Between Jeremy Corbyn’s first leadership victory and his second, the issue of bad behaviour by his supporters has never been far from the news. The situation calls for two responses: condemnation, and an attempt to work out its root causes.
At Red Train we haven’t shied away from calling out bad behaviour on the left. Online abuse, anti-Semitism and misogyny is never acceptable, and nothing in this article condones or excuses it.
On the second point, not enough has been done to try and understand where the anger on the Left that sometimes spills over into unacceptable behaviour is coming from. Contrast this with the constant assertion amongst the political establishment that the surge in support for UKIP’s anti-immigration and xenophobic sentiments means we must pander to it. When the disaffected direct their anger towards political engagement of the UKIP variety – of intolerance and fear of change –politician fall over each other to ‘listen’ to them and ‘addressing their concerns’. When the same people turn towards the left and Corbyn, they’re usually ridiculed or dismissed as irrelevant.
This willingness on the Corbyn-sceptic side of the Labour Party to write-off Corbyn’s supporters is one of their greatest failings. Not only does it entrench the love of Corbyn, now at hero-worship level amongst his most ardent fans, but it also contributes to a misleading, one-sided narrative in which Corbyn supporters are always the perpetrators, and ‘moderate’ Labour MPs the victims. The problem with this narrative isn’t that it’s untrue, it’s that it’s incomplete.
It isn’t just a case of left-wing supporters bullying and intimidating a moderate PLP. Take Diane Abbott for example. She has received as much online abuse and hate-mail as practically anyone else in Parliament. Yet we’ve heard a lot more in the media about the abuse received by anti-Corbyn MP Jess Phillips.
Now, I certainly don’t agree with much of what Phillips says; her (as yet unfulfilled) threat to quit the party if Corbyn was re-elected was needlessly daft and divisive, but that in no way justifies the abuse she’s received. Why, though, is it any less worthy of coverage when directed at Abbott? This suspicion that the media and anti-Corbynites have colluded to encourage a simplistic narrative is one of the factors fanning the flames of anger on the left.
Some might say that the crucial difference is that those abusing Philips are Labour or Momentum members, whereas Abbott’s abusers are just the usual trolls that being a black woman in a prominent position makes her a magnet for. No-one is suggesting Corbyn-sceptic MPs are responsible for this in any way; everyone is willing to accept there are plenty of nutters out there, but is it really fair to heap blame on Corbyn for the actions of anyone and everyone who professes support for him? Especially when there’s no similar assumption of responsibility when the traffic is flowing the other way?
This unbalanced narrative extends beyond just the Labour party and the left. We’ve just spent a year discussing the rise of anti-Semitism on the left, and rightly so, but Theresa May can give a speech at Tory conference actively courting xenophobia, and receive widespread praise.
To be clear, the abuse and bullying we’ve seen amongst Corbyn supporters is unacceptable and, whilst he has condemned it, I’d like to see Corbyn try to do more to combat it. But let’s not contribute to a narrative that would have us believe that the bad behaviour has been completely one-sided. Much of the Corbyn-sceptic PLP has acted pretty appallingly over the last year, and this shouldn’t be ignored either. It’s what has fuelled the grievance and sense of foul play amongst Corbyn supporters.
Politics can be a dirty business and the validity of some of the PLP’s actions are debateable, but others are not. Trying to prevent members from voting in the recent leadership election, in many cases for the most arbitrary reasons, was simply wrong and undemocratic. I can’t see how initiating an attempted leadership coup in the immediate aftermath of Brexit can possibly have been a good idea; allowing, as it did, a willing media to refocus on Labour’s internal problems rather than holding the Tories to account over the mess that they’d caused.
Corbyn has often accused of being partisan; in fairness, he sometimes appears at his most animated when fighting political opponents within, rather than outside of, the party. However, in what way is Peter Mandelson suggesting that he’d like to see a Conservative election victory as a way of ousting Corbyn any less worthy of criticism?
Granted, none of this amounts to death-threats of the kind received by Jess Phillips, but it’s hardly comradely behaviour either. Labour, as it is often said, is a broad church. It needs to remain one now that the Left is nominally in charge, and that means compromise from Corbyn and his team. However, it also means that the other wings of the party need to accept that Corbyn won, and has a mandate. Much of the PLP’s behaviour has been bad for party cohesion, and feeds the unhealthy notion amongst some Corbynistas that it’s all an establishment conspiracy.
The point is that bad behaviour on either side doesn’t justify more bad behaviour from the other. In fact, what it tends to do is breed even more bad behaviour, and we’ve all seen the toxic outcome this creates. I sincerely hope that this is a lesson that all wings of the party have learnt from the past year – left and right, supporters of Corbyn or not.
Today, I was gratified to see that Corbyn seems to have made a real effort to put together a diverse shadow cabinet, which includes some of his critics, and appears to be doing his best to make peace with Tom Watson. They, for their part, have agreed to serve in it. I can only hope this is a positive sign of things to come.
Despite everything that has happened over the last year, conciliation now needs to be placed front and centre. The party is still on a knife edge. Pull together now and Labour might still have a chance of recovery; carry on fomenting discontent, and we can all forget about it.