This post owes a lot to this tweet, and the depressing replies to it.
The story is a depressing one: some Labour supporters went out in balaclavas and stole the sign which had been put up outside the house of a young Lib Dem activist, in the process waking her up and using abusive language, before posting the details of their triumphant raid on social media. (To be clear, I have every reason to doubt that this was sanctioned by anyone in the Labour campaign.) The replies to April’s tweet are even more depressing: first of all, alleging that she made it up, and then moving on to arguing that it was nothing at all and that she should suck it up, and anyway the Lib Dems had helped murder thousands of people so she deserved it. In response, I want to quickly explore why people put up posterboards, why people steal them and what this signifies, and why an apparently minor piece of vandalism is genuinely not good.
Putting up a poster at election time holds a special place in British political culture. It is not primarily intended to *persuade*, except in the widest of senses. Over the whole ward or constituency contested, it is a way of giving a visible show of support (which is why the Lib Dems in particular, who rely on squeezing/avoiding being squeezed, put the most effort in and have the most visible signs). But much more than that, it is an *individual* statement of allegiance. By putting up a poster, you are forgoing the secrecy of the ballot box, throwing all privacy and nuance aside in a faintly unBritish way and informing your neighbours of the party and individual whom you are supporting. For most people, even faithful voters for one party, putting up a poster is a stronger and more visible statement than they are willing to make. I don’t want to exaggerate – ours is a country with largely pluralistic politics and a culture of live-and-let-live. But it is still a brave step.
Which leads us on to the theft of posterboards. I’m not going to get too high-and-mighty about this – in almost every election campaign, poster boards go missing, and generally it’s not worth making a fuss about. In terms of the campaign, it doesn’t matter that much if the odd sign disappears, it might be due to neighbourhood kids, or windy weather, or maybe the opposing campaign. You just don’t don’t know, and usually it’s not worth puzzling over. Still, I don’t approve of it – by stealing the poster, you are nullifying the owner’s conscious decision to express their political views. You are silencing their voice.
More worrying than that, however, is the motive behind it. I know from experience that political activists get extraordinarily irate about opposition posters popping up. During the last two general elections, I’ve campaigned for the Lib Dems in two different Lib Dem-Tory marginals, and I can remember occasions on each time occasions when I was quite annoyed to see Labour posterboards. If you’d asked me for the rational reason for my annoyance, I would have said that it was because it was undermining our message that the Labour were far behind in third and that only the Liberal Democrats could defeat the Conservatives here. In reality, it was a feeling that *they* were stepping on *our* ground – not an emotion that I’m proud of, albeit one which was exaccerbated by the heat of the campaign.
To call this level of political psychology ‘tribal’ would be to flatter its sophistication – primeval would be a better word for it, seeking to expel outsiders. At university I remember reading Natalie Zemon Davis’s classic article The Rites of Violence: Religious Riots in Sixteenth Century France, which borrows from cultural anthropology to study the ritualised violence and desecration that French Calvinists and Catholics inflicted upon one another. In the case of those who stole April’s sign, we see a similar ritual of theft designed to purify the community. To be clear, there was no driving need for these young men to steal the posterboard, given that Labour romped home in Manchester Withington with a 30,000 seat majority. Instead, we see the ritualised elements clearly – the donning of the balaclava, the intimidation of the householders, and the triumphant procession of the sign across social media. The community of Manchester Withington had been purged of its stain of Lib Demmery, and was now comfortably Labourish again.
The conscious justification for this is just as worrying: the argument that the Lib Dems in government had impoverished millions of people and sent thousands more to their deaths through the imposition of austerity, so why on earth were we worrying about signs? To these onlookers, anyone upset by the theft just treats politics as an absurd game, rather than as a life-and-death matter, and is to be despised for their amorality. The flippant answer to this argument is that, if it mattered enough for someone to publically steal it, then it is legitimate to care as much about it being stolen. The deeper contention that needs to be challenged is one that attacks the basis of the liberal consensus that underlies democratic politics – that you cannot do something against your political opponent which you would not tolerate from them just because you believe that you are Good, and that they are Bad. Of course, it’s not only the far left who think like this – the far right have a worse track record. They also reject pluralism because of their belief that liberals and socialists are existential threats to the nation, which they have betrayed. In the words of one notorious fascist terrorist, ‘death to traitors, freedom for Britain’.
I hope that I have demonstrated that theft of political signs can have significant ideological, even ritual, meaning. In general, the left is admirably sensitive to the symbolic meaning and psychological impact of acts of aggression however apparently innocuous. It’s a shame that a minority of their number can be so obtuse when it comes to understanding the meaning of small actions against their opponenets, like a stolen posterboard, or threatening words to a journalist on Twitter. The fundamental principle at stake is freedom of expression and of conscience – it is one which we should all defend.