Why does Labour have an abuse problem?

Labour has an abuse problem. Or it has a problem with stories about abuse, which are exaggerated for partisan reasons then publicised by a hostile right-wing media. Or it doesn’t have a problem with abuse, which is the problem, because abuse is tolerated and tacitly encouraged from the very top of the party. Tell me which of these positions you hold, and there’s a good chance I’ll be able to work out your political orientation: Labour moderate, Corbyn loyalist, or Conservative supporter. Regardless, by this point the words “abuse” and “Labour” have appeared in conjunction often enough to demand some kind of response, whether you think that response should be to expose and ostracise the perpetrators, or to debunk the charges and defend the accused.

For the habitually embattled left, the sudden interest of Theresa May and the Mail in exposing political invective is highly suspect. Many on the left have questioned whether the incidents defined as abuse truly merit the tag, and where they accept that abuse exists, they have argued against defining it as a specifically left-wing issue. To this strand, “Labour abuse” is a smear tactic being exploited by the right and the centre to malign Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters. They are absolutely right that viciousness in politics did not begin in 2017. Nor did it begin in 2016, when Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered outside her constituency office by the far-right extremist Thomas Mair, although at the time that felt like the end of the world to me.

When she was killed, I wasn’t particularly aware of or invested in Cox. That would change as I heard the tributes from those who knew and worked with her, and spent time reading her speeches; but before I felt a personal loss, I felt the extraordinary violence of an MP assassinated in the course of the unglamorous and essential business of representative democracy. It seemed that the febrile hostility of the referendum campaign had reached a breaking point – “breaking point”, of course, was the slogan on the hideous anti-migrant poster Nigel Farage had unveiled that morning – and nothing could be the same after this.

That afternoon, I was watching my daughter perform in a school concert celebrating migration – a coincidence which seemed horribly excessive, but then not a coincidence at all really, because surely the EU referendum had inspired the concert theme as well as inspiring the poisonous mind of Mair. I was sitting next to another mum who I didn’t know particularly well, who listened kindly when I explained why I was crying and held my hand. Normally I would feel humiliated crying in public, but you can make an exception at the end of the world.

Except of course the world doesn’t end: it just reshapes itself to accommodate the new truth. I thought in 2016 that the new truth might be a rejection of violent and dehumanising rhetoric across politics. Instead, the new truth is that brutality and abuse are a part of our political lives, a bright edge against the skin of our institutions. In November, a Mail headline declared senior judges “enemies of the people”; in April, it urged May to “crush the saboteurs”. The verdict in Mair’s trial, which made explicit the connection between his politics and his violence, was slipped in far from the front page.

But perhaps I’m wrong to emphasise novelty here. MPs have always received death threats, and indeed frequently been subject to attacks, sometimes fatally. During the Troubles, of course – but then the Troubles were long over. Perhaps I should have felt the same intimations of apocalypse in 2000, when Robert Ashman murdered Andrew Pennington, who was acting as an assistant to Liberal Democrat MP Nigel Jones, the target of the attack – but then Ashman did not seem to be politically motivated (he was, however, reportedly abusive to his wife and daughters, which is typical of men who commit acts of terrorism).

Then in 2010, Labour MP Stephen Timms was stabbed by Roshonara Choudhry, a 21-year-old student who, having been radicalised online, sought to kill Timms for supporting the Iraq war – but Timms didn’t die, so I felt relief and then allowed myself to forget it. Maybe it was easier to forget because at the time I was closest to the anti-war left, and being against war meant seeing myself as part of the forces of goodness arrayed against a murderous, oil-expropriating evil. To find myself on the same “side” as someone who stabbed an MP in the stomach was hardly an affirmation of my ethical stance.

But the murder of Cox was an explicitly political assassination which achieved its fatal ends, and I think this had two consequences: firstly, politicians feel more alert to the substance in the death threats and intimidating communications they receive; and secondly, those people issuing the threats have a ready example to make their terrorising intent concrete. Cox has become a grotesque shorthand. When Nimco Ali was campaigning as a WEP candidate in the 2017 election, she received a threat signed “Jo Cox”; Stella Creasy MP was told “hopefully you will join that woman Cox”; Cox was a theme, too, in death threats against Karin Smyth MP. And when Angela Eagle challenged Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership shortly after the EU referendum, her Facebook tributes to Jo Cox were hijacked by Corbyn supporters, who flooded the comments with “#voteCorbyn” messages.

