It’s a tough time for liberals in England. Even the most lackadaisical of political observers can’t help but notice the betrayal many voters continue to feel as a result of the Liberal Democrats snuggling up to the Conservatives in 2010. Consider also those voters who remember Labour as the main party of the Left, as opposed to the post-New Labour, centre-right, “Tougher than the Tories on cuts” party it has morphed into. The reasons behind this are clear to see and it would be easy for liberal voters to lose hope but the solutions are there, if one only has the stomach to look at the tactics employed by populists on the Right.
I refer latterly to Nigel Farage and UKIP, of course. The former has been polled as Britain’s most popular party leader on more than one occasion and his team’s skilful painting of the disenfranchised, working-class right is something that must be admired as effective whatever one’s thoughts on their actual policies. It’s a lesson they’ve learned from the Tea Party in America, and learned well. The Tea Party may well be derided by Democrats and hated even by many Republicans, but stronger than this emotion in the latter is fear, because whilst most of the 313m people in the States don’t support politicians such as Ted Cruz or Michelle Bachman, those who do are almost fanatical in their vehemence. For the same reason the political establishment will always favour the old over the young, US Senators and Congressmen and women will consistently favour the Right of the Tea Party more than the Occupy Wall Street of the Left. Put simply, the Right votes.
Liberals, by comparison, are quiet protestors, particularly in the UK. Typically young and inexperienced, they have no Palin-esque characters guaranteed to make news with every announcement they make, they don’t have the popular narrative of a mainstream media biased against them and they’re not very good at scaring people. The truly spectacular thing about Barack Obama’s rise to the Presidency isn’t that he got there despite being black, but that he got there on a message of hope. Equality for all just doesn’t sell as many tickets in modern day politics as floods of immigrants stealing jobs.
So what are liberals to do, when they’re burdened with what seems like the unpopular side of every debate? Yes to immigration, Yes to Europe, Yes to multiculturalism, Yes to a more controlled market, Yes to the welfare state? Well it wouldn’t hurt to look North.
The Independence debate in Scotland has a number of constants but perhaps the oddest one, at least on the face of it, is that despite consistently trailing in practically every poll, the pro-independence ‘Yes Scotland’ campaign always seem happier than the pro-union ‘Better Together’. There are a variety of reasons, but here are some of the most pertinent to liberals in England.
Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister is a canny operator. The ‘No’ side have repeatedly tried to wrap the independence debate around him, as if to say the entire shambles is merely the result of one man’s ego. Salmond has embraced this tactic, correctly guessing both that every time a UK minister has to attack him, it raises the profile of his argument, and that Better Together do not have a media personality to match him. Better Together’s campaign leader is Alistair Darling who may well be able to make a decent point, but by the time he gets there, no one is listening.
Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP’s Deputy First Minister, has also emerged as a ferocious political operator. At ease speaking in student halls and on the streets of the poorest parts of the UK, she has also been trotted out by the Yes side to participate in a number of debates with prominent No campaign figures. Her demolition of new Scotland Secretary Alistair Carmichael was almost painful to watch, and it sent a powerful message. The Yes campaign was not to be trifled with.
Arguably a bigger boon for the independence brigade however, is the form their campaign has chosen for itself. Whereas one Better Together insider described the pro-UK campaign as ‘Project Fear’; a label that will unfortunately for them, never go away, the Yes side has bottled and branded ‘Hope and Change’ much as Mr Obama did in the US. The wording of the referendum question was deliberately phrased so as to make the positive ‘Yes’ a vote ‘for the people’ and ‘No’ one against. Their talk, contrasted with the negativity of No, is almost relentlessly positive. ‘Look what we COULD do,’ goes the talk. I say ‘almost’ because like any political campaign, there is negativity and some fear-mongering. ‘Vote Yes or face more Tory cuts’ is the most obvious example and naturally in the more socialist Scotland, it’s played well.
So what can English liberals take from this? It is true that Scots are more left-wing in their leanings than their cousins to the South, but this is not akin to a comparison between the liberal Netherlands and the staunchly right-wing US. The differences North and South of the border are not so divisive, as evidenced if by nothing else by Better Together’s continued lead in the polls. This means, fortuitously, that the same tactics can be used to effect.
First, the Left must look to their options and face some hard truths. The Lib Dems are the obvious means to our end but for one glaring problem. They are now officially part of the establishment and have moved Right along with it. How many students and young people voted in 2010 only to lose hope and trust by 2011? Will they ever vote yellow again? The Greens then become the party of choice, but they face difficulties, not least is which the fact that they have no characters.
It is perhaps a sad indictment of our society that we need celebrities to identify with politics, but it is the case. Boris Johnson is the best example. Dismissed as a buffoon by those not really paying attention, there is no one in Westminster who seriously thinks the same. Mr Johnson realised early on that the bumbling idiot act played well, and he’s played it better than any since. It is a truism that practically any London mayor would have been popular during the Olympics, but Mr Johnson played it masterfully making him, for a time at least, the most popular politician in the land.
Nigel Farage has painted himself as a man of the people, apart from Westminster, who smokes fags, drinks ale and watches football because he likes it, not because it’s a photo opportunity. Understandably, this has played well with the electorate.
