I believe in robust debate and in holding our opponents to account. Those who have campaigned with me will know that despite my light-hearted personality, I’m not prone to giving much ground. Scrutinising our opponents is a vital part of politics and our democracy is worse off if the tough questions aren’t asked.
But after a divisive election, in a time of damaging and sometimes poisonous debate, I want to do something just as important as robust campaigning. I want to offer praise and thanks to my opponents. In Cheltenham we managed to squeeze a large number of hustings into the campaign. I spent a lot of time debating with Alex Chalk (Conservative) and George Penny (Labour), and I exchanged messages of goodwill with Tabi Joy (Green), who had stood aside as part of the Unite to Remain initiative. In what can sometimes be a dehumanising process, regular meetings with opponents renewed my respect for everyone who took part.
So here goes:
To Alex, I thank you for continuing your service in Cheltenham when many expected you to do a ‘chicken run’ to a safer seat. I will always respect you for engaging with pro-European campaigners who protested at your office, though I disagreed strongly with your stance on the Brexit debate. Others would have found an excuse to run away and it is to your credit that you engaged in face-to-face conversation. I also congratulate you on campaigning on schools and the environment. We won’t always (or even often) agree on the way forward, but I want you to succeed.
To George, I admire your bravery in standing for parliament so soon after leaving university. You mastered the craft of debating at the hustings remarkably quickly and clearly have a gift for communication. You did not deserve to become the first ever Labour candidate to lose a deposit in Cheltenham. I know that when you stand in a winnable seat you will make a fine MP.
To Tabi, I owe you huge thanks for being part of the Unite To Remain initiative. Stepping aside was a huge political and personal sacrifice to make. I’m only sorry your big-hearted gesture and our campaign didn’t help deliver more MPs from our two parties. When we did share platforms before the election in events focused on the EU and the environment, you spoke with great passion and knowledge.
And onto the future:
Alex, I implore you to follow through on the issues you claim a passion for. Cheltenham schools do not have enough money and for the next five years only your party can secure a better deal. The climate emergency won’t wait and your party must act now on energy generation, sustainable transport, industry, agriculture and much more besides. The status quo, or even timid incremental change, will not do. On the NHS, please don’t muddy the waters between the local and the national picture – you vote for the budget and your party is responsible for the NHS, so don’t duck responsibility and make your voice count.
George, I hope that you can use your significant intellect and oratorical skills to persuade your party to back proportional representation. It’s the reform our democracy needs. And please do all you can to ensure the next Labour leader is a less divisive figure on the doorsteps. It’ll help you get elected somewhere else and it’ll mean the Tories are less likely to hold seats like Cheltenham in future.
Tabi, I know your party will continue to campaign on the environment – that is very much needed and we have challenges to meet in our town. And I hope that the Unite to Remain initiative can develop into a longstanding movement for cross-party work on democratic reforms. Let’s do what we can to work together on both of these.
We all know this is a difficult time for liberals and many of us will be looking for a way forward after a hugely dispiriting election result. But showing respect and compassion for our opponents can help us through and help improve our politics too. This is not a sign of weakness. It demonstrates strength. We had high hopes, but sadly we will not run the country for at least the next five years. However, it’s our responsibility to make a contribution to improving politics. Looking ahead to 2020, I’ll be redoubling my efforts.
* Max Wilkinson is the Liberal Democrat parliamentary spokesperson for Cheltenham. He was the candidate at the 2019 general election and is a councillor on Cheltenham Borough Council and the authority’s cabinet member for climate emergency.