Renew's Brogan Meaney explains her frustrations with the shift in government messaging and asks: when will we feel safe again?
The PM’s pre-recorded address to the nation on Sunday was meant to update us on the next stage of lockdown; instead, in what we’ve come to learn as classic Boris Behaviour, his vague, meandering rhetoric raised more questions than it answered. This was followed by a cacophony of conflicting messaging from various government ministers as they desperately attempted to explain a standpoint that they — in quite a distinctively separate level of clarity — did not understand either.
Of course, in the wise words of Boris Johnson, to make sense of the government “guidelines”, we simply need to use our “good solid British common sense”.
Needless to say, we shouldn’t have to rely on our “common sense” — which will greatly differ on an individual level due to our varied life experiences and perspectives — to establish how best to protect ourselves from an invisible virus.
What we all want to know, is when will we be able to hug our friends again, when will be able to kiss our grandparents, our grandchildren? And, the sad reality is, at least in my immediate echo chamber, that months of inadequate protection and guidance from this virus by the government has instilled a fear in the public that will prove hard to squash. Especially when attempts use methods of inexplainable maths equations such as “COVID alert level = R + number of infections” and wishy-washy messaging points like “stay alert” and "control the virus”. The government is trying to move away from the “stay home” messaging. But “stay home” is a clear instruction; the success of which ensures a polarising impact for any variation.
Throughout the pandemic, the government have continued to treat us like uninterested, badly behaved school-children. They’re following “the science”, science that, obviously, would be so incomprehensible to us that instead we’re presented with pretty, colourful graphs, censored reports, and short, unclear yet irritably catchy messaging. We are expected to blindly follow their rules — rules which remain unspecific and indistinguishable, even for the government ministers who have been prepped for the press by those creating these rules.
The change in government messaging, from the comprehensive “stay home” to the equivocal “stay alert”, does not signal an ease of lockdown restrictions; instead, it marks a change in narrative, and a shift in blame and accountability, from the government and the state to the rest of us. This, and Boris Johnson's talk of PPE shortages and the care home epidemic as though he hasn’t been the one in charge of these things, demonstrate the governments’ washing their hands (for at least 20 seconds) from the burden of responsibility.
And so, we’re turning on one another, blaming ourselves for the failings of the government who are meant to protect us. We’re blaming the couple out doing their food shopping, the group playing frisbee in the park, the mother with the stroller who passes us on the pavement within touching distance, the commuters piling on the tube during rush hour. It’s not inadequate PPE, it’s not the lack of testing, it’s not the mixed messaging and unreliable sources that lead to headlines across all mainstream newspapers just before a sunny bank holiday weekend such as “Hurrah! Lockdown freedom beckons”. No. We must “stay alert”, the government says. But stay alert for what, for who? Because how can one “stay alert” to an invisible respiratory virus, an infection from which many of us will be asymptomatic? The only interpretation (we should not have to discuss “interpretations” of government guidelines for an exit strategy from a lockdown caused by the spread of a global pandemic) of: “stay alert” I can think of, is: “stay alert to others around you”. It appears the only clarity in the governments enigmatic messaging is to distrust those around us.
In a nation already so divided and distrusting of others we share a land with, laws with, a national identity with, what will this further distrust do to us? This virus has reaped havoc on our globalised world — travel bans, suspicion and contempt for labels reading “made in China”, comparisons and critiques of other nations and their death tolls, the continuous global competition for protective equipment and tests. And, on top of this, Nigel Farage has attempted to reignite his soggy, stale, discriminating debate on illegal immigration, travelling to the coast of Dover to demonise the most vulnerable of all, at a time when our daily death toll was rising exponentially.
Keir Starmer stated in the HoC on Monday: “what the country needs is clarity and reassurance. And at the moment both are in short supply.” But what he left out was responsibility.
