confected — an excuse to rehash old tales about the fundamental unreasonableness of left-wing politics and to position the speaker as common-sensical and moderate.

There is a hard core of received wisdom about the importance of “debate” and “seeing both sides” which remains stubbornly in place among centrists. It runs that the left are too busy with grand ideas and purity infighting to get down to the “real work” of government, and that the right has too many hard-nosed accountant types who understand profit and loss sheets, but whose lack of compassion leads them to support policies which inadvertently steamroll lives.

A “compromise” solution of sensible, technocratic types, who can fuse some of the gritty realism of conservatism with the softer-edged idealism of the left, is presumed to be the best of both worlds. Those who don’t debate their opponents, which is apparently the basis of friendship, are avoiding the hard questions that challenge their worldviews and therefore are not capable of being good leaders.

I’m pretty sure John McDonnell doesn’t need to go to the pub with Phillip Hammond to “expose himself to right-wing ideas”

This myth does not stand up to much scrutiny. There are very few Tory arguments that haven’t been endlessly rehashed in the papers, and I’m pretty sure John McDonnell doesn’t need to go to the pub with Phillip Hammond to “expose himself to right-wing ideas”.  

It is a posture that pretends politics isn’t political. There are always competing interests and genuine disputes about outcomes. Sometimes the disagreements aren’t over the technical details of achieving the same goals. Sometimes the goals, values and moral ideas which underpin policies are where the disagreements lie.

Should a society prioritise making sure that nobody goes hungry and everyone has enough food and shelter, even if we end up with free riders on the system? Or should we target free riders and police worklessness, even if this creates a gauntlet of constantly proving “deserving” status for those who need to interact with the welfare system?

Sometimes you’re just going to straight-up disagree with people about what shape we think society should take

Do we care more about preserving our society’s traditional moral codes, or the capacity of those who transgress those codes to live their lives free of harassment? Sometimes you’re just going to straight-up disagree with people about what shape we think society should take.

Hillary Clinton’s unasked-for advice, last week, that Europe should “get a handle” on migration to steal a march on the far right, is a perfect example of the kind of muddle that comes from seeing politics as a purely technocratic exercise between people with a basic agreement on shared values, rather than a clash between competing interests.

For many on the left, the far right’s obsession with targeting migrant communities is the reason they are a problem in the first place. To suggest that we do it first is almost pathologically nonsensical because we don’t want it to happen at all.

Of course, if you do want a government that concentrates on “securing the borders” above all else then you’re going to vote for the right wing — that’s what they’re there for.

The left’s answer to this does not need to be to better understand Tommy Robinson’s arguments, but to more strenuously make the opposing case — that a society which constantly harasses foreigners is a society with more abuse, more state intrusion into vulnerable people’s lives, more violence, and which ultimately impoverishes itself. We don’t have to be best pals with the architects of the hostile environment policy to do any of that.

The obsession with moderation, “debate”, bipartisanship and being friendly with everyone is a chattering class self-indulgence. Brian Cox has the luxury of sputtering about civility because he doesn’t have to reapply for benefits every six months just in case his chronic disability miraculously healed overnight. These folks are many degrees of separation away from people who have had a letter saying £30 a week has been taken from their carer’s allowance, leaving them in tears at Citizens Advice trying to work out how to pay the bills.

For all the posturing about “snowflake culture” from certain quarters, they see no irony in whining “but he won’t be my friend :(“

There’s a kind of pathetic, entitled neediness to the whole thing. Of course Tories don’t want you to call them bad people, but there are such things as consequences, something that conservatives have often historically been very keen on when it comes to ensuring the poor aren’t “rewarded” for fecklessness or having too many children.

For all the posturing about “snowflake culture” from certain quarters, they see no irony in whining “but he won’t be my friend :(” like they’re still in primary school and the shadow chancellor won’t share his sweets.

If you enact policies that send people to food banks, some people aren’t going to like you. Sorry about that, buttercups, but you’ll live.

26th November 2018