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Lord Wood: Referendum must be more than taking lumps out of 'those we don’t respect'

5 min read

Ed Miliband's former adviser, Lord Wood of Anfield, writes that with just six weeks to go until the European Referendum, debate should be 'based on differences of philosophy, purpose and policies' not knocking lumps out of political opponents.

With six weeks to go, we are now entering the serious mud-slinging part of the referendum campaign. The trading of statistics & prognoses has now been well and truly joined by the trading of insults from both sides. In the morning, one side is accused of being extremists, who lack rationality and apologise for tyrants. In the afternoon a volley is returned at those seen as unpatriotic, surrendering to Germans, opening the door to terrorism, and opposed to good sense because of ancestral dislikes connected to their ethnicity. Ouch all round.

Good copy though this undoubtedly is, few would agree it is edifying. The saving grace is the thought that on June 24th, the morning after the night before, the aberration will be over, and something like normal service can resume.

Nowhere is this hope held with more fervour than inside the internally divided Conservative Party. The Tories’ future depends on optimism about the days following the referendum – that feuds will dissipate, basic civility will return, colleagues who have questioned the judgement, motives and faculties of fellow Tories will bury the hatchet and share a pint, laughing over what apologists for unpleasantness call “the rough and tumble of politics”. It sounds appealing. The only problem is that it isn’t going to happen. 

The first reason it won’t happen is because the baseline of the acceptability of personal attacks in our politics has shifted, slowly but surely. And it is still shifting. The offensive tone of Zac Goldsmith’s campaign against Sadiq Khan in London – sadly and shamelessly amplified by David Cameron at PMQs – is the most recent, extraordinary example.  Mainstream parties facing challenges from new parties on their fringes tend to resort to the language of fruitcakes and misfits.  So little wonder, when differences within parties appear, that this more barbed and belligerent language is used against colleagues as well. 

Second, the return of harmony inside the Tory party is unlikely because the arguments about Europe have become arguments about the judgement of colleagues.  When Iain Duncan Smith says David Cameron allowed the Germans to hijack his renegotiation, he is not just making a point about Britain in Europe: he is questioning David Cameron’s judgement as Prime Minister on the international stage. Conversely, when George Osborne says Michael Gove’s assessment of life outside the EU would be “catastrophic” for Britain and “wreck its economy”, it’s difficult to see how George can trust Michael to have his hands on any serious tillers in a post-referendum government. Differences about Brexit have morphed into questions of character. And the shadow cast by raising these questions is likely to be very long indeed.

But sweetness and light will also not return for a more profound reason.  Because underneath the surface of the differences over Brexit lies a difference in visions for the future of the Conservative Party itself.

When Iain Duncan Smith quit the Government over strong-arm Treasury tactics on welfare reform, he did it in the name of the hollowness of his Government’s claim to be on the side of the less well-off. Scratch the surface of Tory Brexiteers’ language and you see a similar claim: that the EU is part of how economic and political elites, in Britain, Europe and across the world, cement their advantage at the expense of those without power. Taking on the case for EU membership is, for many Tories, taking on something about how their own party works and who they claim to represent. It is a stand against a technocratic establishment consensus that they see as a surrender of democratic politics to the interests of the powerful. This is the real debate lurking underneath Tory divisions about Europe: from one point of view “moderates vs right-wingers”, from the other’s point of view “professional politicians vs populist rebels”.

If this is the coming struggle for the soul of the Conservative party, what will its effects on the party be?  That depends.  If these differences are played out in animosity between principals reduced to pointing, vitriol and name-calling, they are potentially very destructive. Divisions that are seen to be about political personalities imply to the public that the only thing at stake are careers and ambition. But if these differences can become an open debate about the future direction of the Conservative Party – on how to meet the challenges of globalisation, immigration, regulation, and changing threats to our security – it may be just what the long-term health of the Tory Party needs. Worse than pretending differences are about personalities is pretending they don’t exist.

And before my own Labour party gets too gleeful at the prospect of a divided Tory party imploding on a daily basis across the aisle, we need to think about the lessons we can learn too. Fractious exchanges between colleagues are now accepted as part of daily life inside the Parliamentary Labour Party. But, as with the Tories over Europe, these tensions mask fundamental differences about the future of our Party and our movement.  We shouldn’t be afraid of this debate. The centre-left is in very serious trouble across the western world, and responding to that crisis of purpose and identity is essential, not a luxury. But for a debate to help rebuild rather than destroy a party, it has to be based on differences of philosophy, purpose and policies, rather than simply showcasing the lumps we can take out of those we don’t respect. If that becomes the stuff of politics within and between parties, none of us can complain if contempt for politicians keeps growing and our ability to make a difference keeps shrinking.

The Lord Wood of Anfield is a Labour peer

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