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18 December 2015updated 26 Jul 2021 4:22pm

Are Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters really that sexist?

It’s still not, I suppose, impossible that Corbyn supporters are just inherently more misogynistic than other people. Even if it was the case, could we really blame him personally, when he’s never done or said anything that indicates he might be a misogynist himself? 

By Abi Wilkinson

I’ve been called a “bitch” on the internet more times than I can remember and I really think it’s time David Cameron apologised. As for Nigel Farage, he must owe me some sort of financial compensation for the amount misogynistic abuse I’ve endured. True, neither man has ever personally sent me any nasty online messages, but that’s not the point. Some blokes with Conservative and Ukip logos in their Twitter pictures have and apparently that’s basically the same thing.

You might think I’m being ridiculous, but what else am I supposed to take from articles about sexist tweets and emails sent by Corbyn’s supporters which hold the Labour leader almost as responsible as if he’d typed them himself? One recent piece in the Independent suggests he’s granted “trolls and activists” – a telling conflation – “a license to bully and intimidate” by hiding pro-trolling messages in his public statements. The social media code of conduct he’s issued for activists is rejected as evidence he might genuinely prefer his supporters not to be abusive, though it’s hard to see how it benefits him.

As a woman with an unladylike habit of writing about my opinions online, I’m not convinced internet misogynists really are beholden to hidden signals from political leaders. Many men need little encouragement to start flinging sexist insults and threats at any woman they happen to disagree with. Similarly, I don’t buy that phrases like “no hiding place” can magically inspire abusive behaviour in people who were otherwise uninclined.

Most misogynistic messages I’ve personally received have been from men on the political right, though that probably says more about my own views than any wider trends. I certainly don’t doubt women who say they’ve recently felt targeted by sexist members of Momentum, the activist network in support of Jeremy Corbyn. I haven’t experienced anything similar myself, but then I’ve mostly avoided ever criticising Corbyn publicly.

It’s not that I don’t have any criticisms. It’s just, with the Tory media attacking everything from the depth of his bow to his choice of tracksuit, and most centre-left commentators being almost as antagonistic towards the Labour leader as those on the right, not to mention the fact the parliamentary Labour party has effectively been in a state of civil war since he was elected and even members his own shadow cabinet are briefing against him, I’ve tended to feel it would be unhelpful to add to the negativity.

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In such a hostile climate, it’s tempting to dismiss allegations Corbyn’s supporters are especially prone to misogyny, as in, more so than a similarly-sized random selection of internet users, as another cynical attempt to undermine him. Particularly given my own experience of being trolled by right-wingers. However, having spoken to the Young Fabians’ Jade Azim – who describes Corbyn as a “sincere feminist” but believes sexism is particularly prevalent among his supporters – I’m convinced such claims aren’t always malicious. They have, nonetheless, been weaponised by critics of Corbyn looking for new angles of attack.

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Paradoxically, Momentum’s preference for online activism is probably the main reason some people see it as sexist. Taking part in co-ordinated campaigns by the organisation, thousands and thousands of supporters have sent emails to Labour MPs. If only a tiny fraction chose to pepper their messages with sexist slurs, it would still add up to a substantial number of misogynistic emails. Given how prevalent sexism is in our society, it was probably inevitable at least a few would do it. Even if Corbyn supporters are less sexist, on average, than the general population, they could still end up disproportionately responsible for misogynistic messages just because such a huge number of emails were sent overall. It’s a debatable conundrum, but I think I personally believe that encouraging ordinary people to get involved in politics is still a net positive if some of them turn out to be ginormous bellends.

It seems quite likely something similar is happening over on Twitter. In the run up to the general election, Twitter’s own research confirmed widely-held suspicious that Labour voters were massively overrepresented among UK members. Based on my own unscientific observations, Corbyn supporters seem to be exceptionally active tweeters even compared to other Labourites. Even if the vast majority never use sexist language or harangue women who don’t want to talk to them, a smallish minority of exceptions are probably enough to give a negative overall impression to other users.

It probably makes things worse that most Corbyn supporters, not entirely unreasonably, think the Labour leader has been subject to unfair attacks by the media and members of his own party. As a result, some have become defensive, easily angered by criticism of Corbyn and hostile towards the ‘mainstream media’ and ‘moderate’ Labour supporters. (Not that said hostility is exactly a one way street) Anger and conflict don’t turn non-sexist people into sexists, but they do create potential clashes where misogyny might emerge.

It’s still not, I suppose, impossible that Corbyn supporters are just inherently more misogynistic than other people. Even if it was the case, could we really blame him personally, when he’s never done or said anything that indicates he might be a misogynist himself? Quite the opposite, in fact.

Sometimes, you have to wonder what the guy needs to do to catch a break.