The government refuses to acknowledge the devastating effect years of austerity has had on our public services, our economy, our livelihoods, the inequalities it has stretched and stretched and stretched. There are many factors to blame for the UK’s huge, regrettable death toll, and the majority of fingers point at the government. Yet, onwards, they continue, with this strategy of deniability.
But there will be no “going back to normal” until the public feels safe. And, I for one, find little interpretation within “stay alert” that makes me feel safe.
Deputy Leader James Clarke reflects on Renew's roots as we look towards the future.
Rather than talk about the current political situation, perhaps we can talk a bit about how we got here, then to the future and what we can do to help shape it.
We started Renew as a vehicle for those politically disenchanted people and groups (like us) who were no longer prepared to support failed parties in a failing system and who wanted to get involved and participate in politics more actively. We wanted to bring in fresh faces, fresh blood and harness the skills of those with real experience outside of the standard, politically ambitious classes and tribes.
But, as we know, the best political plans tend to be knocked off-course by, (in the likely apocryphal words of Harold Macmillan) "Events, dear boy, events."
Whilst Macmillan had to contend with the 'Profumo affair' (such a beautifully understated use of the word 'affair'), Renew (and the rest of the UK) had to contend with Brexzilla, as it ran rampant, transforming from a merely terrible political idea to an all-consuming national identity crisis.
Somewhere along the way, our goal of growing a challenger, start-up, grassroots political movement got swept up in the tornado, even at the same time as all our potential goodwill, publicity, donors and voters were dragged back from the centre to the extremes, as the Brexit stakes and the country's temperature got higher and higher.
At a time when faith in the two main political parties was at an all-time low, 82.3% voted for them in 2017 (and 75.7% did in 2019); politics became a game of attrition. We contested election after election where people on the doors loved and respected what we stood for and what we set out to achieve, but simply had to vote Conservative to keep that awful man Corbyn out, or vote Labour to stop those unconscionable Tories (even in seats which were not remotely marginal): "Next time, we'll vote for you.", we heard, over and again.
And then came...
The TIGgers, who came, saw and scarpered.
The Lib Dems, who got lit up then extinguished like a crap firework.
GE2019, which loomed like a dark portent and then left like a bad smell.
And now, the virus.
Half of the country on lockdown and the other half frantically working to save lives and the economy.
Events, dear boy.
So what happens next?
There has been a great deal of talk about tectonic shifts socially, a new normal, a quiet revolution, downsizing, a new capitalism (or socialism), UBI, homeworking, even a climate breakthrough. In the UK, the Government has veered from crowing about their Withdrawal Agreement and announcing lavish spending on new Tory-voting constituencies to underwriting the biggest social and financial bailout in UK history. Labour have elected a credible leader that their bitterly divided party doesn't deserve and the Lib Dems are stowed away in witness protection.
As for Renew, we must now refocus on our identity and return to our core values and our raison d'etre. As I often say, the fundamentals have not changed; the system remains broken, the parties are dysfunctional and the legions of disenchanted voters (and non-voters) haven't gone away. We need to go back to the reasons why we started a party called 'Renew' and did not simply join a campaign group or form a single issue anti-Brexit party.
We need to differentiate ourselves from both the mainstream parties and the smaller ones.
Renew was, and is, about Reform, Renewal, Inclusion, Civic Participation, Systemic Change, Electoral Reform, Modernising, Fresh Faces, Supporting Political Activity, Openness, Harnessing Technology, Transparency, Fairness, Competence and Doing Things Differently.
Renew is about Something New.
To this end, we need to talk less about policies, elections, constituencies, leaders, left, right and (forgive me) 'centrist politics' and all the terminological traps of a political game rigged to reward the incumbents, and present ourselves as what we are, a welcome place for people who want to get involved in politics without all the repellent, fusty, childish paraphernalia associated with the reds, blues, yellows, greens and other exclusive, tribal clubs.
We need to give a voice to those who have no medium, to those on the periphery, to those turned off by the politics of colours, people from all walks of life. We need to be the vehicle for those who want to get involved and Get Heard.
