Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that everyone’s either a Guelph or a Ghibelline; it’s about a 50/50 split overall, 60/40 or 40/60 in some districts. And that ‘everyone’, crucially, includes you (you may want to take a moment here to get in character). You may not be much of a true believer or particularly enthusiastic about being a Guelph, you may never do anything for the Guelph cause, but still – you know; you know without having to think about it. And everyone’s the same, or nearly everyone – sometimes people from outside the area have to have it all explained to them; sometimes a local will start making out that both sides are the same, but they’re usually just trying to get attention. There are Guelphs, there are Ghibellines, they want different things, and that’s just the way things are. We Guelphs – you find yourself explaining to your children one evening – we Guelphs don’t have anything against the Ghibellines, but, well, we know who we are. Ghibellines are perfectly nice people individually, but ultimately what’s good for them just isn’t good for us Guelphs.
Now picture yourself as a youth club leader – not a Guelph youth club leader, we don’t go in for anything as crude as that nowadays; it’s a club for all the young people in the area, be they Guelph, Ghibelline or… well, be they Guelph or Ghibelline. Local residents start complaining about noise, although the gatherings they’re complaining about don’t seem to be taking place on the night when you usually meet. As the weeks pass the complaints get more vociferous: rowdy meetings, shouting, litter, graffiti… From a description you identify one of the young people involved – he’s a regular at the club – and take him on one side. He says:
Oh, those meetings… I’m really sorry about the noise, and if there’s been any damage we will sort it out, I promise. It’s just – our group’s really taking off, there’s all sorts of people coming along now, and what with the numbers the meetings have got a bit hard to… I mean, we will control them – already people are getting a lot more disciplined, and with a few more meetings I’m sure we can turn the group into something really, well, powerful. But powerful in a good way, you understand – powerful in an orderly way, in a constructive way.
(Nice kid, but he goes on a bit.)
You realise that he hasn’t given you one rather crucial piece of information. You say: this group…? The young man picks up the implied question and responds brightly… but just as he opens his mouth to speak two planes of reality bifurcate, in a Sliding Doors sort of way, and two versions of him give two different answers.
SCENARIO 1: The group? We’re the Young Guelphs!
SCENARIO 2: The group? We’re the Young Ghibellines!
Imagine what you’d say. More than that, imagine what you’d see, looking round at litter and a bit of graffiti, catching a disapproving glance from a nearby front porch. I think it’d be something like this:
SCENARIO 1: They’re going to have to tidy this lot up, but it doesn’t look too bad… young people together… high spirits… sounds like they’re getting more organised, so that’s good… I’ll have a word with the neighbours, calm things down…
SCENARIO 2: They’ll have to tidy this lot up – good job it’s no worse… when kids like that get together… starts out as high spirits… sounds like they’re getting more organised, so we’d better do something about it now… I’ll have a word with the neighbours, see what they can tell me…
If you sympathise with the group, what they’ve done won’t look the same as it does if you’re opposed to them being there – perhaps mildly, reasonably, politely opposed, but opposed all the same. I’m not just talking about partisanship here – minimising your own side’s sins and maximising the other’s – but something more fundamental. Do you think the group has a right to express itself – even if this comes at the cost of sometimes saying the wrong things in the wrong way? And do you think the group has a right to control itself, to the exclusion of being controlled from outside – even if this requires it to grow bigger and stronger in order to have the capacity for self-control?
Bear in mind that this isn’t (necessarily) about racism or any kind of prejudice against the individuals involved. (Some of your best friends are Ghibellines – and the youth club’s open to all – well, both – communities, after all.) Between individuals, we can be fair-minded; even racists can make the effort to be fair-minded, and most of the time they do, at least in public. The thing about prejudice is that there’s nothing to it – no argument, no structure; all it ultimately says is we don’t want you here – we don’t want to share with you if we’re sharing, and we don’t want to compete (fairly) with you if we’re competing. And, because it’s so empty, it can’t be expressed in public without causing potentially uncontainable conflict.
Political conflict is contained conflict – and it’s containable because it’s conflict between groups, which have purposes, functions and reasons to exist. But, while this layer of rationality contains and channels the passions that fuel the conflict, it doesn’t dilute them. What’s at issue in political conflict is always, at some level, we don’t want you here – marching down our street, claiming to be our councillor, wasting our union funds…
And so back to those youth groups. The question for you is simpler now: do you want this group to be here at all? If you do (“young Guelphs, eh? I could tell some stories…”) then you’ll probably want the group to be allowed to express itself (even at the expense of a bit of disorder), and to develop the internal capacity to govern itself. If you don’t (“young Ghibellines – not those hooligans again!”) you won’t want the group to express itself or to develop at all; you’ll want it to be governed pretty firmly from outside, and to express itself as little as possible. And – most importantly – these starting points will determine how you interpret what the group actually does.
