Lib Dems blame everyone but themselves

A map showing the seats which changed hands in the 2019 general election.
The seats which changed hands in the 2019 election

Last Sunday the Liberal Democrats’ acting leader Ed Davey (who is my MP), interviewed for the Guardian, claimed that the biggest factor in his party’s lacklustre election result last month was Jeremy Corbyn; he claimed that people had told his party’s canvassers on the doorstep that they agreed with him about stopping Brexit but insisted that they had to “stop Jeremy Corbyn”, the same as he believed happened with Michael Foot in 1983 and Neil Kinnock in 1992. The same claim was made about the widespread Lib Dem seat losses in the 2015 general election; in that case it was put down to voters’ fears about a Labour-SNP coalition leading to a break-up of the UK in the event of a minority Labour government.

The party’s own practices are never considered; the Lib Dems lost votes hand over fist in 2015 because the centre-left vote they had spent decades cultivating in the years up to 2010 dissipated as they proved to be willing accomplices to David Cameron’s Tories in the 2010-15 coalition, and very few of those have returned. As for the large losses in the south-west, all of these areas voted to leave in the 2016 referendum and not only the Tories but also UKIP increased their share of the vote in these areas too. In other words, their losses in many of their ‘heartlands’ was a long time coming. In 2019 they attracted a number of Labour MPs who had formerly split to form Change UK and were full of disgust and contempt for Jeremy Corbyn for numerous reasons, among them that they considered him an anti-Semite (I will come to this aspect later), and preferred to see Boris Johnson remain as prime minister than see Jeremy Corbyn in that role even in a coalition. Therefore, rather than contest seats held by Brexiteers or weak Remainers in the southern Remain belt, the party fielded high-profile defecting candidates in Remain supporting constituencies where one candidate against a Tory would have won, in some cases unseating a hard Brexiteer Tory (Iain Duncan Smith, Dominic Raab) or there was already a Remain-supporting Labour MP (e.g. Emma Dent Coad in Kensington). In none of these cases did the Lib Dem win; in all of them except Canterbury, the Tory won. It was suggested that the Lib Dems’ real motive was to avoid challenging the Tories too much so as to ensure an easy coalition; my hunch was that there were too many people in the Lib Dems who hated Corbyn more than they loved their mother.

Also last weekend I read a transcript of a podcast in which the journalist Oz Katerji interviews three prominent Jewish critics of Jeremy Corbyn, namely Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian, human rights barrister Adam Wagner and former north London Labour councillor Adam Langleben. One of the observations made by Freedland was that, when interviewing people just before the election in places like Newcastle under Lyme in Staffordshire (where there is no Jewish community), he had come across people who believed that anti-Semitism was a hallmark of “bad people”:

But the second level I thought was really interesting, which was, and I think it makes British Jews feel, it should make British Jews feel differently and positively about some of their countrymen, which is, I think even people who don’t know Jewish people, very well have a very limited knowledge, particularly of Jewish life, but they have a, they know that it was connected with the Second World War. They may have, sort of be vaguely familiar with Anne Frank’s diary, and they basically know that good people don’t hate Jews. 

And it was as simple as that, you just hear them say, and you know, I heard one man say, ‘and what’s this thing with him slandering the Jews?’, you know, it’s very old-fashioned sort of formulation, but it meant you’re a wrong’un, you know, that that’s those are bad people who think like that. They know that just because one of the defining events of modern Britain was that it stood alone against fascism in 1940. People know what side you’re meant to be on. The idea that this man just couldn’t do enough to make it go away. 

Two impressions can be drawn from this. One is that many British people are very much still stuck in the mid-20th century and still have a romantic view of the Second World War in which Britain “stood alone” (with the help of its large empire, of course). This has a lot to do with why many older people felt able to vote to leave the EU and brush off the likely economic consequences; they forget that the world before we joined the EEC was a different place and we still controlled a large chunk of the world (and the EEC was much smaller than today’s EU). I suspect that many of these people were influenced by the repeated accusations and the non-stop coverage of the issue rather than being swayed by the claims themselves, as many of them were not what would strike the average person as racist.

As for the second, when you consider that the principal alternative to Corbyn was the undeniably and repeatedly racist Boris Johnson, it is that people regard anti-Semitism as a prejudice apart, that good people can be racist but only bad people can be anti-Semitic. This rather chimes with the history of racism in the UK and USA as directed against new immigrant communities and non-white people rather than against white minority groups such as Jews; anti-Semitism as much has always been associated with the central European far right and with the Hitlerite fringe far right, which in the 21st century has tried to move away from that in search of the greener electoral pastures of Islamophobia and hostility to refugees and European workers, with some success if only briefly. Stoke on Trent (which is administered separately from Newcastle) elected nine BNP councillors in the mid-2000s; further south in what was still then Staffordshire, a Tory was elected in the 1964 general election in Smethwick on the back of an explicitly racist slogan. It is all the more disturbing that racism towards more vulnerable and visible minorities who still face calls to “go home” and the suspicion that they are illegal immigrants or have a ‘home’ they can be sent to if deemed undesirable is tolerated while much milder prejudice, not reflected in policy, against a much longer-established, more prosperous and less physically visible minority is deemed beyond the pale. The truth is that any racial prejudice if indulged and allowed to fester can lead to the same things: violence, persecution, suffering and death.

Much as there may have been some truth to the claims about anti-Semitism (I dealt with this in the case of the “Facebook mural” story in 2018), it is also true that there were large number of false claims, often involving accusations of “anti-Semitic tropes” being used to silence justifiable condemnations of the atrocities of Israel and in particular its settlers and soldiers in the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The collective punishment, destruction of property, monopolisation of water supplies, gratuitous harassment and humiliation of natives and so on is all very well recorded as is the impunity accorded those responsible. Any demand for a solution that does not leave Israel dominant stands to be condemned as “anti-Semitic”; often those responsible are Likud sympathisers and were cheerleaders for the Iraq war as well. Their idea of a ‘solution’ is total and permanent submission by the native Palestinians to permanent Israeli domination, or their evacuation. Many of the claims were targeted at Muslim Labour candidates and these included some fairly moderate people. Essentially anyone not willing to condemn their entire community was anathema, and some of the same people who pose as “liberal Zionists” and made much of how they opposed Netanyahu, but … also circulated accusations against Muslims for condemning Israel.

The Lib Dems’ performance was impacted by the fact that it had been swollen by middle-class people who could tolerate the stench of one prejudice but not the whiff of another. They refused to make electoral pacts even though it would have resulted in gains for both parties (it would have had to be Labour who stood down in Esher, for example), perhaps reduced Boris Johnson’s majority, and taken some high-profile Tory scalps in pro-EU areas. They also must understand that people have not forgotten the 2010 coalition and some of the seats they lost in 2015 (e.g. Bermondsey) are probably lost for good, despite how long they held some of those seats; Ed Davey’s claim that he wants to lead a “centre-left party” rings particularly hollow in light of all that.

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