Less than a week has passed since Jeremy Corbyn was re-elected to the Labour leadership and the party is fighting amongst itself again. Pro-Corbyn activists are flinging abuse at Corbyn-sceptic party members on social media, while supporters of Owen Smith’s failed leadership bid are tearing up their membership cards. There is a lot of anger in the party right now and although anger can energise campaigners, some of it is not constitutive. Bristol West CLP member Ruth Dee has written eloquently about the problems anger directed at fellow party members has caused.
This level of anger has stopped Labour from functioning properly as a party. Brexit presents the biggest challenge of a generation but the Labour Party is stuck in the middle of an “existential crisis”. This is not helpful for the people who need a Labour government.
A lot of the tension has arisen because people angry at the current political consensus have joined the Labour Party. In the past, members were either in support of, or reluctantly accepted, the free market ideology of the 80s and 90s. Now those alienated by centrist politics are getting involved with a mainstream party and are trying to change it to represent their views. Views they feel have been ignored for a long time.
This is creating conflict between new and existing members. It is not always conducted in the form of a gentlemanly disagreement, showing respect for your political opponents. It is hard to have respect for your political opponent or engage in calm debate when their views devastated your community, threaten to dehumanise you as a person, further impoverish you or cut the support network you depended on. Make no mistake that this has been the result of neoliberalism, fanning the flames of anti-immigration rhetoric, talking tough on benefits and austerity. All of which the Labour Party vocally supported in last year’s general election. People have a right to be angry, as Abi Wilkinson expressed much better than I can.
Not being angry about the current state of politics is a privileged position, a fact that Corbyn-sceptics would do well to bear in mind. Not wanting a radical alternative to the current political consensus is a privileged position; it shows that your community has not been systematically pummelled by 30 years of neoliberalism. It is a privileged position because it shows that Tory austerity is not grinding away your livelihood.
Contempt for those who are angry about being oppressed by the last 20 years of timid centrism, technocratic managerial politics and blind acceptance of the free market is damaging the party. These are people who remember the New Labour years not as a period of bountiful economic growth, but of continuing decline. There are those on the right of the Labour Party who would really like all the people concerned about work insecurity and the scapegoating of immigrants to shut up so that the party can get back to winning the support of Daily Mail-reading homeowners in Surrey. These members believe that the best way to help benefit claimants and immigrants is to silence them while we pander to people who actively hate them.
Labour cannot function while we have contempt for the people who are angry at the way they are being treated by a Tory government. The people who have found hope in Corbyn need to be listed to if we are to find a way to reach out to others suffering under the current government. However, the way to help the people left behind by neoliberalism and suffering under Tory cuts is not for the Labour Party to self-destruct because metropolitan Corbynistas refuse to compromise in any way, and would apparently rather suffer a crushing defeat to the Tories than make peace with the rest of the party.
People have a right to be angry. That does not mean that they get what they want all the time. It does not mean that they can ignore political reality and the looming crushing defeat to the Tories. Anger from the left is tearing the Labour Party apart and is preventing a compromise that could restore the party to stability. If we want a genuine opposition to the Tories then we need to unite and oppose. Simply taking a principled stand in the face of electoral suicide is not enough. Remember the 1980s? When the Tories completely dominated politics? They are not remembered as a decade of egalitarianism and social cohesion. The goals of socialists and social democrats are not served by badly losing an election.
Now Corbyn has won again we all need compromise and unify to make the party work. The anger of people who suffered during the Thatcher, New Labour and Cameron years needs to be recognised. There are people who do not see 13 years of Labour rule as substantially different to decade that came before it or the half decade since. Labour needs to acknowledge this if it going to move forwards and win back these people’s support.
However, anger needs to be channelled at our opponents and not at each other. Angrily stamping your feet and demanding that the party change to perfectly embrace your views is not being a good Labour member. It is fair enough to feel aggrieved that the party’s left was marginalised for so long, but that doesn’t make shouting down other wings of the party any more acceptable now. It is not respecting the broad church that allows the Labour movement to function.
We need solidarity now and not petty Twitter insults. The party needs compromise and unity if it is to survive. It needs to find a way to come to terms with its past and look towards the future. As a movement we are stronger together when everyone is pulling it the same direction. Achieving compromise and unity will not be easy. Some hate-spreading members need to go. Some members on the right, used to having their way for so long, will need to acknowledge the broad range of opinions in the party. Members from the left and new members will need to compromise with people who think differently to them.
Together we can and have achieve great things. This is the point of the Labour Party, not to be a small pressure group influencing politics in one direction from the edge but an alliance of people with common concerns to act together to change things for the better.