I’m talking here, of course, about the stories of intimidation, bullying and escalating aggression in the Labour Party. Perhaps it’s my observer-from-Mars phenomenologist streak, but I’ve been genuinely puzzled by some of these stories, not to mention the thinkpieces they’ve inspired. There’s the denunciation of the ‘thuggish minority‘ whose behaviour has apparently made Labour party branch meetings so unpleasant that they had to be suspended for the duration of the leadership contest. As my Latin teacher used to say, how can that possibly be? All branch meetings? Has the writer stopped to think how many Labour Party ward branches there are? There’s Paula Sherriff’s open letter, signed by 43 women Labour MPs, denouncing threats and abuse; that’s an issue, certainly, but the letter concludes by demanding that Corbyn condemn (all) ‘campaigning outside MPs’ offices, surgeries etc’, and that ‘senior Labour figures’ should be held accountable for ‘being present where posters, t-shirts etc are abusive’.
On its own terms, none of this really makes sense. Can the atmosphere at a few branch meetings really be so toxic as to justify effectively shutting down the entire Labour Party at constituency level for a period of months? Threats and abuse are vile, but how do we get from there to stopping party members lobbying their MPs, or even standing outside their MPs’ offices? (Did Stella Creasy sign that open letter? You bet she did; third signatory, after Sherriff and Jess “who else?” Phillips.) As for the demand for a policy of reprimanding senior Labour MPs for being present at demonstrations where somebody’s wearing a nasty shirt, on the most charitable interpretation that’s massive overkill.
And then there’s that brick. Certainly you’d never have known, from the first week’s worth of stories, that a brick was thrown through one light of a large stairwell window in the office block which houses Angela Eagle’s constituency office – and not through Angela Eagle’s office window, which has (or had) a Labour sticker in it and is also on the ground floor – but I’m less concerned with factual distortion than with rhetorical inflation. So an article purporting to analyse Corbynite paranoia(!) speaks casually of “bricks tossed through windows“, while a writer for Progress solemnly makes it known that “people who throw bricks through windows … have no place in our party and no place in this debate”. Never mind the factual details, just get the point across: these are the kind of people we’re dealing with; this is the kind of thing they do. Eagle herself, given the chance to qualify the original story, confined herself to maintaining that there was a brick and that she didn’t throw it herself, thereby effectively accusing her critics of delusional conspiracism as well as violent tendencies.
All this does make sense, though, if you think back to your time as a Guelph-leaning youth club leader. Something is happening in the Labour Party at the constituency level – which is to say, at the level of individual members – and it’s something none of these people like. It’s not just a matter of a growing membership, or Momentum, or the sense that there’s a bit of a Corbyn fandom developing*. It’s something bigger than any of those things – a social movement rooted in Labour’s constituency and expressing itself through the party – which is only just starting to get going. Lots of people in the party don’t want that movement to get going at all – not least because it’s inevitably going to mean a shift in effective power away from the parliamentary party and towards the constituency parties; and so they react as you would react to the Young Ghibellines. They don’t allow the movement the right to express itself, even at the cost of a bit of disorder; they fasten on the disorder, take it as essential to the nature of the movement, or even (as in Creasy’s case) treat the movement’s self-expression as disorder. As for the movement developing the capacity to govern itself, its critics don’t want that to happen at all; if anything, they want it governed externally, firmly and with immediate effect. (Ben Bradshaw supports Owen Smith, incidentally.)
The rhetorical inflation so characteristic of these critiques – the repeated vague allusions to death threats and ‘bricks through windows’, as if these things were happening day in, day out – is part of the same process. It all builds a case. These people, they’re part of a ‘thuggish minority’ (or else they defend a thuggish minority, and what does that make them?); they’re the kind of people who throw bricks through windows; they campaign outside MPs’ offices; they hang around with people who wear abusive T-shirts; they’re misogynistic (look at all the women who oppose them!); they’re anti-semitic, or their friends are; they’re paranoid and irrational; they’re a know-nothing rent-a-mob; they’re preening middle-class ‘clicktivists’… It’s not an analytical process or an attempt to understand what’s going on. If anything, it’s an attempt to justify a position that’s already been taken: we don’t want you here.
The irony is – and here it all gets a bit They Live – that anyone who starts out from the anti-Corbyn position isn’t likely to be persuaded by arguments like this (or this excellent post from Abi Wilkinson). If you believe that the mobilisation of Labour Party members in support of Corbyn basically shouldn’t have happened – that it shouldn’t be there at all – then violence and intimidation is what you will see when you read about the movement; me telling you that your perceptions are conditioned by your beliefs certainly isn’t going to change them, and it won’t be enough to change your beliefs.
But I thought I’d give it a go anyway. (I always think it’s worth setting out how you think, even – or especially – if nobody else thinks the same way.)
*Yes, you can have ‘a fandom’. It’s a young person’s thing, apparently.