In praise of opponents – and a plea for the future

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 candidate for Cheltenham. He’s also a local councillor and cabinet member for economic development, tourism, culture and wellbeing.

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  • Bravo Max.

  • Rodney Watts 2nd Jan '20 - 4:03pm

    Max, you are to be commended in every way. A pity your qualities were lacking in some of our leadership in the months before the election. Even more the pity that you were not elected MP. Yet another instance of where cooperation between us and Labour could have seen one less Tory MP.

  • Nigel Hardy 2nd Jan '20 - 4:46pm

    Bravo Max. You have set the bar high as an example of the how we expect our politicians and candidates to conduct themselves. Our political discourse will improve if such magnanimity can be adopted as standard.

  • James Fowler 2nd Jan '20 - 6:58pm

    @Rodney Watts – very much agreed on Max’s post, except there’s nothing much left to squeeze out of Labour’s vote in Cheltenham and the policy postures we’d have to assume to crush it down further would cost us more than we’d gain. The fact that Alex Chalk actually secured a modest rise in his vote at a time when moderate remain Conservatives should really have been deserting him for us in scores says a lot about the abilities Max pays tribute to and I think is a better explanation of (another) galling near miss. Every Conservative defector equates to two Labour switchers.

  • Richard Underhill 2nd Jan '20 - 8:32pm

    Gloucester Live “The Conservatives have held Cheltenham, just doing enough to see off the Liberal Democrats and get Alex Chalk back into Parliament. The 43-year-old held the seat, seen as a key marginal one in the General Election, with a 981-vote majority.
    He saw off the challenge of his main rival, the Liberal Democrats’ Max Wilkinson, with Labour’s George Penny well behind in third and George Ridgeon of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party finishing last. Mr Chalk, who has been the town’s MP for four years, saw his 2,569 majority from the 2017 election slashed.

  • Peter Hayes 2nd Jan '20 - 10:30pm

    I see Alex Chalk’s regular emails and he does talk the talk, unfortunately he does not vote as he talks but only as the whips tell him.

  • Peter Martin 3rd Jan '20 - 12:08pm

    @ Peter Hayes,

    “…. unfortunately he does not vote as he talks but only as the whips tell him.”

    Jo Swinson had the same shortcoming. It’s possibly not a good career option in the longer term.

  • Christine Headley 5th Jan '20 - 12:17am

    @Peter Martin. Jo was a member of the Coalition government. She had to vote with the whip, or resign. Her resignation would have meant us finding another of our MPs to replace her, or lose a voice in the government. She had no choice. Alex Chalk can rebel if he really wants to.

  • Christine Headley 5th Jan '20 - 12:22am

    I am still pondering the loudspeaker vehicle I heard near a Cheltenham polling station during the late morning on polling day. It was exhorting people to vote Labour. They would have done better to spend time in Stroud! (Not that I am convinced that touring loudspeakers work for the party represented.)

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