Mr In Between

This is interesting:

It’s fair to say that this view of the speaker in question wasn’t universally shared:

Follow the links to Twitter for more – much more.

The responses to Ms Blackman-Woods have generally accused her of misrepresenting the speaker, and by extension the mood of the meeting (As she’s subsequently made clear, she left after the speakers – and was presumably notified of the vote later on – so any misrepresentation of the meeting as a whole is only by omission.) I think this misses a trick. Let’s say that the speaker did indeed ignore Johnny Mercer’s advice and accentuate the negative, perhaps by stressing the reasons not to vote for Owen Smith. Let’s say that he did also say things that could be classed as ‘nasty’ and ‘abusive’ – perhaps because he said things about the visiting MP that she didn’t particularly want to hear. (According to reports from the meeting, the speaker did point out that, although Ms Blackman-Woods was willing to speak for Smith in Carlisle, her own constituency party in Durham wasn’t holding any nomination meetings.)

Let’s say, in other words, that what Roberta Blackman-Woods said in her tweets was simply, literally true – in the sense that the speaker nominating Corbyn did say things that were negative and things that were abusive. Where does that leave us? Is Ms Blackman-Woods now blameless when it comes to misrepresenting the meeting? Why, or why not?

My own view is that telling a story is about a lot more than enumerating events – a meeting took place, somebody spoke, a negative comment was made. The story that you tell fits into the expectations your audience bring to it; the details of the story that you tell don’t need to be plentiful or fine-grained, as long as you’ve gauged your audience’s expectations correctly and evoked them effectively. The story Roberta B-W is telling here, clearly, is the story of Corbynite abuse and intimidation: the story of the know-nothing mob that’s supposedly invaded the Labour Party, whose members bombard their opponents with negative and abusive comments, respond to disagreement with bullying and have nothing to offer but negativity (so that it’s “mystifying!” if a fair vote goes their way). This is why there are so many responses to her tweet from indignant – and I think, in many cases, genuinely surprised – members who feel the meeting as a whole was slurred as uncomradely and abusive. Which it wasn’t – RB-W didn’t even stay for the discussion – but those were the bells that were rung; that’s the story that she invoked, even if she wasn’t overtly telling it herself.

A story about people being aggressive and intimidating can have serious consequences, if it acquires legs; indeed, this story has had serious consequences, both directly (the cancellation of party meetings during the leadership contest and the suspension of three CLPs) and indirectly (in the hardening of attitudes among members, who oddly enough don’t much like being denounced as an ignorant mob). One way of ending this post would be to suggest that Roberta Blackman-Woods and others like her could take a bit more care over what they say; words have consequences, stories have real world effects, and just because people think of themselves as the innocent targets of verbal aggression, that doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of dishing it out – sometimes more effectively than their aggressors.

The more I thought about this, though, the more unlikely it seemed to me that the ‘Corbynite angry mob’ routine was going to be abandoned any time soon, by Roberta B-W or any of its other parliamentary exponents. Because, when you get right down to it, it’s all they’ve got. They can disagree with the mood in their CLPs (and other CLPs entirely), and take issue with the arguments being advanced; they can even argue that their arguments have a special right to be listened to – as MPs, they know a lot about what it takes to get elected, after all. But when it comes to knock-down open-and-shut arguments – the kind of argument that leaves your opponent unable to speak – they’re at a disadvantage. Party members can always appeal to democracy: it would be a brave Appeal Court that ruled that the Labour Party isn’t a democratic organisation – and if it is, the views of the members really can’t be ignored. The only way to trump this – and hence the only recourse of MPs who find themselves at odds with the membership – is to claim that the membership isn’t really the membership. These aren’t party members, they’re entryists and people manipulated by entryists; this isn’t internal party democracy, it’s bullying and intimidation; it’s not the self-assertion of a new social subject, it’s a nihilist wrecking attack; it’s not a crowd, it’s a mob. I’m reminded of nothing so much as Matthew Arnold’s reaction to the “Hyde Park Railings Affair” in 1866, when a crowd of people who had converged on Hyde Park for a rally, and who were being kept out of the park by the police, gained entry by breaking down the railings. Arnold pronounced that we were seeing the emergence of a new social subject, and one which never should have been permitted to emerge:

that vast portion … of the working-class which, raw and half-developed, has long lain half-hidden amidst its poverty and squalor, and is now emerging from its hiding-place to assert an Englishman’s heaven-born privilege of doing as he likes, and is beginning to perplex us by marching where it likes, meeting where it likes, bawling what it likes, breaking what it likes

