The Labour Party is a deeply unpleasant place to be right now. Hostility between supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith is rampant and routinely turns into personal abuse. Take, for example, the Labour Party Forum, a long-standing unofficial Facebook discussion group of around 30,000 Labour members. In late July, the group’s administrators felt compelled to announce a clampdown on ‘abusive behaviour/language and personal insults’ in response to a spate of ‘smearing and personal attacks.’
And yet, the same behaviour continues largely unchecked.
It goes much deeper than the well-publicised antisemitism and death threats made against Smith-supporting MPs. Corbyn supporters continue to casually call their opponents as ‘traitors’ and dismiss long-standing Labour members as ‘Tories’. People who criticise Corbyn have their motives questioned – when JK Rowling came out against the leader, she was accused of being a billionaire worried about extra taxes under Corbyn. Meanwhile, Smith’s partisans deride their opponents as delusional members of the Cult of Corbyn, whom they mockingly call ‘the Jezziah’. Both sides accuse each other of being liars, aiding the Tories and not being ‘real Labour’.
Even before the leadership contest started, online abuse was so bad that non-Corbynite members set up a secret group where they could express their doubts about the party’s leadership ‘without facing attacks of “Blairite” and “go join the Tories”’, in the words of the group’s founders. But while this group has seen measured discussion of the problems facing Labour, it has also acted as an echo chamber amplifying the unpleasantness. There are frequent posts mocking ‘the cult’ along with cartoons of turkeys voting for Christmas overlain with ‘I voted for Jeremy’ banners.
It is a similar story on the ‘Owen 4 Leader’ group, where one member has rewritten Gilbert and Sullivan’s Major-General’s song, with lyrics describing Corbyn as ‘ineffectual’ and a ‘bottom feeder’. A lot of Corbyn supporters appear to have retreated into similar echo chambers. One prolific pro-Corbyn tweeter, Eoin Clarke, seems to block everyone even mildly critical of his position. Smith supporters in turn brag about being blocked by him.
And this isn’t just happening online. At a recent meeting of my local party to discuss the leadership election, Corbynites angrily denounced anti-Corbyn MPs as ‘turncoats’ and openly questioned their commitment to the party’s ideals. There was no personal abuse as such, but as a Corbyn-sceptic I decided not to get involved. The atmosphere was intimidating and it was just too much effort to fend off accusations of not being ‘real Labour’ despite my eight years of committed membership.
Later, I spoke to a councillor friend of mine who wasn’t so able to avoid confrontation. ‘They use “elected representative” as a slur,’ she said. ‘It’s demoralising. I work so hard and because I have to compromise to get things done for my constituents, I get criticised by people who have never knocked on a door, never even lifted a finger for the party.’ After years as one of our most active members, she’s now disengaging and going to as few meetings as possible. She’s not the only one either – there are many stories of previously committed members beginning to feel unwelcome in their own party and disengaging as a result.
There have always been disagreements within the party, as there are in every party. But this is different. Previous leadership contests have been intensely fought, but there has always been an understanding that we are all on the same side, that ultimately we all wanted the same thing. That kept things civil, but what we have now is civil war.
Along with the accusations of betrayal and closet conservatism, the Corbynites on the Labour Party Forum are gloating in a way more suited to a football match than a contest between comrades. Usually it is to compare the massive crowds Corbyn draws to the much smaller audiences Smith talks to, but with the release of a poll suggesting Corbyn will increase his winning margin from last year’s contest they have become triumphant in a way that supporters of previous leaders never were. In fact, both sides are talking about each other in ways that we used to reserve for discussion of other political parties. There is no sense that we all ultimately want the same thing. We are no longer all on the same side.