Friday, December 04, 2015

Labour: is it really the 1980's all over again?

It has been a particularly bloody few days for the Labour Party. Already riven by discontent between the Corbynistas and a swathe of their Parliamentary Party in the Commons, the last thing they needed was a Commons vote on whether to take military action in Syria. With a new leader and a membership swollen by people who think that they have, or can, end Blairism within the Labour Party, the moral dilemma that is interventionism has become less angst and rather more vitriol.

I'm old enough to remember a time when the Labour Party was at war with itself, and received an education in how Militant Tendency worked more than thirty years ago, courtesy of a work colleague. I had been posted to an office known as the 'Maida Vale Soviet' - not entirely without cause it must be said - and found myself as an out liberal amongst the hard left. It wasn't so bad - I was seen as irrelevant in the wider struggle - but it was an education.

A former member of the Militant Tendency was generous enough to explain just how easy it was to take over a Constituency Labour Party by organisational means, taking on administrative roles that nobody else wanted, using meetings that few ordinary members attended, gaining power by dint of simply being there. It was actually quite easy - most ordinary members pay their annual subscription and do little else.

The difference between then and now is access - access to the (social) media that is. In the old days, if you were going to be rude to your MP, to subvert his or her position, you had to do it to their face, or in hard copy writing. It was rather more personal and, whilst the Labour wars of the late seventies and early eighties was deeply unpleasant, it was mostly out of public view.

Now, you can be unpleasant to people via Twitter, Facebook, e-mail - the choices are endless and immediate. Not only that, but the world and, most important, the media, can see it. Oh yes, you can delete a tweet, but it's out there, being screen grabbed, being transmitted onwards, beyond the control of the initiator. And, I have to say, it is deeply unedifying.

It is also a cause for deep concern to anyone who cares about the health of the body politic. For ordinary people, i.e. the 98% plus of the population who aren't members of political parties, it suggests that politics is only for the ultras of left and right, and therefore not for them. For the more thoughtful and/or sensitive, it acts to drive them from the arena - it takes astonishing devotion to do a job when your reward is to be threatened and insulted. And what does that potentially leave you? Those with the thickest hides, those able to shut out the noise of the crowd? Is that what we want?

Politics is, ultimately, about the art of compromise. By coming together in search of particular goals, if you only allied with those who agreed with you on every point, you'd be pretty lonely, and mostly ineffective. Political parties are, by their very nature, compromises - I accept that I get enough of what I want to be able to deal with those aspects of group policy that I am less convinced by.

Of course, the Labour Party isn't alone in having a problem with a lack of tolerance. Conservative activists need only look as far as the Mark Clarke scandal to see what happens when respect for your colleagues goes out of the window, and as for the Liberal Democrats, I have been astounded at how quickly some people have threatened to take the door marked 'exit' over a decision to support military action. Whilst I respect those whose strongly held beliefs, expounded over years and even decades, have been consistent in their opposition to intervention, some of our more recent members have provided evidence that their membership was not based on any adherence to liberalism as a concept but more a desire to oppose.

It will doubtless be said by some that they will find a pressure group to join, one which requires less compromise, and I wish them luck with that. But, regardless of how passionate a pressure group is, ultimately, to be successful, they need to persuade politicians and political parties. And that's why engagement, tolerance and mutual respect are so important.

The alternative is too ghastly to think about...

No comments: