James Horrax works for a market research and strategy consultancy. He worked previously as a consultant to Lynton Crosby and on Boris Johnson’s 2008 campaign for London Mayor. The opinions expressed are his own and do not represent those of his employer.
At some point during this Parliament, the Conservative Party will face the end of David Cameron’s leadership. It is in the context of this coming event, the European referendum and the eventual leadership contest that the runners and riders in the party and their actions are being viewed. The closer that these events get, the more speculation will increase.
So ahead of time, I’m taking this opportunity to urge Conservative Party members (including MPs) to think long and hard about how those last two are conducted. We know that the referendum campaign is likely to see the parliamentary party (and indeed the grassroots) divided, regardless of any concessions that the Prime Minister is able to secure in his renegotiation.
This means that the tone of the split in opinion will be more important than ever. We must keep differences focused exclusively on the issues. No name calling. No emotionally charged accusations. No bile. Just a simple debate on the issues that arise fromm the UK’s membership of the EU. And whatever the decision of the British people may be, we must respect it and consider the issue settled for a generation at the end.
It is equally importance that leading figures in the Party do not outsource anything resembling personal attacks either. One of the ironies of Corbyn’s ‘New Politics’ is that the Labour leadershi[, rather than issue malicious and anonymous briefings to press supporters, has outsourced that sort of mischief to Twitter trolls and other assorted fellow travellers. By ensuring that personal attacks don’t feature at all, the prospective leadership candidates will be able to position themselves as unifiers of the Tory faithful after the referendum.
Both sides will need to be gracious and conciliatory, allowing each other to make their case. Some will see the intrusion of European regulation as over-reach. Some will see the position of the UK within a wider bloc of nations as crucial in an era of large trading blocs, supersize nations, economies and global concerns. These are both valid positions. Both must be heard with respect.
Within political parties, particularly when they are divide, debate can degenerate into name-calling and attempts to hold others to certain ideological standards. (Maastricht, anyone?) As a result, the issue at stake gets lost in a sea of insults or amidst labels laden with toxicity (Blairite/Brownite, Wet/Dry, Europhile/Eurosceptic, liberal/conservative). The danger is that the argument will become so heated that the purpose of the referendum will be forgotten – preventing the calm presentation of the issues necessary to allow the public to make sense of a complicated decision.
The way in which the referendum will be conducted will obviously have an impact on the subsequent tone of the leadership race. Helpfully, we have been given a ‘What Not To Do’ guide by the Labour Party here and by the Republican Party in the US. Ours should be a calm, considered and rational discussion of which candidate is best suited not only to represent our party and members’ values but to represent the great, Great British public nationally and on the world stage.
In order to allow Jeremy Corbyn’s and Donald Trump’s respective leadership bids, Labour and the Republicans acquiesced in allowing as broad a debate as possible within their parties. This was a ‘bold’ move, as Sir Humphrey put it in Yes Minister. It is foolish and harmful to be so far removed from the political mainstream that eccentrics and fringe party members can gain the oxygen of publicity.
Like a frog in warming water, the Labour Party’s more moderate MPs and members are only now waking up to the fact that they’re in trouble. They indulged the infantile complaints of their fringe by giving them a platform to be heard from. The damage could be terminal.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party has given its Tea Party wing a veneer of respectability, and has helped pave the way for Donald Trump to shock and offend his way to the front of the field. With his personal wealth, and the help of the electoral system, he could well split the conservative vote if, in the event of failing to win the Republican nomination, he decides to run for the presidency as a third party candidate.
The lesson is simple. By breaking so decisively from the views of an (often too silent) majority of their respective parties (and countries), both have become hostages to litmus tests about ideological purity. Both have cultivated a grievance culture amongst segments of their electoral blocs and deliberately pandered to largely imagined grievances.
In the UK, Labour has done this by balkanising the electorate into siloed groups based on ethnic, religious, cultural and socio-economic lines. In the US, the Republicans have played to the gallery and the basest elements of American society by using Obama’s race, birth place, cultural heritage and, yes, even religion, as potential dividing lines with Democrats.
As these sectional interests have grown in importance electorally to Labour and the Republicans, both parties have been inverted and become parodies of themselves. They are now vehicles for a small, noisy and often boorish minority of self-righteous indignants. These electors have become so tribal and so extreme in their views that they cannot conceive of circumstances in which there may be an alternative and tolerable way forward from anywhere else on the political spectrum.
An extension of this has been the outsourcing of political attacks. The fervour with which supporters of Corbyn and Trump have set about their opponents is truly horrifying for anyone who believes in pluralistic democratic discourse. Unable to accept or appreciate other viewpoints, they have created the conditions for sectarian war within the great parties of which they are part.
This is something we have to avoid at all costs in the European referendum and future leadership election. Divided and violently expressive parties do not win elections. I have yet to make up my mind as to how I will vote in the European referendum, or who I would like to see leading the Conservative Party post-Cameron. But as a party we need to come together after the Europe referendum (widely regarded as the Prime Minister’s last hurrah), irrespective of outcome.
Whatever the result, we must put our best foot forward and embrace one another before, during and after the poll in the spirit of friendship. The best way to do this is to keep debate clean, and tightly focused not on who said what to whom and when, but on the issue itself. Ours must be the party of decency and tolerance of opinions and, simultaneously, of unity of purpose. Without that, our politics risks a descent into Corbyn-style chaos and Trump-style truculence. And for these, as both those parties will discover in time, the British and American people will not thank them.