Was that threatening or merely cruel? Had I been in Eagle’s position, I’d certainly have found it frightening – the implication that all these people are against you, tied to the raw and personal loss of a colleague to political violence. But those making the comments, I imagine, would deny that any threat was intended, so perhaps it was “merely cruel”. How cruel? An act of coordinated trolling that negated Eagle’s intimate grief and reasonable fears. (Eagle also received at least one explicit death threat, from a Corbyn supporter named Steven King, as well as slurs about her lesbianism.) A cruelty, in short, that amounted to a denial that Eagle had emotions, or that those emotions merited the dignity of recognition; a cruelty that was explicitly dehumanising.

Cruelty has a conflicted place in the Corbyn project. His first speech to conference as leader, on 29 September 2015, included his famous invocation of a “kinder, gentler politics.” But he made this speech at least partly in response to the abuse of female candidates during the 2015 leadership campaign (something which Yvette Cooper had highlighted three days earlier, in her own speech to the women’s conference); and he also used a formulation that was conspicuously neutral about who was doing the abusing, and who was being abused. During the campaign, Corbyn-supporting figures including the MP Rushanara Ali and John Prescott had accused Labour moderates of being abusive themselves towards Corbyn’s base by characterising them as zealots, fools and entryists. “Kinder, gentler politics,” then, could sound like a very different proposition depending on which ears it landed on.

To those who had been targeted by Corbyn’s most aggressive supporters, it suggested a leader acknowledging the problem and directing his followers to lay off; but to Corbyn supporters who saw themselves as the victims of a smear campaign by a lofty PLP, it was validation, and a sign that Corbyn would not tolerate attacks on his loyal footsoldiers. As political rhetoric, it was in a major sense useless, because everyone who heard it believed it was an instruction to their opponents and not to themselves. But it was also useful, because (and I am not claiming this was intentional, but it was the effect) it distanced Corbyn himself from the issue of abuse without alienating his base.

This, by the way, is a consistent trend in Corbyn’s interventions on abuse: when asked to comment on a specific form (for example, misogynist attacks on women MPs or anti-Semitism within the Labour Party), he has often responded in universal terms (condemning “all abuse”, or commissioning an inquiry into “antisemitism and other forms of racism”). While formally taking a stance against abuse and bullying, such answers subtly negate the criticism of structural biases against specific groups within Labour. Corbyn’s supporters are not implicated in “all abuse” or in “other forms of racism”: rolling such broad frameworks into the responses serves only to dilute the original complaints.

Corbyn’s associates and supporters have not, it must be acknowledged, shown a universal commitment to either kindness or gentleness. There is, for one thing, the debatable matter of the “kindness and gentleness” of the members of Hamas and Hezbollah whom Corbyn welcomed as “friends”. Then there’s long-term Corbyn ally and shadow chancellor John McDonnell, who is what people call a “bruiser” because bully sounds like such an ugly word for a politician: in 2015, he was accused of saying “lynch the bitch” with reference to Conservative MP Esther McVey (his unimpressive defence was that he was simply repeating someone else’s words, and that the B-word in question was actually “bastard”).

On the point of abuse from Corbyn supporters, the standard defence is that he can’t be held responsible for everyone who is drawn to him. (The other defence is to deny everything. Yes, there are still brick truthers out there.) Yet at what point do we look at, say, the homophobic and misogynist abuse aimed at Angela Eagle by Corbyn supporters, or the anti-Semitic and misogynist abuse aimed at Luciana Berger by Corbyn supporters, or the harassment of Yvette Cooper (including the publication of a surreptitiously taken photo of her on a train) by Corbyn supporters, and say: this is a trend, and one that doesn’t seem to be matched by followers of any other politician? “Thy sin’s not accidental, but a trade,” as outraged Isabella says in Measure for Measure when she realises her whoring brother Claudio is trying to prostitute her to save his own life.

