This week has seen Sir Vince Cable, leader of the Liberal Democrats, release a statement reminding us all that bigots are not welcome within the Party. This seems as radical and necessary a statement as a reminder that water is wet in regards to a liberal party, or any party at all, in 21st century Britain at first glance.
But with widespread accusations of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party to the left of him, and Boris Johnson’s controversial comments about the burqa to the right, it appears that Mr Cable might be onto something.
It seems as though every day when we browse our news source of choice there’s yet another political figure caught up in yet another mess. Racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, sexism, transphobia, and other forms of prejudice are as common a sight in political news as the quintessential tales of shady characters on the take and local residents up in arms over a pavement verge.
In an era of identity politics, with its hopeful overtures of radical social policy reforms, and a dark orange-toned President of the United States underbelly, stoking the fires of division is repeatedly becoming a workable electoral campaign strategy. To most of us however, this sort of divisive politics is seen as utterly embarrassing. So how do these inflammatory characters manage to last so long in the political arena?
The same way racists, anti-Semites, Islamophobes, sexists, transphobes, and bigots of every colour have always survived: a closed ranks culture.
There is not a party in existence that hasn’t got some embarrassing skeletons in the closet. Those skeletons become a problem, however, when they’re allowed to take seats in Parliament, the Lords, or in councils across the country. When they weave their way into the power structures of political parties, they can cause all-out havoc.
Even Sir Vince Cable, with his sweeping statements about standing up to prejudice, cannot help but admit (or have it repeatedly pointed out to him, should he miss it) that his Party has a few too many of those skeletons on show.
The one thing all of these high profile horrors have in common with that slightly dodgy member of your local council is that they have a network of people who close ranks around them at even the merest suggestion that they might be anything less than flawless. This is how closed ranks culture has lead us down the twisting path we now walk.
When we defend those we know we shouldn’t in our own parties, while calling out across the aisles about people in other parties doing the exact same things, we become further entrenched into the toxic culture that put Donald Trump into the White House.
A certain degree of party loyalty is to be expected. Nobody would say that calling out a friend or a colleague is easy. Nonetheless, we must work to build a political culture in which the statement ‘you will not find yourself alone - and you will always find allies in our members’ feels like reality, not a cruel joke.
Those dismantling our political institutions in the hope of rebuilding them free from racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, sexism, transphobia, and other forms of prejudice and discrimination must first turn to dismantling the very internal culture that got us here. This isn’t a stripping-back-the-wallpaper-to-be-replaced-with-a-coat-of-same-old-magnolia job. We’ll need to pick up the sledgehammers.
If you, like Sir Vince Cable, have made sweeping statements about the future of a political culture free of bigotry but found yourself with no concrete strategy on how to deliver such a thing, here's how you can contribute to the fight against closed ranks culture:
1. Call out bigotry when you see it. Small things can amount to much bigger problems. It could be as simple as a casual e-mail to someone you work with about something they’ve said, or mentioning your concerns to a friend. Picking up on, and challenging, inappropriate behaviour is the best way to change the culture around you.
2. Challenge the views of others. Turn that irresistible temptation to reply to that dodgy political take you saw on Twitter into something constructive by providing alternative perspectives, facts and figures when you know something isn’t quite right.
3. Support those standing up to injustice. In a closed ranks culture, being vocal when you know something isn’t right can be a stressful, scary and isolating experience. Offer a supportive shoulder, or a reaffirming nod, to those you see taking on fights bigger than themselves.