Saturday 18 May 2013

Mad swivel-eyed loons? Think before you laugh

Today’s newspapers are full of reports that an unnamed ally of the prime minister described Conservative grassroots activists as “mad swivel-eyed loons”.

Liberal Democrats might be inclined to agree. The idea that members of opposing parties are bonkers is a tempting one but we should avoid it. Tory blogger Iain Dale demonstrates why:
Of course there are swivel eyed loons among the Tory Party membership. Just as there are in any party. It’s just a shame that the Liberal Democrats have more than their fair share. Just go to a LibDem conference and you will see what I mean.
Not so funny now, is it? And this contemptuous view of Liberal Democrat members has been promoted less by Tories such as Iain Dale than by our own party leaders and their hangers on. A recent post on this blog discussed Nick Clegg’s travesty of his party members, but he is just the latest in a long line of Liberal leaders dismissing their activists. Indeed, successive leaders have accumulated so many straw men that they now constitute a serious fire hazard.

The bunker mentality and a fear of the ‘enemy within’ began during Jeremy Thorpe’s leadership. Iain Brodie Browne reminded us recently of Thorpe commissioning Stephen Terrell QC to investigate the Young Liberals in 1970. During David Steel’s leadership, his coterie regularly accused grassroots members of not being “serious about power”, when what was really happening was that local pioneers of community politics were winning power and outshining a self-appointed nomenklatura who had never won so much as a seat on a parish council. In 1986, the then chief whip David Alton made up a baseless story about people “walking in off the streets” to vote in the defence debate at the Eastbourne party conference. Immediately after the 2005 general election, Charles Kennedy launched an attack on party activists, blaming them for controversial policies that he felt had embarrassed the party.

Party leaders come and go but the dishonest narrative remains the same. A small elite is convinced that it knows best; that politics is all about the people at the top; that if we want to be “serious about power”, we must become more centralised and jettison party democracy (a process described as ‘modernising’); and that the job of party members is to shut up and deliver the leaflets.

This paranoid narrative says more about the accusers than the accused. And it is the same story in the other mainstream parties. But we know it’s untrue. If you have worked with members of other parties in some joint endeavour such as local government, you will know that most of them are basically decent human beings who share your sense of duty to society. Conversely, you will have encountered a few people in your own party who are deranged or complete arseholes (and in some cases, both).

So a lot of Tories oppose the EU and gay marriage? Of course they do. That’s why they’re Tories. It is a political position with which Liberal Democrats strongly disagree, but we live in a pluralist society and it is legitimate to express those views. The Liberal position is that such views are fundamentally wrong, not a form of mental illness. The way to deal with them is through argument, not exclusion.

I’ll leave the last word to Tory MP Douglas Carswell, not someone Liberal Democrats would normally agree with, who expresses a universal truth about political participation:
“The Conservative Party has haemorrhaged members since 2005, but my own association in Clacton has massively expanded its membership. Instead of treating the membership as the enemy, the modernisers should respect them as shareholders,” he said.
“If you treat the membership as the problem, you will eventually end up with a membership of one.”

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