The Bickering Will Continue | Chris Winter
Over my three years at university, I held two elected positions within the Students Union. My third attempt at election, a run for president, was always doomed. I already had a signed contract, and a job lined up for me after my graduation which would not have given me leave for a year off doing student politics. Essentially, even if I had won, I would have been handing in my resignation letter a few days later. I did not expect to win the presidency of the Students Union, my relationship with them had always felt very confrontational and misplaced. After years of working with them, I already felt as though I had a mark against my name. I was, after all, an outsider to the system. Very few members of the union were willing to work with me. The staff, always impartial, were able to support me where they could. But apart from them, almost every interaction with my fellow elected officers felt like a stand-off.
Looking back on my time there, it all seems so distant now. The movements of one University Union certainly can make the lives of students a lot better, but they are not going to change the world. However, this small student council in the North East of England, which I spent so much time in during my University years, did give me my first insight into why politics seems to go nowhere; why politicians so adamantly refuse to work with each other; why seemingly sensible motions in all levels of government are almost always shot down by the opposing side; why MPs who even just occasionally vote with their conscience and values (and not with their party) are labelled ‘rebels’ and ‘traitors’ – Because politics, at any and all levels, is a battle. Not a battle between right and wrong or right and left, but between in and out groups.
Many utopians believe that politics should not be about fighting, but should instead be about constant co-operation and compromise. Those dreams feel like a fantasy to me now. There is a reason, of course, why it is considered a miracle when politicians from all sides come together to work on something that actually helps people. Because politics can, and pretty much always is, boiled down to a ‘friend – enemy’ distinction. Your political foes will always attempt to undermine you even if they agree with you. Your political allies will almost always side with you, even if they despise what you are proposing. This phenomenon has been especially obvious over the last eighteen months, with many lockdown-sceptic MPs voting in favour of lockdown measures simply because their party demanded it.
Seasoned politicians (opportunists and ideologues alike) are usually reasonably good at seeing which way the wind is blowing and will often try and follow that breeze as best as possible. Members of the ERG, for example, voted for Theresa May’s Brexit deal; and members of the TRG voted for Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal. (Motions which both sides were openly and publicly sceptical of). Just a few years ago, the Conservative party entered a pact with the DUP to maintain a working majority, and then, after they were no longer needed, they forced the liberalisation of abortion laws in Northern Ireland – a move which upset the DUP very much.
Be under no illusion, this political pantomime does not just end with the Tories. Traditional ‘old-Labour’ MPs voted for, and assisted, Tony Blair in totally redefining the modern left wing of British politics (altering clause 4, semi-abandonment of ‘socialist’ principles etc). Jeremy Corbyn, who previously advocated for leaving the EU, adopted a lukewarm remain stance, seemingly out of spite for the Conservative party’s vision of Brexit. Even today, Labour struggles to maintain any strong opinions on anything, as Sir Keir Starmer seems desperate to chase the astounding political success of the Tories by simultaneously agreeing and disagreeing with them on practically every issue.
On the surface, this whole situation appears to be madness. It sometimes genuinely feels physically painful to think about for too long. However, after spending time in the brawl, one begins to realise that this madness is necessary for our system to function… because politics IS a battle. The morality and inherent ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ of this situation is often made obsolete by this harsh reality of politics. Indeed, I am not saying that the eternal bickering is a good or bad thing, merely that it has existed in every society since time immemorial and will probably continue to exist long after all our deaths.
Cross party co-operation is rare because it often leads to dismal failure. It is extremely difficult to satisfy all leanings; and trying to appeal to them all will usually push you out. Befriending the opposition to disprove your own side will very rarely earn the respect of the opponent and will eventually get you pushed into the purgatory of disaffiliation and irrelevance. It is often better for you to stick to a political group and switch teams if only very very necessary. It is also fair to point out that, those who are agreeable, good natured, or kind will be swiftly pushed out by those who are not. People who are willing to stoop lower and fight harder will often be able to outmanoeuvre those who will not. They will always hold the advantage.
I am not going to ramble on to you about the ethical or cultural ramifications of partisan politics. I hardly doubt that I would be able to change your mind on that anyway (plus, a plethora of better articles have already been written on this subject by more skilled journalists and political theorists than I.) I am just here to point out its existence. After years and years of attempts to civilise the situation, politics still remains solely about winning. Your enemies do not care if you are nice to them; your friends will care deeply if you betray them. If this is not the kind or environment you do not want to find yourself in, then it is probably best to stay away from politics in general.
The situation is cursed, and you are cursed for trying to get involved in it. Once you are in, you are in… you will bear the mark of whichever group you decide to align yourself to, practically forever. It should not have to be this way, but it is. So, play the game, pick a side, jump on a bandwagon, purge your team of those members you dislike, avoid getting purged yourself, and stay the course… and remember, while you are sat thinking about whether or not this is the right course of action, a dozen others have already made the decision and are ahead of you.
I sincerely hope that someone could prove me wrong. I am desperate for someone with significant political experience to articulate an idea as a response to this one, which could demonstrate to me where I have made an error. I have not yet met anyone, who has made politics their whole career, who has disagreed with me; in fact, it was conversations with various MPs, councillors, and party workers from all sides which inspired this piece. This article is, after all, based heavily on what I have learned from my own experiences working in a politicised environment and from members of political groups who have said, in much more flowery language, the same thing as I.