As a political movement founded on collective action, how Labour party members treat each other matters as much as what we work on for our success. The bile and bitterness infesting our public life comes from a small group of people on all sides of the political spectrum – but it is fundamental to Labour that we don’t let this become “the heat of the kitchen” and expect people to put up with it. If you want to achieve social justice, it’s time to stand up not just to Guido Fawkes but Skwawkbox too.
That’s why I tweeted about the latter’s belief that attending a gig with a Conservative backbencher and a journalist was a scandal worth reporting. (I had tweeted about the event myself.) For the avoidance of doubt, I think that independent scrutiny and accountability are vital components of democracy. Our proud British tradition of a free press is more than a match for the individual sites and bloggers who employ shock jock tactics more commonly associated with Fox News. Being critical of the “MSM” should not by default mean accepting these alternative-media sites as the “truth”. It means asking the same difficult questions and fact-checking of all journalists before sharing their work. We must encourage everyone to recognise that just because something is on the internet, doesn’t mean its true.
Just as the Daily Mail sidebar of shame dripfeeds its audience a never-ending reminder that what is valued is how someone looks in a bikini, not what contribution they may have made to society, so sites which encourage the relentless vilification of individuals reveal the cynical agenda behind their content. Popularity drives their power – the more salacious the claims, the higher the clicks and shares, and so the more chance of income. Defending free speech doesn’t mean being resigned to the consequences of allowing these sites to define the priorities of politics.
Many would-be campaigners tell me they see what happens in politics now and think it’s not for them – that putting their heads above the parapet is just too big an ask. Those who say ‘just ignore it’ or ‘don’t feed the trolls’ should ask how much of this wrath anyone should soak up in silence on the false premise that will make it stop – or whether they think that those who seek to bully, control and dominate others won’t simply carry on doing it if it’s proved to be an effective tactic.
Politics has the power not just to change governments but change lives – but in this febrile atmosphere, too much time is wasted on finding someone to terrorise rather than something to transform. This is more damaging for the left than the right. If people are put off collective action by the acrimony of politics, then the only other pressure which remains to shape social change is the market. Socialism is about making people masters of the economy, not the other way round, but we will master little if we are busy finding someone to blame for inequality rather than acting to end it.
Change isn’t easy – but it is possible. At their best progressive political movements harness the capacity of each of us to put our ideas, energy and resources into finding solutions for problems as knotty as climate change, global inequality and enduring poverty. We can speak up in the face of entrenched powers to win the case for a National Health Service, a national minimum wage, mutualised public services. However complicated the world is, no true progressive should ever indulge the idea that because something is complex, it can’t be changed – real radicalism is being prepared to stick at something and put the graft in to make that happen.
But who wants to put the work in to do that if first you have to go through some kind of star chamber which will vet you to confirm your purity – or condemn you for being freethinking? If the idea that you can’t speak to someone you disagree with – whether in the Labour movement or even in another political party – without being permanently compromised becomes received wisdom? It benefits no one if parties first and foremost become thought police, seeking uniformity, not unity – social democracy withers in a world where people become frightened to question and debate decisions, either locally or nationally.
All of us, old or new to the Labour movement, should challenge this attitude and promote a culture of constructive collective action where every voice can be heard. We will all suffer if this doesn’t change – whether through losing comrades who walk away from such bruising experiences, or by expending energy to stand up to this negativity, when it could be directed towards more productive deeds.
None of this means we shouldn’t challenge those from different political perspectives – but we should never accept that disagreement is all politics entails. Action matters too. Nye Bevan once warned Jennie Lee of the danger to socialism of being ‘pure but impotent’- because it meant you could cop out of actually achieving any change whilst waiting for perfection to be attained first. At the very time when we need people to be willing to work together, shouting and smearing is taking priority over social justice. Steve from Skwawkbox and his ilk won’t be the only losers if this continues.