Of political loyalties and difficult change: some thoughts for a new year

By Jill Segger
December 31, 2019

The curious liminal space which lies between Christmas and New Year and encompasses them both, is almost over. The period between these feasts of greater and lesser consumption, carrying as it does an inevitable sense of anti-climax and uncertainty, coupled with an ill-defined sense that the season may no longer be serving either its original or best purpose, seems a good time to reflect on renewal and change.

Politics in this country has changed beyond recognition. Brexit has polarised us across party lines and the largely binary nature of party contest no longer plays within the framework with which most of us have grown up. If I had to sum this up in the fewest possible number of words, it would be the exclamation of an elderly relative on the morning of 13 December: "Workington's gan Tory... eh, Ah niver...!"

So, time for a declaration of interest. I am a working class woman from a post-industrial northern town. My family has been Labour since the party's inception. The generations before me saw bitterly hard times during two wars and the depression. For them, building the Peaceable Kingdom and the New Jerusalem was part of their lives' calling. I am deeply grateful for this heritage and for their example. I could never hold it lightly.

I am a lifelong trade unionist and Labour voter. I was a member of the Labour Party for decades, leaving seven years ago, long before the present troubles boiled up to engulf the party in faction, spite and internecine conflict. The reasons for that decision are no longer relevant but the pain was real. I have been an activist, a constituency chair, a local councillor and a press officer. I cannot imagine ever voting other than Labour. I could be described as 'tribally' Labour.

It is a pity that some who are ready to use this an an insult lose sight of the value of tribes and, preferring to censure the less attractive attributes of unexamined partisanship, are insensitive to the life experiences of those unlike themselves.

Nonetheless, I believe that those of us who have been loyal to the Labour way for a lifetime, must now start to examine the realities of the current situation. A right wing government, led by a man who appears to have little concept of the value of truth, has a majority which, at present, enables it to do just as it wishes. It has already started to pick at some of the bulwarks of our democracy. We need to worry about manifesto promises to 'reform' judicial review, to 'update' the Human Rights Act, to take powers that would enable the suppression of peaceful protest and reduce both parliamentary and judicial scrutiny of government actions.

We need to worry about the growing tendency towards the public abuse of ethnic and religious minority citizens. We need to worry about the direction of travel towards restructuring our society along fundamentalist free-market lines, about our public services and about the growing disregard for those who are sick, disabled or vulnerable through age. We need to worry about the hungry, the cold and the homeless. We need to worry about the growing urgency of the climate crisis and the failure to formulate radical and potentially uncomfortable policies to tackle our careless profligacy, both domestically and internationally.

We need to worry about what was previously unthinkable: can we afford to continue to hold that Labour is the only vehicle for progressive, compassionate democratic politics? Our politics is now so fissile and fragmented that it is surely time for Labour to drop its refusal to work with other parties. Any chance of it forming a majority government for at least a decade seem to have gone. The last time it did so was on a manifesto which did not alarm Rupert Murdoch. No wonder the 'heartlands' have lost faith.

Labour's tradition of solidarity with the disadvantaged gives it a strong place from which to lead but it cannot continue to see itself as the only agent of left politics. Had its leadership displayed the vision to negotiate deals with the Liberal Democrats and Greens during the election campaign to stand candidates down in selected seats, the anti-Conservative vote could have coalesced into an alliance, together with the SNP, that would have delivered a radical, Labour-led government. This might have been a break with ideological purity but it could have begun a move towards a more just and progressive society.

We can no longer get exactly what we want. Members of the smaller parties, despite a certain amount of grandstanding, know this too. A refusal to change has delivered us a government with a far-right legislative programme and a massive majority, despite over 50 per cent of the electorate not having voted for them. The time for the blame game of 'what-aboutery' is over. To remain stiff-necked is a painful purity.

I am a socialist. But I have to ask myself whether the aims of democratic socialism are being served. I find myself turning more and more to the the four Quaker Testimonies of peace, equality, simplicity and truth. I pray that in 2020 and in the difficult years which we now have to face, these may play a growing part in focusing our minds on building the kind of society which we need so much and which is now in real danger. I hope all the friends (and loves) I have made over so many years in the Labour movement will not berate me for this. Let us all be kind to each other – there is too much at stake, there are so many who need better from us.

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© Jill Segger is Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. She is the author of Words out of Silence published by Ekklesia in May 2019. The book is available here and here. Jill is an active Quaker. You can follow her on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.