Before the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party, I hadn’t known that there were so many politically active scholars of Leon Trotsky in the UK. Imagine my surprise, then, when upon attending Labour Party functions I encountered so many people so familiar with Trotsky’s thought that they could tell me with tremendous certainty that I was one of his disciples — when I hadn’t even realised it myself.
The term ‘Trot’ is flung around with all the careless disregard you’d expect of a casual insult. I found being called a Trot confusing rather than offensive, given that I’ve virtually no familiarity with Trotsky or his beliefs. But that doesn’t really matter. Those within the party inclined to call you a Trot don’t actually care whether or not you’re one of Trotsky’s devotees. It’s simply a shorthand for “a person whose opinions and views I disregard, based upon the type of person I assume them to be”.
The same can be said for those that refer to members of our party as Tories, or use ‘Blairites’ in a pejorative manner. It’s unfortunate that John McDonnell recently chose to refer to members of the shadow cabinet who resigned or were reshuffled as members of a ‘hard right’ group, and explicitly identified Progress an exemplar of right-wing thought in the party. While members of Progress certainly do hold views and policy positions that are considerably less left-wing than those of Jeremy Corbyn, it’s simply not correct to say they have a ‘right-wing conservative agenda’. That description is not only hyperbolic but an extremely unhelpful contribution to the civilised debate that McDonnell himself says needs to happen within the Party.
Nobody involved with Progress is a Tory. If they were no different from Tories, or politically closer to the Tories than Labour, it would raise the question as to why they haven’t just joined the Conservatives. Why would they bother with Labour when they could be on the winning side, working on consolidating the Tories’ victory? If every centrist MP crossed the floor, they would sink the left in the UK for decades to come; certainly for a sufficiently long time to change the country to such an extent that it may become impossible to elect a left-leaning government in future. Why would a ruthless, careerist Tory-in-red-clothing not take the opportunity to consign Labour to the history books?
In truth Progress is an organisation full of very intelligent, very motivated people, who are trying their best to help our Party get elected. The exact same can be said of Momentum, which has also suffered from unfair, inaccurate mischaracterisations. Most members of Momentum are people who were disillusioned and disaffected with business-as-usual politics, and whose interest is now ignited thanks to Jeremy Corbyn. It is frustrating and disappointing to see the biggest mobilisation of newly invigorated and budding activists in British political history often dismissed and maligned by senior figures in the Party — the very same figures, it has to be added, who spent the last two decades racking their brains as to how the young and disenchanted might be engaged in politics.
But the person who has suffered most from an attempt to wilfully mischaracterise and misrepresent their views is Jeremy Corbyn; both in the media and in the Party. It’s certainly true that Corbyn needs to work on clearer messaging — his shoot-to-kill equivocation after the Paris attacks is a prime example. But crude oversimplifications of a nuanced position are the kind of behaviour that one would expect of Labour’s political opponents, not of the Party itself, in the course of its internal disagreements.
One of the defining characteristics of Corbyn’s leadership campaign was his refusal to lower himself to personal attacks. He repeatedly called upon his opponents to argue the issues, not the person. This in and of itself should represent a policy that we can all agree upon and adopt. Not only is it publicly and electorally popular for Labour representatives to rise above ugly personal attacks (remember the Conservatives’ infamous and disastrous New Labour, New Danger posters of Blair in ‘97?), but being willing to listen to the arguments without prejudice will enable us to better understand each other.
Referring to one another as Trots and Tories is symptomatic of political laziness. It is tribalistic, overly simplistic, and demonstrates a lack of intellectual curiosity. In order to criticise something, you have to know it intimately; yet the vast majority of the most caustic dialogue in the Party demonstrates little to no actual understanding. In reality, few people in the party even identify with the unhelpful labels of ‘far right’ or ‘hard left’.
I’ve attended many different Labour events since the General Election: events hosted by Progress, the Fabian Society, the Labour Representation Committee, Momentum, and many, many others; and spoken to people of all stripes. This is what I’ve learned from these experiences:
Firstly, those people who will most vociferously ridicule, condemn and disregard others in their party tend to be the ones most ill-informed about the subjects of their opprobrium. They engage with neither the person nor their ideas, instead choosing to pigeonhole people based on negative preconceptions. They have simply stopped listening, but listening is never optional when forming an opinion on what someone believes.
Secondly, if people have a chance to outline their thoughts, they often reveal themselves to have a deeper understanding of the issues than we give them credit for. There’s always more nuance to the beliefs of others than we like to think. It’s easy to caricature, dehumanise, and depersonalise people: this is consistently done to MPs, based on their robotic and guarded appearances in the media. Of course, when actually meeting them in person, they’re often very warm, very personable, very impressive people with modest and admirable aspirations for improving the lives of everyone in this country. So, please, don’t underestimate one another.
Thirdly, when you drill right down to it, our goals are the same. There’s nobody I’ve met that I disagree with so adamantly that I think they have no place campaigning alongside me for the same party, against the same opponent. As far as I’m concerned, if you’re willing to stand next to me and oppose the unnecessary, sustained, and brutal attacks the Conservatives are visiting upon the welfare and livelihoods of the people of this country, then you’re a friend.