I’m not sure that there’s much point in trying to write about the political landscape around the Labour Party at the moment. Sure, by the time I reach the end of this sentence Angela Eagle could have been found jamming an ice pick into Jeremy Corbyn while Hillary Benn launches an armed uprising on Clapham Common. Which would be interesting, to be sure, but it also makes a bit of a joke of any attempts to step back and survey things with any sort of clarity. Still, there’s no escaping the compulsion to try and figure things out as they progress so I’ll do what I can, all on the assumption that I won’t find myself disappeared and this post airbrushed out of history by the Labour NEC.
The word for the day, it seems, is ‘intimidation’. Apparently hoards of throwbacks from Stalin’s purges are storming the gates of Labour luminaries and with flaming torches and sharpened pitch forks terrifying them into capitulation. Or something along those lines. Certainly victims and their defenders are popping up at every turn, outraged by the actions of Corbyn supporters seemingly out to harass them into subservience. And it is, almost always, Corbyn supporters alluded to (though rarely, if ever, named) – which is nice, at least it keeps things simple.
I don’t mean to sound cynical. I certainly didn’t set out to at least. Not so long ago, just prior to being demoted to a slogan for opportunists, an MP was murdered. It was an abhorrent act, one that should offend everyone of every political persuasion and it’s proof positive that there are those who see hate-fuelled violence as a political tactic worth considering. Unfortunately cynicism has set in though. A shocker to those who know me I’m sure.
There are people who think an expression of their personal hate or insanity is a valid act, we know those people when we see them and we detest them too. It’s one of those happy cases where general human morality, mostly, converges in agreement. There are also more subtle forms of self-justifying moral corruption though. Forms which don’t openly act on negative ideals but which do manipulate and profit from them – taking the abhorrent and turning it into a strategic asset in a way that demeans real horrors and insults real victims. That’s what seems to be occurring with ever increasing frequency in the political world at the moment. Fear, intimidation, bullying – all real things, all things that should be disdained and combated at every turn – have been suborned into the role of political gambit. Catch all terms to negate uncomfortable responsibilities and to neuter understandable anger in a way that relegates those in real positions of fear or discomfort to auxiliary roles as totemic examples, symbols to be pointed at to justify any and all manipulations, no matter how cynical.
I know it’s walking a fine line to say that at the moment, in the eyes of some at least. That’s why I’m not planning to call out any particular individuals. Who knows how any one person may take an experience, perhaps in some cases the declared fear is real and the concern honest even if I can see no real strength in the accusations made. It’d be futile cynicism to start challenging every case as if there was an easy list of guilty parties to be drawn up. What I will do though is point to end results which I do feel are manifestations of a deeply unpleasant appropriation of suffering – the end goals for a greater or lesser number of people who’re eagerly corrupting legitimate concerns into their own service.
A few days ago the Labour NEC met to discuss Corbyn’s place on the leadership ballot and whether he was automatically guaranteed a spot. To me, as to a lot of others, this was a pointless debate. Not one defined by honest confusion, but an attempt to secure a new avenue by which to force him into submission or, at worst, a protracted legal battle which might have further exhausted both the man himself and his support. The meeting went ahead though and we all waited patiently on the results. It was along the way that news of the vote on a secret ballot was broken – NEC members, representatives of party membership and Trade Unions were asking for their decisions to be anonymous ones, driven by an apparent fear of intimidation and bullying.
As I said, I can’t speak to the concerns and fears of individuals involved – although there’s been plenty in the press and from some of them for anyone curious to come to their own conclusions. What I can say though is that to have a secret ballot was a slap to the face of the democratic process. Accountability, in all representative decision making processes, is built on openness. That’s why the voting records of MPs are recorded and shared for all the world to see, because without knowing what they do there’s no method by which to judge them, for better or worse. Even taking all self-avowed reasoning at face value there’s still no defence for breaking the democratic process for the sake of fear – to do that is to capitulate to it. Something which I highly doubt those wilfully endorsing limits on openness and discussion would be willing to do if the circumstances seemed more in their favour.
It’s an approach that’s spreading increasingly wider too. In discussions I’ve seen the prevalent threat has become that of accusation. Honest discussion ends up stifled by the overhanging threat of being branded as a bully, not because of any real act but simply because a climate has been created where to proclaim a concern, no matter how slight, is enough to condemn your opposite. It’s a tactic so far removed from the realities of fear and suffering that it becomes an insult to them. Detracting from real experiences to the point where genuine victims – on both sides – will no doubt end up being lost in the mix of opportunism and propagandistic accusation.
Since that NEC meeting hundreds of thousands of new members have been disenfranchised, a CLP branch has been suspended and countless column inches have been given over to apocalyptic declarations about the violence and thuggishness of those who support Jeremy Corbyn – a mild mannered Social Democrat who dresses like a teacher. All with the undertone, or overt assertion, that it’s made necessary because of real harassment and legitimate fear. Again, it’s pointless to speculate on individual measures of honesty in these accusations but as with the secret ballot the end result is enough to make certain judgements. For those new members, for those branch members, for those looking to engage in the democratic process of the Labour Party these accusations have the same outcome as a direct attack on their rights. And whether you’re even mildly cynical and doubtful of the motivations behind it or absolutely willing to believe in their honest intent these results are still an insult to what the Party and democracy as a whole should stand for.
Things have started to get paranoid now – an obvious side effect and one which some at least are no doubt relishing. If you support Corbyn and a Left Wing Labour Party then now’s the time to watch what you say, to watch what you write and to watch who you associate with. Guidelines have appeared from the NEC Procedures Committee laying out the various reasons why a registered supporter might be suspended. People are growing wary of new Facebook requests and Twitter followers. They’re waiting for denunciations to start flying as the struggle for the future of the Party goes on. And if this is the result of real fear then that fear has won out already, to the cost of the Party and society as a whole. And if it’s due to less decent motivations? Then the struggle to maintain that ‘kinder politics’ and ‘comradely’ approach is getting harder every day because I can think of little more disgusting than the sort of manipulation that profits from past cruelty to serve itself.
Either way it does nothing to make me want to back down – nor should it any of us.
Side note: This is just a small slice of what’s happening. There’s plenty to be said about the tenuous thinking behind the new £25 fee for supporters, the closing of Union and affiliate voting paths, the stupidly complex registration system and voting qualifications… but that’s for another day. Would also like to add that I’ve done my best to be moderate here, although it might be obvious that I’m more than a little pissed off by it all. That’s not through any sense that I need to hold my tongue or watch what I say but as I said above, the accusations are flying at the moment and the fewer gaps are left for over-excited objection the better. And as another side note there’s a new Tory Cabinet, Boris Johnson is Grand High Racist in charge of the Foreign Office and if ever the world needed a united resistance to that it’s now. Here’s hoping things get resolved soon enough for Labour and the Left to offer it, because that’s where the real fight lies.