Some Corbyn supporters have even been quite explicit about the fact that abuse is a “trade”, or at any rate, a tactic. This is from an article on the Corbyn-supporting website New Socialist called “Pragmatics for Pragmatists”, about the irony-couched language of insults that Corbyn’s online fans have adopted to barrack centrists:

“Why would you call someone a ‘melt’? Because it is hilarious. Because insulting those who condescend you [sic] is exhilarating. Because you are following a Stalinist tactic of linguistic dehumanisation of your opponent. Many answers have been proposed. Another one might be, ‘why does it matter?’. Only the latter is totally and unambiguously useless. Language is always important. Language is not just who we are, it is what gives us a fabric in which to be ourselves, and be with others, in conflict or in solidarity.”

Dehumanisation of opponents, then, is an explicit object of this abuse. So too is forming intra-Corbynite links: saying “salt the slug” establishes an us-against-them, where “we” are doing the “salting” and “they” are the slugs. This is simply a banal description of how language represents in-group and out-group relationships, but it’s interesting to see it acknowledged so frankly from a pro-Corbyn perspective. Abusive language dehumanises, and the dehumanisation licences further abuse, or as you might put it, “the melts were asking for it”. (How were they asking for it? By being melts, of course: it’s a perfectly sealed system.)

The fact that “slug” and “melt” sound essentially silly is a benefit: you’ve already got the jump on your opponent if they have to start out by trying to wrestle the conversation into seriousness. As Sartre wrote of anti-Semitism: “Never believe that anti‐Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti‐Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert.”

Intimidating and disconcerting your opponents works. Eagle dropped out of the leadership challenge: it is hard to believe that the vandalism of her office and the homophobic and misogynistic abuse she received did not play into this decision, or that members of the PLP did not regard her victimisation as a mark of weakness when they were assessing the relative merits of candidates. And here, depressingly, we see how men as a class benefit from attacks on women as a class, because while Owen Smith did not commit or condone the abuse of Eagle, and as far as I know there’s no evidence that his supporters participated, Eagle’s withdrawal under pressure from harassment left the field open to him. When women are stigmatised, men prosper by default.

Before the general election, I interviewed Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire, who told me that abuse was “absolutely” deterring women candidates. Speaking out against abuse, then, would seem to be the obvious course. It isn’t: it can simply paint a target on you, as happened to Cooper after her recent speech to the Fabians. “Lots of women, including myself, have had abuse for reporting abuse,” explained Debbonaire. Perhaps equally painfully, she added, increasing awareness of abuse may only help to intensify its effects: “I don’t really like talking about harassment because I don’t want to put women off.” Exposing the problem without working towards a solution is in the interests of the abusers, not the victims – which is one reason to be suspicious of those (often male) commentators who lasciviously document the harassment they say Corbyn should be held accountable for, without asking those targeted for an opinion on what ought to be done.

Abuse circumscribes the kind of speech that is permitted. “Isn’t the greatest freedom in the world the freedom to be wrong?” asked Chris Krause in her novel I Love Dick. One of the major themes of the apologias and debunkings of Labour’s abuse problem that have come from the left is that certain groups (centrists, feminists, Jews) have it coming to them because they have been “wrong” (about Corbyn, about trans rights, about Israel), and their wrongness has incited “legitimate anger”. The pressure for anyone in a vulnerable group then becomes to disassociate oneself from the “wrong” attitude. This is how former Corbyn advisor Joshua Simons described being Jewish in the intensely anti-Israel atmosphere of the leader’s office: “As a Jew, I had a special obligation to criticise Israel’s settlement policy, but when I did, it was never quite believed.” When you have no freedom to be wrong, you are always on sufferance.

Embedded in the idea of justified abuse (which is then categorised as non-abusive, because justified) is the idea of “punching up”: aggression aimed at someone deemed “privileged” in comparison to the aggressor is seen as a legitimate expression of class fury. But not every oppressed class gets the same dispensation. As Phoebe Maltz Bovy has noted in her book The Perils of “Privilege”, both Jews and women – despite what one might think was incontrovertible evidence of oppression experienced by both groups over millennia – are seen as characterised by advantage, not disadvantage, in contemporary leftist discourse.

