After the UK’s General Election, What Can Progressives Do?

After the UK’s General Election, What Can Progressives Do? December 13, 2019

The UK had a General Election yesterday, and progressives lost. The Conservative Party won a historic majority – much larger than almost any pundit predicted – while the Labour Party’s vote collapsed, and the Liberal Democrats failed to break through (they even lost their leader, Jo Swinson, in the surprise result of the night). What happened? How can people who want a better politics – one more honest and more progressive than what the Conservatives are offering – pick up the pieces and move forward?

I’m an Englishman who has lived in the USA for 12 years, through both the inauguration of Barack Obama (I was there in DC on the day!) and the victory of Donald Trump. I was a political activist for the Liberal Democrats as a teenager and in my 20s, left the party during the coalition government, and rejoined during this election to help my local party (a Conservative/Lib Dem marginal, one of the few which the Lib Dems gained last night). My politics is radically liberal, trending democratic socialist as I age and learn.

I am not a politician. I am clergy and I work with people. I also spent some time as a teaching fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School where I helped teach classes on leadership and persuasion. I worked with a lot of politicians there – mostly former politicians and wannabe politicians – and I learned a lot about how people engaged in politics tend to think about it, and how to help people who want to win elections. I am also an activist, having worked on lots of campaigns over the years in various roles. This post is an attempt to make sense of what happened yesterday in the UK – and what is happening across the wealthy west – using my experiences as Humanist clergy and someone with an interest in politics and persuasion. I write for myself, but I hope this might be helpful to others.

So how can progressives like me process this historic loss and move forward? We must accept the loss; reject recrimination; listen to people; connect to the heart; defeat despair; and seek out storytellers.

Accept the Loss

I often noticed while working with politicians who had lost elections – those who ran for student government or for national office, it didn’t matter – that they found it very hard to accept that they had lost, and that they could have done some things differently and better. This is a very human response: we want to find reasons for our failures which are nothing to do with us. There is a lot of that happening on the radio in the UK today, as particularly Labour Party politicians try to explain away the loss, blaming it on the media, on a smear campaign against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, or on people’s racism, fear, or stupidity.

Often, events outside our control do affect our political success, but if we lose elections and refuse to take any responsibility for the loss we will not learn, and we will lose future elections we might have won. You cannot lose an election as badly as Labour lost this one simply because of forces outside Labour’s control: the party must be honest about what it did wrong and how it could do better in the future. The same for the Liberal Democrats: we made strategic mistakes which probably cost us some seats this election. We made bad choices. We need to accept the loss, and our responsibility for it, as a prerequisite for the learning necessary to do better in the future.

Reject Recrimination

Already the election loss is somebody’s fault: it is Corbyn’s fault, it is the Liberal Democrats’ fault for voting for the election, it is the media’s fault, it is lying Boris Johnson’s. The instinct to lay blame is very strong in the wake of a crushing loss, and is totally understandable. It is also very unhelpful. It prevents introspection, honest assessment of our own failures, and the relationship-building necessary to rebuild and heal.

Rejecting recrimination doesn’t mean not holding people accountable, or not assigning responsibility. These are both important. Rather, it means being unwilling to blame others for our own problems, and seeing past the bitterness of the moment to the future we could possibly have. Certainly, we must hold people accountable for their bad decisions. But we must also remember that people who dedicate their lives to politics and public service most often believe themselves to be doing good, and are honestly pursuing what they believe to be a positive vision of society. The people who made mistakes and 1) human and 2) also crushed by their failure. Be kind and wise, and forego recrimination.

Listen to People

This is the most important thing. Every political party, when it loses an election, says it is going to listen to people and change and do better. Oftentimes, they then retreat into their ideological silos and listen to exactly nobody who disagrees with them. The temptation to do this is particularly strong in our politics today. One side-effect of the political polarization currently occurring both in the USA and the UK is that people find it increasingly difficult to listen to and empathize with people they believe to have abhorrent or wicked views. I share this challenge: it is hard for me too. It is also tiring, as a progressive person, to incessantly be told that we have to listen to people who seem rather uninterested in listening to us – it feels unfair, somehow, that people who are struggling have to listen to people who are struggling less because, if they don’t, parties which would help them both will lose elections. This seems perverse.

At the same time, people will not vote for candidates they feel don’t listen to them, or for parties which they feel are disconnected from their lives, priorities, or culture. If there is one thing I have learnt about politics from my activism and my work as clergy, it’s that politics is about identity, relationships, and feelings, and not about policies, programs, or facts. I wish this were otherwise – I do not relish this truth – but we do not get to choose the world we live in. This is the species we are: emotional, relational, irrational.

