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12 July 2016updated 04 Oct 2023 10:42am

Vandalism, abuse, Momentum and anti-Corbynites: why all sides should watch their words

There is undeniably an aggressive streak among a loud minority of people who identify as Corbyn supporters. But all politicians have the duty to tone their language down.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Angela Eagle, the Labour MP and former shadow cabinet member who announced this week that she will challenge Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, has had a brick thrown through the window of her constituency office.

One window pane of her Wallasey office was smashed on the evening, or the early morning after, her leadership launch. Some of her staff members have been threatened, and she also had to change the location of an event she was due to hold today, because the staff at the venue also received abuse.

Eagle commented that such attacks are “being done in his [Corbyn’s] name”:

“This isn’t the kind of gentler politics that we were promised. I think Jeremy Corbyn needs to condemn these acts and he also needs to ensure that people who are supporting him don’t continue to behave this way in the future.”

Though there has been no evidence that the vandal was a Labour party member, nor a member of the pro-Corbyn campaign group Momentum, Corbyn condemned the attack:

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“It is extremely concerning that Angela Eagle has been the victim of a threatening act and that other MPs are receiving abuse and threats. As someone who has also received death threats this week and previously, I am calling on all Labour Party members and supporters to act with calm and treat each other with respect and dignity, even where there is disagreement. I utterly condemn any violence or threats, which undermine the democracy within our party and have no place in our politics.”

Corbyn has warned supporters against online and offline nastiness ever since his first conference speech as Labour leader. “I want a kinder politics, a more caring society,” he told conference. “Don’t let them reduce you to believing in anything less. So I say to all activists, whether Labour or not, cut out the personal attacks. The cyberbullying. And especially the misogynistic abuse online. And let’s get on with bringing values back into politics.”

More recently, Corbyn called on those angered by the attempted Labour coup not to label MPs “traitors”. “There should be no bad language used, there should be no abuse used, and I don’t like the use of the word ‘traitor’ either.”

Of course, these statements have not been enough for some MPs, staff and party members who feel attacked by the more militant Corbyn enthusiasts. But it is a difficult situation for Corbyn and Momentum too. While they publicly lament this kind of behaviour, often the perpetrators are neither paid-up Labour nor Momentum members, so formal investigations are difficult to pursue.

Anyone who has attended a Labour event recently, particularly where Jeremy Corbyn has made an appearance, will have noticed tension in the air. From heckling and counter-heckling at a pro-Corbyn rally at SOAS (what you’d assume would be a socialist safe space), to shouting matches in and around the party’s antisemitism inquiry press conference, the atmosphere in recent weeks has been uncomfortable.

You could say that, as a journalist, my view of such events is warped. That I’m either looking for trouble, or being too sensitive. That of course people are going to be hostile towards me – generally, we might be booed if we ask difficult questions, or simply viewed with suspicion by activists for taking up room and airtime. But that’s been true of political events long before Corbyn’s time.

I’m sure that the majority of Labour members and general political activists who turn up to these things come away feeling inspired, or frustrated, or conflicted, or bored – all the usual, healthy emotions associated with figuring out modern politics – rather than threatened. And anyway, some unease is unsurprising, considering the party is so bitterly divided. But over recent months, a few MPs, staffers and attendees have felt personally victimised. And that’s a few too many.

There is undeniably an aggressive streak among a loud minority of people who identify as Corbyn supporters. But the only thing that will help Jeremy Corbyn, Momentum’s leaders, and those in the party who feel vulnerable, is for all politicians and spokespeople to lead by example.

Just as Unite general secretary Len McCluskey shouldn’t be calling the moves to oust Corbyn “an attempted political lynching” and shadow chancellor John McDonnell shouldn’t describe PLP meetings as a “lynch mob without the rope”, the Labour MP Ben Bradshaw shouldn’t jump to labelling unknown vandals as “Momentum thugs”, Helen Goodman MP shouldn’t describe McDonnell as “Marc Antony”, and former shadow health minister Jamie Reed should resist accusing Corbyn of deliberately choosing to “poison” national discourse.

The language used by people with political status can scare, excite and confuse their supporters. Particularly after the unheeded calls to calm rhetoric following Jo Cox’s death, both sides should start using it wisely.

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