You’d never guess from this that the rally in question was in favour of universal manhood suffrage – or that the second Reform Act would be passed the following year.

Something is happening in the Labour Party, and it’s happening at the level of the constituency parties and the individual members. When someone is calling it names from the vantage point of a position of power in the party, there’s not much point asking them to engage more constructively; the chances are that they’ve recognised that a thriving ground-level movement is a potential threat to their position. Remember your Dylan:

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall

Heed the call – and get out of the way.

As for those who are determined not to get out of the way, the rhetoric of the ‘angry mob’ is always likely to be their first choice (although it would be nice if they at least kept the Nazis out of it). There’s not much point explaining patiently – time and time again – that criticism is not necessarily abuse, that raised voices are not necessarily intimidation, that assembling in numbers is not thuggery, and so on and on. What we can do is recognise it, and – perhaps – learn to ignore it, treat it as a form of bullying and rise above it; reasoned rebuttals take time and energy, and it’s not as if most of the people saying these things are likely to listen. “There’s a battle outside and it’s ragin'” – a battle for the Labour Party, anyway. If we lose, the terms of debate will shift; the ‘angry mob’ story will enter the record and all the other stories will be buried, only to be disinterred in thirty years’ time by some curious doctoral student. Best make sure we win.





  1. gastro george
    Posted 15 August 2016 at 10:43 | Permalink | Reply

    And lo, Margaret Beckett appears on the Today programme this morning announcing that the new members aren’t actually Labour Party members, but a JC “fan club”.

    • Phil
      Posted 15 August 2016 at 10:59 | Permalink | Reply

      Can she accuse the Left of wanting a split and use the threat of a split against the Left in the same interview, without being picked up on it by the interviewer? Of course she can!

      “If there are those who think [a split] doesn’t matter one way or another … I hope they think very carefully indeed.”

      If Corbyn won the election against Owen Smith, Beckett said, “we shall all have to consider how we go forward from here”.

  2. gastro george
    Posted 15 August 2016 at 10:52 | Permalink | Reply

    It’s also interesting to actually analyse Tom Watson’s “revelations” on entryism. Which amounts to a group of maybe a couple of hundred Trots has passed a resolution and issued guidance on entering Labour. Quelle surprise. But that is only a statement of intent. It’s not evidence of actual entry. Nor is it evidence of influence, let alone power. I could probably get a similar resolution passed by my allotment society. Is that worth a sack of beans?

    Also interesting that Peter Taaffe has resurfaced. He wants to rejoin the Labour Party. Well that’s very nice for him, but is it actually going to happen, and even if it did, would that mean anything at the moment? In reality, not in some journalist’s imagination. But he still ends up on the lunchtime news on the pro-Corbyn side of a “balanced” debate.

    • Phil
      Posted 15 August 2016 at 10:56 | Permalink | Reply

      Apparently the AWL, working within Momentum, have got people elected to CLP positions in Brighton and Wallasey – both of which parties have been suspended, of course. But it’s a ludicrous over-reaction. Apart from anything else, the AWL is an organisation of 100+ members. What are they going to do, fan out across the country and take one party each?

  3. Posted 15 August 2016 at 10:59 | Permalink | Reply

    Useful analysis. From what I hear about student politics (I went to uni in another country, long story, so I never saw UK student politics from the inside) that contested charges of abuse/bullying isn’t a new thing in Labour at all.

