By Emma Burnell / @EmmaBurnell_
Last week, we saw the best of ourselves and the worst of ourselves. As we mourn the deaths caused by one appalling individual, we need to look at the events of last week and what we can learn from them.
Westminster is so often described in violent terms. We discuss politics as if it were a campaign of war, not of ideas. Our florid clichés about battlegrounds, coups, enemies, troops, foot soldiers, air and ground wars belies the fact that the way we conduct politics in this country is remarkably civilised. Our liberal democracy may not always produce the results we want, but when it was under attack this week, we knew immediately and instinctively that it was a system worth defending.
Westminster politics can be both small and gossipy and large and important, sometimes all in the space of a day. A week that started with a row about internal Labour Party politics ended with a display of solidarity in the Commons where MPs of all sides lauded the bravery of the man who had defended them, their pride in their colleague, Tobias Ellwood MP who had put himself in potential danger trying to revive him and the solidarity they felt in the aftermath of an attack on them all and on the ideals they share.
The left doesn’t have a monopoly on compassion, empathy, bravery or even solidarity. These qualities were in evidence from the opposition and government benches. Both Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May responded well to the gravity of the situation, speaking of our shared set of values. At the Trafalgar Square vigil, Home Secretary Amber Rudd and Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan did the same. This was a time for understanding our commonality – not our differences.
This commonality is where most people live their lives. People who don’t see the people they don’t vote for as “evil” will never understand those who do. Nor will simple name calling convince them to change their minds.
The Tory approach is failing badly. Our economy is sluggish and threatened by the worst possible, hardest probably Brexit. Public services lie under-funded and unloved. In need of reform to transform their ability to do their job, not their ability to save money. But this approach is not failing because the Tories do not care. And as long as that continues to be the frame by which we try to sell our politics we will convince no one – because it is unconvincing. They demonstrably care and the public currently rate them considerably higher than we do on both caring for and delivering on these issues. Passion is vital, but if it is misplaced or misspent then it is worthless. We do not need only to oppose the Tories. We need to be better than them on their strengths too.
Compassion and stoic pragmatism have been the twin virtues that the country has prided itself on this week. For too long, too many have allowed these to be seen as opposing virtues in politics. Too often we discuss “Head vs Heart’ voters as if this were a dichotomy and we were only ever able to represent one set of values at a time. But for lasting success a political party must reach both. We have allowed the Tories to own pragmatism while allowing ourselves to be seen as compassionate fools unable to deliver on our idealistic dreams. This must change.
This doesn’t mean focusing on a litany of policies. It doesn’t mean having 5 million of the same conversations. It means listening to the electorate and responding to them on a human level. It means finding the commonality in our shared existence and working with that to develop a mature relationship. It means being open and responsive not closed and hectoring.
Our country is going to go through a difficult few years as we exit the EU. Many will be frightened, many will be hopeful. We need to be able to speak to both emotions with the same stoic pride we have displayed at our best in these testing times.
Emma Burnell is a regular columnist for Open Labour