There can be a prurient obsession in Britain with policing the language of politicians. Often, it is little more than hypocrisy. Uncivilised policies – such as taking away money from the poorest in society – must apparently be debated in a “civilised” manner. Use a nasty adjective about your political opponents and you will be censored faster than if you had dipped your hand into the charity box.
The latest brouhaha about abusive language involves Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner. In an impassioned speech at a meeting of the party activists at Labour’s annual party conference in Brighton, Rayner called Boris Johnson and his Conservative government “scum”.
An online reaction inevitably ensued. Rayner was slammed for showing contempt for working-class Tory voters, but also insulted herself by using classist language. She was labelled as “thick” by some who took issue with her comments, an insult frequently directed at working-class people in public life.
I also take issue with Rayner’s remarks, though for different reasons. First because we live in a democracy, which entails respecting the legitimacy of one’s political opponents, however much that might mean keeping one’s passions in check. Labelling those with whom we disagree “scum” chips away at that legitimacy, even if imperceptibly.
It is important to retain a degree of perspective here: we are not on a path to becoming North Korea because the deputy leader of the Labour Party used some choice words to rile up the party faithful. However, bad things can start to happen when we dehumanise our political opponents. We know this because they are already happening. A 2017 report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life argued that the extent of intimidation now prevalent in UK politics posed a “threat to the very nature of representative democracy” in this country. The report noted that a “significant proportion of candidates at the 2017 general election experienced harassment, abuse and intimidation”. This included “persistent, vile and shocking abuse, threatened violence including sexual violence, and damage to property”.
The report laid much of the blame with social media, where a febrile atmosphere lends itself to abusive rhetoric. Rayner does not bear responsibility for the situation we find ourselves in. As a working-class woman in public life, she gets plenty of vile abuse herself.
All the same, it does seem unwise for a senior politician to normalise language that delegitimises those with opposing views.
It is also revealing in terms of how contemporary progressives view their opponents. Politics is increasingly viewed by many on the left through something akin to a religious moral lens. Wrong ideas are treated as a character defect. Moral transgressors are ostracised and “cancelled”. To believe in argument and persuasion is seen as hopelessly naïve. It is goodies versus baddies.
This is clearly having a wider impact on the fortunes of progressive politics in Britain. The Labour Party has now been out of power for 11 years. Its new leader, touted as an antidote to Jeremy Corbyn, is floundering.
More people are voting Tory, yet Labour activists view “Tories” not so much as potential recruits, but as an entirely separate species. It is seen as a sign of moral virtue to pull on a “Never kissed a Tory” T-shirt, or, indeed, to characterise even the mainstream right as being fringed by irredeemable evil.
Which brings an old adage to mind: while the right looks for converts, the left looks for traitors. The problem for the left is that in a democracy you need converts – a lot of them – to win elections. Without them, you may retain the moral high ground. But when it comes to making the world a better place, if you fail to win people over to your side then you are reduced to defensiveness and impotence.
I am a materialist, broadly speaking. I accept that many people vote out of material self-interest. Sometimes, in doing so, they disregard the impact this has on people less fortunate than themselves.
And yet, many other individuals arrive at their political beliefs and voting decisions through a complex process. It may be morally satisfying to denounce such people in highly charged language. But will it help to change their minds?
Angela Rayner’s comments do not spell the end of civility in politics. But they give some insight into a mentality that is helping to keep Labour in opposition: that you win people over by denouncing and shaming them. That you defeat your opponents by throwing a list of “isms” at them. That people in the country can call those they disagree with “scum”.
Outside of activist circles, it rarely works. Most people do not see the world through this lens. They have friends of various political persuasions. Some level of civility is important to democracy. But it is also just good politics.