OPINION: When did we stop trying to understand each other?
"There is a vacuum of political leadership seeking to draw people together."
“Why do people vote Conservative? They probably have a view that somehow or other, they are going to be – their status or whatever is going to be protected.”
This was Jeremy Corbyn’s reply to a question from grime artist JME, in an interview for i-D magazine during the election, about why people might back the Tories. I felt at the time that this answer was quite revelatory. It’s not exactly a deep dive into the psyche of a Tory voter, nor a particularly sympathetic one likely to win over a demographic needed to secure an election victory. Indeed, the pauses in Corbyn’s speech show almost genuine bemusement at the foreign notion of ‘voting Conservative’.
Similarly, my colleague, Emilio Casalicchio, asked Theresa May at a campaign event to name one thing she liked about her Labour rival. She did not offer one.
There’s obviously a strategic purpose in not listing a series of positives about your opposite number. But it seems that we are becoming increasingly perplexed by each other. And it’s happening across the piece; old versus the young, right versus left, Brexiteers versus Remainers, pro Scottish independence and unionists, the socially liberal versus traditional conservatives.
This week, Labour MP Laura Pidcock declared that she will never be friends with her Tory equivalents, because they are the “enemy” of women and the working class. Speaking to left-wing site Skwawkbox, she said she had a “visceral” dislike of Conservatives and was “disgusted at the way they’re running this country”.
Pidcock’s view is perhaps an anomaly in the Commons. Anyone who works in parliament will testify to some of the great cross-party work that takes place. Just look at Stella Creasy’s amendment to the Queen’s Speech that allowed Northern Irish women to access abortions on the NHS in mainland Britain, supported by whip-defying Tory MPs and a cause long championed by among others, Conservative chair of the Equalities Committee, Maria Miller. Take a walk-through Portcullis House in Westminster, or the corridors of Parliament, and odds are you’ll find MPs from rival parties chatting.
The fact is you need to build a consensus to make change happen.
The election result offered up the ideal opportunity for political leaders to put a hold to an emerging partisanship that bequeathed a hung parliament, with the two major parties at near opposite ends of the spectrum. Instead, mutterings of cross-party work on Brexit have been teased out of the Government, but seemingly with little substance. John McDonnell called for a million-strong protest against Theresa May. The fact is the top brass of the UK’s two main parties cannot and do not wish to understand where the other is coming from.
Of course, robust opposition is a democratic necessity. There are many deeply opposed to austerity and what it has caused, in the same way there are those who will defend it to the hilt. These discussions, and fierce ones at that, are necessary.
But we seem to have lost sight of the fact that, as the late Jo Cox put it, there is “more that unites us than divides us”. Though not ubiquitous, being on the right does not mean you do not share goals of equality of opportunity, an end to poverty, or other aspirations more commonly associated with being on the left. In the same way, being on the left does not mean you do not want the best for your family and loved ones.
What these distinctions do mean is that broadly the journey you believe should be taken for pursuing these ends is different, but not necessarily the destination.
I think we’ve all but lost sight of this.
Interventions like Pidcock’s this week illuminate a wider trend forming in Britain. This view of the other, the “enemy”, has permeated all levels of our political discourse, from the green benches to the front pages of our national newspapers. Figures on the fringes are becoming the louder voices amid a period of silence and a lack of ideas from those in the centre.
In the past month, we have also seen those on the left and right seek to protect those on their side of the political dividing line. Jeremy Corbyn condemned violence on all sides in Venezuela. Donald Trump lamented the acts in Charlottesville of those on all sides.
Seemingly we have lost the skill of introspection and are dogmatic in our ideological beliefs. We cannot cede ground in a period of ideological warfare. This is rife within the Brexit debate, too.
There is a vacuum of political leadership seeking to draw people together. It’s about time those at the upper echelons in Westminster took note. Our ability to empathise is diminishing, we are hunkering down, certain we have it right, and the others are the enemy. The media, too, has a leading role in this.
That will be the legacy of the modern-day crop of politicians unless someone, or a group of people, takes active leadership. And the stakes could not be higher.
Just look at what’s happening across the pond.
Sebastian Whale is deputy political editor of The House magazine and parliamentary editor of PoliticsHome.