One of the great challenges for progressive politicians, both in the UK and the USA, is now this: how can we appeal to people who, for whatever reason, think that the world is divided into snot-nosed, wealthy, cosmopolitan elites who disdain “ordinary people,” and “ordinary people” who find “woke culture” excessive, mean, cult-like, and superior? It is hard for me to type this, but it is true: it doesn’t really matter if those people’s perceptions of progressives are accurate or not. I, for the record, think that generally it is inaccurate, but that there are some elements of truth in there that we should take seriously. But the important thing, first, is to understand why people think as they do, not to decide whether they are right or wrong.

The instinct to reject people’s views because we believe them to be immoral, before understanding why they hold their views, prevents progressives from understanding the country and culture in which we live. It is critical to remember that anyone who follows politics with regularity – including all people in any way actively involved with a political party or political campaign – are quite different to most people, politically speaking. Most people – the vast majority – will never join a political party, will never knock on doors or deliver leaflets, do not read political news or listen to political podcasts. We politically-engaged folks are outliers in this respect. We must recognize how different our view of politics is to that of most people, and therefore work extra hard to understand how people who are not like us feel.

Connect to the Heart

Perhaps the greatest irony of the political realignment we are struggling through is that, consistently in many countries across the world, the right has seemed better at empathizing with a certain segment of society than has the left. I am not saying this in any way to endorse any of the policies these successful right wing populist movements have promoted, nor the way they have campaigned: I have long been outspoken regarding just how racist, dishonest, and wicked much right wing politicking has become. Nor is it to deny that, as much as right wing populists are reaching some, they are absolutely reviled by others (I think quite rightly). But we cannot deny that these messages are striking a chord with large numbers of people, and we progressives have to think of ways of reaching these people. It is clearly not possible to win elections without them, and in any case we need to develop an emotionally resonant narrative which counters the fear, hatred, and division which is being stoked by demagogues across the world. We cannot ignore that the Dark Side is rising in our societies: we have to fight back with the Light Side.

This requires, more than any policy prescriptions, an emotional connection with our own values which we can project to others. What will save our culture and our politics is not a manifesto but a prophecy, a moral revival led by people of conviction and compassion who others like and can personally connect with. This will require enormous amounts of humility on the part of progressives – sufficient humility to connect emotionally with people who, through their votes, support policies which will hurt us and our families. That is no small feat, and it shouldn’t be necessary of anyone – but it is what we need to do to win.

We also need to continue to connect with those people who are passionate about the progressive politics we are proposing. It is wrong, I think, to do as some Labour politicians are now suggesting and try to eradicate Momentum (a very leftist group within Labour) from the party. (It is also rather unseemly for centrist Labour politicians, who have worked against Corbyn’s leadership from the start, to be taking victory laps at the very moment of their party’s greatest humiliation in decades, but that’s another post.) Certainly, some Momentum activists have used their power within the party in a way which makes Labour seem closed minded and unpleasant, a place where a range of different ideas is not respected. But they have also brought a huge amount of energy and excitement to their brand of politics. I don’t believe a centrist takeover of the Labour Party will address the pressing need, which is for a narrative compelling enough which will unite disaffected Labour supporters and passionate progressives into one movement. The most fervent progressives also often feel disillusioned and left out of politics, and there is a reason why they wanted so much for Corbyn to win: the narrative of feckless centrism which calls people to return to the comfortable neoliberal consensus is not so much a response to the challenges of our times as a retreat from them. We need an inclusive and exciting new story, not a tired old one.

Defeat Despair

Mourning is necessary and healthy after a loss. Despair is not. Despair is the enemy of  progress. It saps us of the emotional energy needed to keep working. Even though this was a disastrous result, there are signs of hope. It is true that many of Labour’s policies in their manifesto this time round are actually popular with the public. Although this fact is being used as an avoidance tactic by some – a way to refuse to accept the loss – it is still a fact, and an important one. It is true in the US, too, that people are in favor of much more progressive policies than the ones they are being offered by their elected officials. This is, of course, yet more evidence that people do not vote on policy. But it is also a sign of hope: it shows that, intellectually, progressives are in the right place. We just have to get people’s hearts to where their heads are.

Seek Out Storytellers

This may be a very long project: generational, even. But it needn’t be. Political winds can shift very quickly, and stories spread like fire. My belief is that once the right messenger articulates the message of progressive change in the right way, people will want what they are offering. So that must be our priority right now: finding new leaders, people who the electorate like, who they trust, who they feel have their best interests at hard. People of integrity and personal quality, people who are lights in the world. Felix Adler, the founder of my religious movement, once said “The hero is one who kindles a great light in the world, who sets up blazing torches in the dark streets of life for us to see by. The saint is the one who walks through the dark paths of the world, themselves a light.” We need heroes now, and saints. Luckily, a new generation of activists is rising who are untainted by politics-as-usual, and who are more in tune with the changes now sweeping our culture. I believe there are heroes and saints among them: they could even be you. Now is the time for them to step forward and tell their story.

After I posted this article a friend suggested I check out this from George Monbiot. It explores similar themes and has some very similar suggestions. Worth a read.

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