I too am an insufferable middle class, North East liberal. And it’s about time we all raised our game.
I once heard about a heart surgeon who, talking about his work, said something quite surprising. With his patients, he didn’t worry about whether they would have a second heart attack. Of those that survive, only 20% went on to have a second one in the next five years. They seem like reasonably good odds. The real problem was this: of those who had the first heart attack, 95% of sudden cardiac arrests are fatal in the immediate aftermath.
His point: whilst some people are pretty good at anticipating and shifting life’s odds in their favour, others, possibly feeling trapped by circumstance, are not. A flawed and perhaps unsavoury reaction of a minority of middle-class liberals is to think “well, the odds are clear, if people choose to ignore those odds, that’s their look out”. The trouble with this, is that is makes rather inaccurate assumptions about the fundamentals of how some people think. “You reap what you sow in life” has always been an oversimplification, and it isn’t a sound basis for a decent or humane world-view.
When it comes to the Brexit aftermath, that same slightly patronising logic is currently out there, at least on the alternate reality that is social media. Let’s face it, nobody likes to lose, especially on the big things. And maybe it’s not surprising that those Brexiters who favoured “you lost, get over it” slogans were up until 2020, able to successfully bait a minority of vocal pro-Europeans on Twitter. As the economic position of the UK declines, the Schadenfreude has inevitably shifted again. Some British liberals now look at the economic peril of some Brexit supporting small business leaders and have a grim chuckle at the fact that fishing catches are quite literally rotting away. And of course, it isn’t just fish, happy or otherwise.
I very occasionally come across this sort of slightly “obstinate middle class liberal” mindset in some parts of the North East, and I am sure there will be the odd example of it in other economically challenged regions of the country too. It seems particularly incongruous here, because this is a region where real poverty isn’t just a theoretical discussion to be kicked around on a Zoom call with a side of gin, tonic and olives, before turning to the real worry which is whether or not Stewart Lee’s tour dates are going to be cancelled again. The marriage-breakdown metaphor has been chronically overused when it comes to Brexit, but one lesson that surely most people have learnt by now is that neither party moves on from a broken relationship by indulging in excessive woe, anger, derision or even just being smug about the other party if things subsequently go wrong for them. Misplaced, unhelpful or unregulated emotional output is not just unhealthy for ourselves but it doesn’t win over friends, acquaintances or others that we need to influence, if we are going to be part of building a better future.
Fortunately, there is a cure, even for the most unforgiving liberal mindset, and it doesn’t just involve asserting the pat phrase that it’s time to move on, hoping for the best whilst expecting the worst. The reality is that, for all its obvious failings, there is a political alternative. Some of the centre left of the UK Labour party have characterised voting Liberal Democrat (and votes for other minority parties) as almost a luxury for middle classes, safe in the knowledge that it was a matter of principle, and they didn’t have to worry about the reality of poverty. It’s a bit unfair, but the theory goes; voting Lib Dem or Green has much in common with supporting the Momentum wing of the principled, but doomed to fail, wing of the Labour Party. Again, unfair, but both are seen as ‘principles first’ political statements, rather than a real way out of the obvious problems the country faces.
But what about the repositioned, centrist Labour Party? The rebuttal from those who see themselves as more visionary liberals, as well as those on the hard left, is the same. They portray the centrist Labour leadership as painfully moderate by definition. But, like it or not, a centrist Labour party is one that gets elected. And so maybe that level of pragmatism is something that we passionate pro-EU middle-class types might do well to think about, much as we did in the lead-up to 1997, after numerous previous election failings that had disproportionate and real consequences for the poorest in society.
Amongst other things, that means listening a lot harder and with more respect to those groups who are still, despite everything, Brexiters. Because, self-evidently, not all Brexiters are equal. If you are still in the business of drawing false equivalences between rich Brexiter exploiters of international money markets and long-term unemployed Brexiter workers in the North East and elsewhere, then you might not be very good at persuading people that they are maybe in the wrong club. You only win enough hearts and minds and ultimately, enough votes, by engaging with them with love, and caring about their genuine (and sometimes not so genuine) grievances. You may continue to find their current blindness to ongoing risk foolish. But all the more reason to re-join the debate with a keener sense of realism and understanding about how to embrace former foes just a little bit.
You may well think that your current position is self-evidently the right one. Let’s face it, we can all be guilty of an undue amount of faith in our own beliefs. But the reality is that, so far, significant numbers of other people have failed to embrace the debate, and as liberals we need to take partial ownership of the fact that we need to get better at engaging on people’s own terms. We really can’t afford the arrogance of just assuming that ‘they’ are just wilfully wrong, or just don’t get it.
More pragmatically, let’s stop making it so easy for some of the people we claim to care about, to be exploited by the more extreme members of the far right who have made inroads into mainstream politics. Reacting appropriately to trolls requires care, and sometimes by ignoring them we can give them less credence. That’s emphatically not always the right reaction, but it’s one option to consider, before firing off reactionary tweets, indiscriminatingly.
Perhaps more importantly, disengaging from the moderate, pragmatic wing of the Labour party is a luxury that the country cannot afford. The party always has been a broad church, and now is not the time to pick fights, or to carelessly say “it’s not good enough” on side issues. But regardless of where we sit on the political spectrum, it’s probably time for a little less high-minded derision on social media, and a little bit more respect for the views of those with whom we continue to disagree. That maybe is wishful thinking, though.