Over the last few weeks I found myself, rather unexpectedly, fulfilling the role of General Election candidate for the Liberal Democrats in the constituency of Luton South. I was initially reluctant to do this, mostly for reasons of personal circumstance and the fact that I have become a bit distant from partisan politics, but after some internal debate I decided that I had to stand up and be counted.
In the end it has actually turned out to be a mostly positive, and at times even enjoyable, experience. The campaign itself — in what is not considered a target area for the party — was fairly low key. On the ground the local party concentrated their efforts on activities designed to build their base of support and on a local council by-election that was taking place at the same time. Which left me to concentrate on managing the media, dealing with a few TV and radio appearances, attending local events and hustings, and responding to correspondence. I also was able to help local activists with a bit of on-line campaigning. Finally, I did manage a — fairly brief — visit to the target seat of St Albans. When the votes were declared the result wasn’t anything to shout about, but it was in line with what has happened to the Liberal Democrats nationally.
On a personal level the campaign resulted in a fresh oiling of my pretty rusty political antenna. I found that those political muscles I had developed during my years as a local councillor are still there and only needed a little bit of exercise to get them working again. I was concerned that I would find the partisan nature of a general election campaign uncomfortable, but this turned out mostly not to be a problem. The interactions between the different candidates was mostly friendly and what niggles there were tended to be about who qualified as the most “local”. I wanted to have my own clear agenda so I developed my own mini personal manifesto; and I tried to limit my criticism of others to those areas where I felt there were genuine difference. In that I was massively helped by Brexit.
And it is with Brexit that the positive side of this tale ends.
The more I made the case against a hard Brexit and warned of the damage it would do to Luton specifically and the country more generally, the more scared of the consequences I became. I found thinking through the potential dangers of any kind of Brexit, let alone one where we leave the single market, for the community in which I live was a deeply worrying exercise. That a “no deal” outcome was seriously being considered I find extraordinary. But what I have come to realise was more worrying — and this I see reflected in the national campaign as well as in my limited interactions with people — was the lack of response from people to those warnings.
This was supposed to be the “Brexit election”, only it wasn’t. The issues around what kind of Brexit to go for, how to approach the negotiations, and how to handle the consequences where hardly discussed. The idea that the result has resolved anything about Brexit is clearly a nonsense. Other than weaken the Prime Minister and cause greater chaos in the negotiation preparations holding the election has achieved nothing. It cannot be read as an endorsement of any kind of Brexit nor as a rejection.
I found the Labour Party’s position on Brexit incredibly frustrating. One of the things that did worry me when I decided to be a candidate was how, given the current context, I would handle facing a strongly pro-remain Labour opponent. While generally sceptical of calls for a “progressive alliance”, in this election I was sympathetic to the idea of taking steps to maximise the return of pro-remain MPs. If the Labour candidate for Luton South had adopted the stance taken by Chuka Umunna for example, while I would have welcomed it, as the Liberal Democrat candidate that would have made things personally uncomfortable. Instead, in Gavin Shuker, I had a Labour opponent who chose to approach the issue with essentially the maximum amount of fudge. During the campaign he was clearly trying to distance himself from Jeremy Corbyn, yet he made no statements distancing himself from the Brexit parts of the Labour manifesto. In the referendum campaign he had actively supported remain, but in this campaign his statements were very free from specifics. Lot’s of talk of “fighting for a Brexit that works for Luton” but nothing very concrete and no recognition of the inherent contradictions.
In this way Gavin was able to appeal to both leave and remain supporters. Just like nationally the Labour Party, by accident or design, have apparently been able to be all things to all people on this issue. That is despite the logic of their manifesto, as has constantly been pointed out by the Liberal Democrats and others, meaning support for a hard Brexit. Luton is now represented by Kelvin Hopkins, the strongly pro-Brexit re-elected Labour MP for Luton North, and by Gavin Shuker, the supposedly pro-remain re-elected Labour MP. So what is Labour’s attitude towards Brexit? There is no clarity. But, and this is the nub of the issue, they were re-elected. The fudge has worked.
The Liberal Democrats were right to campaign as the pro-remain party. They were right to put opposing a hard Brexit at the heart of their message to the voters. It was the obvious, correct, and in some ways inevitable, thing to do. To some extent I feel the party had a duty to make those arguments. To be the ones to sound a warning. The fact that this stance didn’t result in the hoped for success doesn’t meant that it was the wrong choice. It just didn’t connect with the public.
This was the Brexit election that wasn’t. Whatever your views on the European Union, most people would agree that Britain’s choice to leave it is a major decision, one that has important consequences. At least they would agree with that in the abstract. What this election has left me with is the feeling that most people do not have any sense of how important those consequences are for them.
It would be lazily easy to blame that on the ignorance of the electorate. That is not my point. Not least because that would be to gloss over how astonishingly ignorant on this issue many politicians and commentators appear to be (including cabinet ministers with responsibility for the negotiations). My concern is not about ignorance or a lack of understanding, but one of connection. It is the failure of this issue to cut through and connect with the everyday experience of the voters.
The point of a democracy is that the important decisions are made by the people. When there is a huge gap between what objectively matters and the things that are actually motivating democratic decision making then we have a problem. I don’t have an answer to why this should be. Is it a failure of leadership? Is the long-standing distortion of perceptions by the mainstream media or a more recent distortion by social media? Is this a temporary phenomena that will self-correct as circumstances change or something more systemic? I don’t know. I am groping about in the dark a bit here. I just have this really worrying sense that the process is not working.
I am happy that Theresa May’s arrogance and hubris in calling this election has been punished by the voters. A hung parliament is likely to be a better outcome than the expected alternatives. But I am really worried that our democracy has never felt more dysfunctional to me than it does now.