When my old friend – a lifelong Labour supporter – told me he was voting Tory at the election, I posted a message on Twitter:
A first: met with a friend who for the first time in his life is ditching Labour not for the Lib Dems but for the Conservatives.
— Richard Coles (@RevRichardColes) April 29, 2017
That was that, I thought. But then the replies started piling in. One of the first responses came from someone who thought my friend would regret his decision if he ever needed the NHS. ‘He’s an NHS consultant’, I replied. Even that didn’t stop the disbelief: many of those responding struggled to believe that someone working for the NHS could possibly vote Conservative. Was my friend real, they demanded to know.
Admittedly not everyone thought I was making it up. Others seemed convinced that my friend’s motive must be financial – generated by a desire to make a fast buck out of the swell of private patients who would spill over from the NHS under another Tory government. Telling them that he didn’t have any private patients wasn’t enough to put paid to that criticism. Others were more straightforward in their view on why this former Labour voter was switching from the party he had always supported: he must be an arse, they said. This thought – coming without the awareness that calling him that might hardly encourage him to reconsider his position – spurred me to defend him. ‘F*** off, Vicar of Dibley’, the Twitter mob replied. Yet for all the noise – and there was plenty of it – my brush with the die-hard Corbynistas taught me something. Why do some liberals seem so illiberal?
As someone who considers himself to be a liberal, I think this comes partly because the conviction of our own rightness does not help the critical self-examination a person needs from time-to-time. And it’s made worse when a sense of victimhood manifests itself as aggression. In this case, amidst much speculation of the inevitable Labour wipeout, that’s exactly what seems to have happened, with some Corbyn supporters already falling into this trap before anyone has cast a vote. Of course, this isn’t a problem isolated to political parties. Christians can be prey to a kind of intense piety that convinces a person they have the fullness of God’s blessing on their side: ignoring the plank in their own eye while spouting off about the speck of wood in another’s
So I shouldn’t be surprised by the illiberal reaction of the liberals who denounced me and my Labour ‘turncoat’ friend. After all, for those convinced of their own righteousness, Twitter provides the ideal social media platform to quickly denounce others. To tweet first and then ask questions later. Yet what is surprising and deeply depressing is that so much of the aggro came from people who identified as Labour supporters and activists. If this is what passes for political discourse, what does it say about the party’s chances of forming a credible opposition, let alone government? Is it any wonder so many of us are asking if we belong there any more?
My friend has decided Labour isn’t capable, and has given his vote, but not his enthusiasm, to the Conservatives, in the belief that they are the lesser of two evils. I cannot agree with him, and will not be voting Conservative; but for the first time in my life, I don’t know if I will be voting Labour either.
The Revd Richard Coles is Parish Priest of St Mary’s Church, Finedon