    To someone who has had no local meeting to attend it is very hard to sort through the rhetoric and the reality. I’m alternately seized by the worry that bad things are happening (esp. to prominent female speakers) and then (esp. when reading alternative accounts) by the feeling that “Corbynite bullies” has become this useful meme for othering the membership…

  4. gastro george
    Posted 15 August 2016 at 10:59 | Permalink | Reply

    Just to finish today’s rant, I was also exercised by this piece in the Obs.

    My first thought was whether this was some actor doing a parody of a member of the PLP – I’m sure it would go down well on some kind of TV programme. Jess Phillips comes across, IMHO, as supremely arrogant, supercilious, patronising and [insert your favourite “term of abuse” here]. Do they think that this kind of attitude actually helps?

  5. gastro george
    Posted 15 August 2016 at 11:17 | Permalink | Reply

    The bullying meme has been rising for a while, but FWICS, as with Phil’s example, the accounts of such meetings are usually rather contested (see the comments).

    @Metatone – it’s interesting to note that the accusations of bullying, and recent reports of misogyny (another in the Obs over the weekend that i can’t be bothered to reference), lack any reference to time or as signifiers over time. Because such actions were deemed to be not significant a year ago, but now they are deemed to be significant, the impression is that this behaviour is new, and caused by JC and his supporters. But I don’t think it would surprise anybody if there was misogyny in the LP since the year dot. The same for bullying. That’s not to condone either now. But the accusations feed into the view of Corbyn as this fiendish mastermind with his tentacles operating every malign switch in the organisation which, given that he is also accused of manifold incompetence, is rather laughable.

  6. Guano
    Posted 15 August 2016 at 16:10 | Permalink | Reply

    “Because, when you get right down to it, it’s all they’ve got.”

    As an outsider, I find this fascinating to watch. It is fascinating to watch so-called serious politicians and newspaper correspondents scrabbling around to find evidence of threats or violence or anti-Semitism or influence of Lev Davidovich Bronshtein.

    The alternative is that they could negotiate. They could accept that there are large numbers of people don’t agree that Labour has to keep on moving to the right. It is unlikely that they would consider any such negotiation, for a number of reason. One is that many so-called “moderate” politicians have never been seriously challenged about their views and may have difficulty justifying them (beyond saying that it is the only way to be electable).

    • Igor Belanov
      Posted 15 August 2016 at 18:51 | Permalink | Reply

      The difficulty for the Smith campaign is that they have effectively suggested that Corbyn’s domestic policy is right, basically by copying it. I know it’s only for the duration of the leadership campaign, but it has the effect that their only real tactic now is personal attacks on Corbyn and his ‘style of leadership’, and smears against his allegedly Commie-Nazi supporters. I think they’re already playing for after the split and trying to put the Corbyn-loyalist Labour Party beyond the pale. So far that has already had the amusingly contrary effect of strengthening Corbyn’s position, so bring it on…..

      • Phil
        Posted 15 August 2016 at 19:53 | Permalink

        Yes. I think it was only last night that I consciously realised that (a) this is a fight for the future of the Labour Party and (b) I’m not worried. Bring it on, indeed.

  7. Guano
    Posted 16 August 2016 at 10:42 | Permalink | Reply

    “I think it was only last night that I consciously realised that this is a fight for the future of the Labour Party.”

    My view from outside is that there has been a low-intensity fight for the future of the Labour Party since Blair’s second term. The expectation by much of the membership was that Brown or Miliband E. would steer Labour away from the worst aspects of Blairism, yet it never really happened. Brown and Miliband E. always appeared to be being undermined by people who were trying to push the party even further to the right. And then none of the three mainstream candidates in 2015 appeared to have the energy to take on the “bring back Miliband D.” faction, so the only way to signal “no more Blair tribute acts” was to vote for Corbyn.

    This has brought the conflict out into the open. It’s a conflict that would be difficult to avoid. As this interesting article points out, there has been an erosion of trust in what an “electable political centre” actually represents.

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