It may not have seemed possible, but the tectonic plates of British politics have drifted still further apart.
At the Liberal Democrat autumn conference the party pledged to revoke Article 50 without a referendum, pushing themselves even more firmly into the Remain camp in the process. Another Conservative moderate, Sam Gyimah, left his party, enlarging their centrist vacuum.
The prime minister’s characterisation of himself as the Incredible Hulk suggests his upcoming negotiations with the EU will be anything but diplomatic and the relationship between Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn and his deputy Tom Watson appears to be irrevocably damaged.
And that is just the last seven days. In seven weeks we could be getting ready to go to the polls in the wake of one of the most divisive, bitter, and hostile campaigns in living memory.
Elections are the lifeblood of representative democracy but their tendency to sharpen points of difference in parties’ quest for votes can heighten conflict, exaggerate disagreements, and oversimplify complex issues. For any party committed to detoxifying politics, re-engaging the public, and stabilising HMS Great Britain, currently cast adrift in tempestuous seas, there is much work to be done.
We know what the barriers are. We have a highly reductionist electoral, political, and media network in the UK which manufactures extreme divisions, builds counterfeit walls, and assumes a single vote to be representative of a wide array of emotional, psychological, and social positions. Such a system demands politicians who are sensitive, who listen, and who tread carefully. Politicians, that is, who do not self-identify as the Hulk.
But there is a silver lining to the havoc that’s been unleashed over the last three years. Those opposed to a no-deal Brexit have shown that there are ways of working together despite our arcane, adversarial and divisive system. When pushed to the brink, a large number of MPs have been willing to put country before party. They have defied the orders of their whips and leaders. They have bridged old divides – some have literally crossed the floor of the Commons – in order to work together to achieve shared goals and protect agreed principles.
Conversations and ways of working together are emerging that the UK has never seen in peacetime. Like a muscle that gains strength through training, this needs to be captured, repeated, and practiced.
If politicians can find compromise and common cause with their one-time enemies to try to see off a no-deal Brexit then they can do it to tackle other issues that pose a threat to us all. They can do it to alleviate suffering and tackle climate change.
When politicians are able to set aside their party loyalties and personal ambition all manner of solutions become possible. And these collaborative, non-partisan ways of working can and must continue whatever happens with Brexit. That is the ambition that Compassion in Politics and our network of more than 50 parliamentarians from six parties have set ourselves and with traditional ways of working beginning to fracture, we are optimistic that we can change politics for good.
Of course getting to this point will require political parties to break out of old habits and expend far greater energy on tackling serious issues than on scoring points at their rivals’ expense. Any politician willing to do so should see immediate benefits.
In polling carried out by Opinium for Compassion in Politics and released today we found that over half of voters (51 per cent) would like to see MPs put the principle of compassion before the interests of their own party. Some 42 per cent like it when MPs work with colleagues in other parties (19 per cent neither support nor oppose, 10 per cent are unsure, and 29 per cent oppose). There is fertile ground where a new political culture can put down roots, grow, and flourish.
We can plant those seeds now, too. Assuming that an election does take place in the coming months we would like every party to commit to a code of conduct which at its least would ban hate and personal attacks, reject name-calling, labels, and stereotypes and prioritise giving a voice to the under-represented. But even if it doesn’t, we hope individual politicians will continue to coalesce around shared values rather than party lines.
In so doing they would ensure that whatever happens with Brexit, politics builds, supports, and strengthens communities rather than destabilising, dividing, and undermining them.
Our country desperately needs a new political phoenix to fly from the ashes of the destruction wreaked upon it in the last few years – and it needs it now.
Jennifer Nadel is a co-founder of campaign group Compassion in Politics. A version of this piece was originally published by Progressive Centre UK
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