The dog days of July probably aren’t the best time to launch a new political movement, but then the people who campaigned for Remain in the EU referendum aren’t known for their media savvy. Consequently, Paddy Ashdown made a surprise appearance on Marr last Sunday to announce the creation of More United, a ‘tech-driven political start-up’ that takes its name from a phrase the late Jo Cox MP used in her maiden speech: ‘We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.’
More United’s website doesn’t explicitly say that the organisation’s raison d’être is to overturn the result of the referendum. Rather, this is hidden away in a section called ‘Example policies’. One of the core principles that More United revolves around is that it’s pro-immigration and wants a close relationship with the EU and, as an example of what that might mean in policy terms, it says: ‘Campaign for Britain to return to full membership of the EU.’
Why bury this in the small print? After all, none of the people listed as the organisation’s ‘convenors’ (progressive speak for ‘celebrity backers’) have made any secret of their opposition to Brexit — Simon Schama, for instance. And, presumably, the reason for launching last Sunday is because it was exactly one month after the referendum result.
Perhaps this coyness is because rejecting the outcome of one of the largest democratic exercises in our nation’s history sits oddly with More United’s commitment to democracy, another core principle. To make matters worse, a second policy it recommends is reform of the voting system. So it wants to reverse the result of the AV referendum as well? Or maybe Paddy Ashdown and his fellow ‘convenors’ changed their minds about making opposition to Brexit the rallying cry of More United when they saw last week’s poll showing that only 29 per cent of the British electorate want a second referendum.
One of the most obvious objections to More United is that it’s not a genuine cross-party initiative, as it purports to be, but just the Lib Dems by another name, which brings me to the third democratic result Ashdown would like to overturn: namely, last year’s general election, which saw the number of Lib Dem MPs reduced from 57 to eight.
When Ashdown was first warned of this humiliation by David Dimbleby on election night, just after the BBC exit poll was made public, he said he’d eat his hat if it was true, and watching him on Marr, it was as if he wanted to wish away everything bad that’s happened to the Lib Dems since 2010. In this light, More United isn’t a political movement so much as an exercise in magical thinking. Its object is to will into being an alternative reality in which the Lib Dems entered into a coalition with Gordon Brown’s Labour party in 2010, won the subsequent referendum on AV and did well enough in 2015 to prevent the hated EU referendum taking place.
Not a few Labour voters would prefer that reality too, and it may be that the real purpose of More United is to lure them away from Jeremy Corbyn’s Trotskyist cult and towards the Liberal Democrats — a kind of gateway drug for disillusioned socialists. Ashdown says the organisation won’t field any candidates at the next election, but will urge its members to vote for those most closely aligned with its principles, which I imagine is code for ‘supports a second referendum’. Assuming Corbyn remains Labour leader, the only mainstream political party campaigning against Brexit in 2020 will be Ashdown’s mob. So vote for any candidate you like, provided they’re a Lib Dem.
To be fair, it’s possible that the EU won’t be an issue at the next election and More United will have evolved by then into a tactical voting advisory service for members of the centre-left who want to know which candidate is best placed to beat the Tory in their constituency. I launched a similar initiative in 2014, but with the aim of urging Conservative and Ukip supporters to vote tactically to beat Labour. I abandoned it a year later, partly because it was so impractical.
Persuading Tories to vote Ukip, and vice versa, proved nigh on impossible and I suspect the same applies to Labour, Lib Dem and Green supporters. Politics is tribal. The sad truth is that there’s more that divides us than unites us, and always will be.