Who is there for the Greens that can develop and display a character that sticks in the mind? Let me rephrase. Who is there for the Greens that most people can recognise on sight? Wanting to talk about policy rather than personality is a lovely thought, but this is politics we’re playing and the game doesn’t work like that. One in Ten people in the UK think Mr Farage is left-wing. Policies are of considerably less importance than image.
The Greens need a newsmaker, but (arguably) unfortunately for them it can’t be a Sarah Palin figure. Mrs Palin’s frequent ramblings, misquotes, inability to name a national newspaper she read, mangling of American history and co-opting of God as a running mate simply won’t play over here. Not only will the press mock it, but liberals will too.
The Greens need the amiability of Mr Farage or Mr Salmond. Both divisive figures, but both politically astute and charismatic. To illustrate, imagine this. On Wednesday, across the dispatch boxes from David Cameron, sits not someone who looks like he won a competition to be Leader of the Opposition for a year, but someone with soaring rhetoric, quick wit and an easy laugh. If Labour are to win the next general election it will be in spite of their leader, not because of him. If the Greens are to win anything, it must be on the back of true politicians, not merely idealists. Beyond that they need someone of Ms Sturgeon’s calibre who can duke it out with the best of them.
Furthermore, they must realise they will not be called to the debating table. No one will hold the door open for them. None of the three major parties (four if we are to count UKIP) want another player at the table. And why should we count UKIP? Lest we forget, they have no members of Parliament. None. Only a fool could fail to see we’re marching to their beat however. Like the Yes voters in Scotland, UKIP members are currently the happiest losers in the country. We would not even be considering an EU referendum if not for their influence.
How did it get to this, then? How does a political party with no MPs even get noticed at all? Put simply, UKIP have played the game well and a certain degree of cynicism is needed on the left to combat this. One example: You’re a left-wing politician and you’re against the monarchy. Fine. There are no votes in this however, particularly of late. So ignore it. No one suggests changing your position, but focus on other things. Education, crime and punishment.
Similarly, don’t be afraid to go on the attack when someone steps onto your lawn. Mr Cameron promised us the greenest government in the history of everything, ever, fingers crossed, scouts honour, honest, srsly lol. Did we get it? More to the point isn’t that your area? For reasons that are unbeknownst conservatives around the world tend to do better on certain areas, defence and the economy being the most obvious. But the environment? Isn’t that the issue that wasn’t an issue at all, until the Left rammed it home? Has the Prime Minister achieved his goal? A press release saying, ‘tut tut’ won’t get it done. Where are the tweets, the rallies, the interviews, the talks, the message?
The BBC won’t have you on to debate? It’s biased. The broadsheets didn’t cover your announcement? They’re establishment. Main parties ducking the issues? They’re in the pocket of Big Business. People fearing immigrants and gays? It wasn’t like this in the good old days. It’s against the rules in the House of Commons to call a fellow MP a liar, but since the Greens only have one MP, Twitter has no such rules and nothing gets retweeted like an image of a politician’s misrepresentations, where are the viral messages making everyone laugh and at the same time, question exactly who they voted for? Whatever the overlying image, whether it’s a smiley guy with a pint, a flag-draped patriot or a pleasantly squiggly green tree, the political truth is that ruthlessness and cynicism win the day.
Don’t be disheartened though, if like most liberals, you consider yourself to be generally a nice person and don’t like this side of politics. It’s true you may have picked the wrong game to play (a Rangers v Celtic derby tends to be somewhat less brutal), but you can cling onto positivity. After all, people in the UK are manifestly miserable about everything, all the time. We know this. Moaning is the true national sport. Secretly we’re quite glad when England fail to win the Ashes or Scotland get kicked out at the first round of the World Cup because if not we’d have one less thing to whinge about. The trick is to dangle a carrot, and then point out who’s trying to take it away. We’ll want the former because disheartened though we are, hope is a drug to us all, and we’ll gleefully moan about the latter.
In other words, the message isn’t, ‘we shouldn’t do this…’ but rather, ‘look at what we can do.’ Don’t tell me about saving polar bears with windfarms; tell me how rich I can be with renewable energy. How much money can I save with solar panels on my house? How much cash every year goes into the Treasury as a direct result of immigrants coming to the country and paying tax to us instead of foreign governments? How does membership of the EU help my business trade internationally with far less trouble than I would if we were out of it? What else could we spend the money for Trident on? The common thread with every answer to these questions? It’s positive, it’s directly effective and it’s based on cold-hard facts. A happy message, based on unemotive study, finished off with, ‘…but They don’t want to let you do that.’ There’s always an enemy.
The Greens have done well in recent years by moving from a single issue pressure group to a bona fide liberal party. Given the abdication of this space in English politics by Labour and the Lib Dems, it’s ripe for the taking. But first they need a character. That will bring attention. Once they’ve got it, it must be seized immediately because in the channel-hopping age, you really do snooze and lose.
Sometimes in sport, we talk about a team losing a match as much as the other winning it. There’s no doubt UKIP came and played a blinder in the first half, but let’s be in no doubt about the other hard truth. The Greens haven’t showed up at all.