Boris; parkrun; The Big Sort

I’ve made a point of avoiding political predictions since 2017, so typing this is something of a foray into an area I’d decided to steer clear of, but I did want to put down something about the recent state of affairs, and in particular a poll this weekend which showed the Tories fifteen points ahead of Labour.

John Curtice was on Marr at the weekend explaining how Boris Johnson could win a healthy parliamentary majority by ensuring that Leave voters converged behind him whilst Remainers splintered between Labour, the Lib Dems, and others. I personally believe that the Labour vote in the north might be more reluctant to switch to Conservative than people might imagine, Brexit or no. But I have another thought about all this that isn’t borne out by any numbers, that doesn’t exist in any evidence but is instead solely my own gut instinct, and it’s this: I don’t believe that the country will give Boris Johnson a majority.

It’s my contention that we don’t elect boors like Johnson as Prime Minister. We don’t like the bombast, we dislike politicians indulging in irresponsible posturing. That’s not to say we won’t vote in radical leaders. Thatcher, Blair and Attlee in their own ways all fit that bill. But it is to say that even these radical leaders understood that they needed to appear dependable, credible, responsible, and respectable. I believe that part of the explanation for Corbyn’s unexpectedly good performance in 2017 — notably still not understood by his supporters nor probably him — was his selling of his brand of politics as nothing more than basic and genteel common sense.

There’s a reason that Nigel Farage has failed every single time he’s contested a Westminster seat. And it’s that politicians who make a lot of noise can appear popular, but beneath the sound and the fury, the electorate aren’t going to respond positively to a leader who wants to take on the Queen.

Britain isn’t going to give Johnson a majority. The same is true for Corbyn. It’s going to be hung parliaments from now until one of the two parties takes a step back from the brink.

I’ve been trying to get away from Politics Twitter of late. Despite there being many wonderful people on there, many of which I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in person, the atmosphere is utterly toxic and seems to be forever getting worse. I’d originally created an account in order to talk policy and politics with like-minded people; and although that does exist, it’s so hard to avoid getting drawn into interminable and increasingly niche arguments and personal vendettas. So much of twitter seems to be people trying to score points against one another, to prove their own superior virtue. It’s depressing and yet also sadly rather addictive. So in my time away I was interested to find that actually, this is not a set of behaviours limited to Politics Twitter by any means.

I have a couple of friends who are parkrun fanatics. For the uninitiated, parkrun is a series of free 5k runs taking place across the country every Saturday at 9am. It is staffed entirely by volunteers, and the runs draw hundreds who take part and get their times uploaded onto the main website each week. It is a wonderful community-minded event which has just reached its 15th anniversary, still going very strong.

Last week, there was a bit of a commotion on one of the parkrun Facebook groups, as a runner reaching his 400th run was rather disgruntled when his achievement was not mentioned during the pre-run announcements, as is traditionally the case. This led to him taking to the internet and posting an online diatribe, criticising the run director and various other volunteers for their part in all this. In turn there has been something of a backlash, first from the director who claims they were never informed of the anniversary and so didn’t know to announce it, but more so from parkrun fans who think the runner’s attitude in publicly attacking people who give up their weekend mornings so that others can run was really not in keeping with the ethos of the event.

It isn’t just Politics Twitter then; it is the human condition, and one which social media seems to supercharge.

Which brings me on to my third point; a book I’ve been recommending to many people of late. The Big Sort, by Bill Bishop, is an exploration of how America seems to be dividing itself into two segregated political communities, with entirely separate lives. Whereas in the past Democrats and Republicans would have socialised, worked, prayed, and lived together, increasingly political allegiance is lining up with a set of other factors which are dividing the population, and the two tribes have fewer and fewer points of contact; more and more counties are electoral landslides as America sifts itself to avoid having to talk to the other team.

This was written in mid-2000s America but it’s easy to see the same in Britain today, with Corbynism as a classic example; during the 2016 Labour leadership contest, polling suggested that 40% of Corbyn supporters had no friends who would consider voting Conservative. This tribalism is not seen as worrying, but as something to be celebrated.

One thing that Bishop’s book was unable to consider was quite how social media would supercharge the process. The Big Sort references a study on how in homogeneous groups, those group members who are slightly more extreme than the group norm receive acclaim, and in doing so drag the centre of gravity in that direction, driving the group towards polarisation. All of this can be seen on twitter, as Corbyn supporters end up claiming that their man led the Northern Ireland peace process or single-handedly brought South African apartheid to an end. Nor is this a problem limited to Corbyn Twitter; Brexiters and FBPE Twitter are two other tribes with very similar issues.

It’s difficult to know how this gets resolved, but perhaps a good start would be for people to try and make more friends with those outside of their echo chambers; one way or another, we all have to live on this island.

Finally, there is a great article in The Times today by Clare Foges which touches on a couple of the points above. Politics is really all about building coalitions, and a big part of the current logjam is because nobody is either capable of that or willing to do so. However good their cause is (and I believe it is), the climate activists are no exception. Politics remains about winning arguments and changing minds.

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Rob Francis

I write blogs about the Labour Party, in an attempt to stop myself from screaming.