Heidi Allen and Daniel Zeichner illustrate the grey areas of black and white politics
For anyone concerned about such old-fashioned values as truth, tolerance, humanity and still being alive by Christmas, these are dark days indeed.
But it’s not all bad news and imminent Trumpaggedon. It’s been a pretty good period for local democracy, with two of our MPs putting principles before career and publicly calling out their party leaders for being doofuses. Though they may not actually have used the word doofus.
In Cambridge, Labour’s Daniel Zeichner defied Jeremy Corbyn’s three-line whip and voted against the Government’s reckless Brexit Bill, jeopardising his job as a shadow transport minister.
Of course, as the Member of Parliament for one of the UK’s leading Remain strongholds, it’s possible Zeichner has more than one eye on his re-election prospects. And let’s face it, being a shadow transport minister (with responsibility for buses, bikes and walking) doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs anyway, does it?
But it’s no small thing for a minister to go against the party whips: even though they don’t use actual whips, they could probably still give him a nasty Chinese burn or, at the very least, Sellotape a ‘Kick Me’ sign to his back.
Meanwhile, the MP for South Cambridgeshire, Heidi Allen, was one of the first politicians to lambast Prime Minister Theresa May for her shameful reluctance to denounce Donald Trump’s ban on Muslims entering the US. (Yeah yeah, technically it wasn’t a ban on Muslims – but come on, let’s not be naive here.)
“Strong leadership means not being afraid to tell someone powerful when they’re wrong. It’s an ethos this country is proud of @theresa_may” the Tory MP tweeted shortly after May’s deafening non-condemnation.
“I don’t care how special the relationship is,” she added. “Some lines just shouldn’t be crossed.”
Allen has form in this area, of course. She used her maiden Commons speech 15 months ago to rip into plans by David Cameron’s Government to cut tax credits, claiming she could “sit on my hands no longer” (though she didn’t actually go as far as voting against them).
The MP, whose mother arrived in Britain as a refugee from Germany, has also energetically campaigned for Britain to do more to help refugees – a position that puts her at loggerheads with her party leadership.
“I’ve pretty much been on the naughty step throughout my first year at Westminster,” Allen admitted at a public meeting I attended last summer, adding that she was probably “doomed to be a backbencher” forever.
Tellingly, she also described herself as “not especially political”, which is why I think I like her so much. And believe me, that’s a big admission when you come from my part of Yorkshire, where showing sympathy towards any Tory is only slightly more acceptable than saying you’re a fan of Pol Pot, or Manchester United.
For years, I’ve blithely gone along with the assumption that being a conviction politician is A Good Thing that sets you apart from the shameless careerist opportunists (mentioning no names, Boris Johnson). But now I’m not so sure.
Lately, I’ve found myself growing suspicious of ideologues of all stripes – those political tribes of both left and right who approach every problem with a set of stubbornly immovable principles/prejudices (delete as applicable) they haven’t updated since 1976.
Increasingly, I fail to see the value of black and white politics in a world that exists in countless, unknowable shades of grey.
The answers, I feel, are most likely to come from all sides – from cherry-picking the best ideas of left and right so that, for example, we can maximise the wealth-creating benefits of capitalism without throwing people in left-behind communities to the wolves.
These shades of grey are particularly noticeable by their absence on social media, where arguments tend to run along depressingly binary lines.
Take Syria. On the right, you have racist, Britain First nutjobs with Union Jack neck tattoos and an ironically flimsy grasp of the English language gloating when a boatload of children drowns in the Mediterranean. And on the left you have the sixth-form peaceniks of the Stop the War Coalition insisting the Syrian refugees are fleeing “our bombs” (Assad’s brutal dictatorship and Isis’s medieval barbarism having somehow escaped their notice).
When I point out that it’s perfectly consistent to have marched against the Iraq war, as I did, but support intervention in Syria, people can’t get their heads around it. Because you’re either for foreign ‘imperialism’ in the Middle East or you’re against it, right? You’re either a hawk or a dove, and the Americans are either the good guys or the bad guys. End of.
Heaven forbid the fact Iraq and Syria are different countries facing a different set of circumstances should have any bearing on the matter. As a consequence, we can chalk up the Syrians – abandoned to their heartbreaking fate by the West – as yet more tragic victims of Bush and Blair’s disastrous, illegal Iraq adventure.
Closer to home, it’s possible to oppose ideologically-driven Tory cuts to the welfare state while also rejecting the left’s hysterical claims of a “broken Britain”. (Especially now that Labour’s thrown its support behind Brexit – the one thing most likely to actually break Britain; honestly, it’s no wonder choosing between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn feels like choosing between your two least favourite children.) But not on Twitter – there, you have to pick a side and stick to it.
Unlike Boy George, I’m not a man without convictions. (Incidentally, shouldn’t he update that lyric since he was convicted of chaining that bloke to a radiator?) It’s just that my convictions are not set in concrete. I’m open to persuasion on things. Indeed, what better demonstration of that than the fact I’d be happy to be represented in Parliament by Daniel Zeichner or Heidi Allen.
Does that make me a Red Tory or a Blue Socialist? I’m not sure. Anyway, it’s a moot point because I live, by a whisker, in the South East Cambridgeshire constituency, where I voted at the last election for the excellent Liberal Democrat candidate, Jonathan Chatfield. So that’s all the main parties covered. Buy me a drink and I might even vote for you next time.