This is going to mean a lot of things. It will mean reaching out to like-minded groups, especially those involved in Electoral Reform, it will mean Renew people participating in local community and action groups, building credibility, giving Renewers a good reputation. It will likely mean offering our support to those who wish to stand as Independents. It will mean not giving up regardless of the odds. And it will mean developing good habits that start here, at home.
As someone once said, 'there is no us and them, there's only us'.
So, it’s decided. We’re having a December election. For the first time in almost a century.
Just another unprecedented development in the seemingly never-ending tumultuous political age of Brexit.
But, perhaps an end is in sight. There is more at stake in this election than ever before. If Johnson and his gaggle of hardline Conservatives are elected it not only legitimises his role as Prime Minister, but allows him to push through his damaging Brexit deal, which, it was announced yesterday, will cost the UK economy £70 billion per annum — roughly the size of the Welsh economy.
This is why forging and supporting a remain alliance is so important to Renew. We can oust Johnson et al and prevent a harmful Brexit majority being elected into Parliament. But we can only achieve this through tactical voting. Simply put: we are stronger together.
Renew continues to support a remain alliance — fighting alongside the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, Plaid Cymru and other remain parties. We’ve done this before. We stood aside in Brecon, helping the Lib Dems win a Conservative seat, in the European elections we supported Change UK, and in Peterborough we worked with both the Lib Dems and the Greens to select a ‘unity remain’ candidate.
This is another election that will no doubt be dominated by Brexit, and we must utilise the same tactics in order to prevent a Johnson Brexit crisis, and to continue advocating for reform and renewal of our broken system.
But, what are the incentives to tactically vote, yet again, after two elections that didn’t achieve the desired results?
Best for Britain, yesterday, launched their tactical voting site — another tactical voting site amongst the many — and with it, they released their predictions of how tactical voting might alter the result in the up-coming general election.
They stated that if just 30% of pro-Remain voters use their vote tactically, it could prevent the Conservatives from winning a majority. In this scenario, a coalition of Labour and other remain parties could win a parliamentary majority of four seats. The majority increases to 36 if 40% of pro-remain voters voted tactically. Whereas, if voters did not tactically vote, the very same coalition could win as few as 268 seats, seeing the Conservatives win a majority in Parliament.
Of course, these are turbulent times, and as we’ve seen before, polls and predictions can, and do, turn out to be wrong. But united we stand a far greater chance of stopping the Conservatives and their damaging Brexit than if we’re divided.
If there is one thing on which we can all agree, it is that the divisions in our society have grown substantially since the Brexit referendum in 2016. While there is a great appetite for change in British politics, one need only look at the First Past The Post voting system and career politicians found in Westminster to see why this is the case.
This arbitrary and undemocratic system is a blight on British politics; it systematically and demonstrably favours larger political parties, mis-representing the political landscape of the UK and preventing dissenting voices from being heard. It is frankly absurd that we cling to such an unrepresentative system for determining the main actors in our political system. First Past The Post does have its strengths, namely that for the purposes of regional politics, an elected representative voted in directly by their constituents has a more legitimate local mandate than representatives elected under certain proportional systems.
However, this does not override the glaring flaws in this system at the level of national and international politics. One need only look at the vote shares obtained by parties in the 2017 general election and their relative representation to understand that this is the case. There is a large proportion of the public, who through being essentially politically hamstrung, have consistently been ignored and marginalised by this country’s entrenched political class. Whether we can say red and blue are dead remains questionable, and rightly so. If we maintain this system of voting, it is unlikely that those who are currently disillusioned with British politics will ever have their voices heard.
Renew seeks to change that. To ensure fair representation at the highest levels of government there is only one possible solution. We must abandon first past the post and replace it with a system of proportional representation. If there is one thing that the result of the 2016 referendum proved, it is that the British public are tired of having their freedoms eroded by a political class drunk on power, who have maintained control of Parliament through the blatant misrepresentation of the diverse political landscape of this country.