In the case of gender, there seems to be a connection here to intersectionality theory. As originally formulated by the legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in her paper “Mapping the Margins”, intersectionality describes the way varied oppressions can intersect on one person, with a particular focus on the way black women can be excluded both from a feminism characterised by majority white interests, and anti-racist movements that naturalise male dominance. Somehow, as this idea was popularised within the left, it drifted from being a correct assertion that many women do not only experience oppression as women, to being a claim that women are not oppressed as women – which is a fundamentally anti-feminist position. Or as Bovy writes: “Being someone who ‘merely’ experiences misogyny has gotten recast as a position not just of relative advantage (as is completely accurate), but of objective, tippy-top privilege.”

For Jews, of course, the origin of the “privilege” charge on the left tends to stem from assertions that Israel is a uniquely powerful entity which must be condemned (or even destroyed, as in one of the memes which Labour MP Naz Shah rightly apologised for sharing). This is entwined with quasi-Marxist conspiracist claims about the wealth of the Rothschilds or George Soros, who are said to act as corrupting supranational influences on politics. As Bovy points out: “The belief that Jews are unusually privileged is not a fringe strain or obscure facet of anti-Semitism. It is anti-Semitism.” Neither being female nor being Jewish is sufficient to claim the benefit of “punching up”. And because the only way to atone for privilege is to “check” it, both women and Jews are required to scrupulously disown their own collective politics in order to wholly belong on the left.

There’s also a place for MPs and the media within the “punching” framework currently adopted by the left. Both are seen as “privileged” groups, and treated with extraordinary hostility. If you want to see the kind of regard the media is held in, simply search one of the alt-left blogs (say, Skwarkbox or the Canary) for Laura Kuenssberg’s name. Meanwhile, in discussions of the “McDonnell amendment” (a proposed change to leadership contest rules, which would lower the threshold of nominations for leadership candidates from 15 per cent of the PLP to 5 per cent), a recurring theme of proponents is that diminishing the “gatekeeping” function of MPs would be a good thing, because MPs are distrusted as careerists and reactionaries.

The only exception to this loathing of MPs is made for Corbyn, and those considered loyal to him. And here it’s worth pointing out that Corbyn’s support behaves less like a typical party faction, and more like a fandom, with an intense emotional attachment to their leader and a furious drive to defend and protect him. Watching people pressing up against barricades to touch him, or even just see him, the thing I’m reminded most of is footage of tween girls losing it over One Direction. The only thing close to the intensity of hatred shown towards “enemies” of Corbyn is the maenad-like pursuit of, say, Perrie from Little Mix when she was blamed for Zayn leaving 1D. The Corbyn fandom, like any decent fandom, even has its own argot, as discussed above: he’s the “absolute boy”, beset by the “slugs” and “melts”.

The kind of abuse that “counts” is of course political. The Mail’s interest in left-wing abuse is a transparent attempt to discredit Corbyn. The left’s rebuttals are, conversely, an effort to protect Corbyn – and at the same time, discredit those they see as centrists who would use left-wing abuse to undermine the Labour Party leader. (Curiously, Corbyn-supporting columnist Owen Jones never wrote about the harassment of Angela Eagle, despite the fact that his twin interests in Labour politics and gay rights would appear to make attacks on a lesbian candidate for Labour leader an irresistible subject matter.) Many centrists who are now exercised about anti-Semitism in Labour would do well to ask why Ken Livingstone was not expelled from the party under Tony Blair, or even why Corbyn himself was permitted to remain a member while consorting with groups who held explicitly genocidal intentions towards Jews.

But regardless of who chooses to see abuse, and who chooses not to, it exists. The left holds no monopoly on hate, but what it does have right now is an explosive combination of factors: fandom-like devotion to a leader, an investment in the frameworks of “privilege” and “punching up” that licences extreme viciousness towards designated groups, a deliberate embrace of “unseriousness” which detaches the left from even nominal respect for civil norms, and lastly, a consistent failure of the current leadership to condemn abuse committed by its own base.

The cross-party nature of abuse is often used as an argument against focusing on the left-wing problem. This is strange thinking: the inability of violence to stay inside the factional lines should make us more, not less, alarmed. Thomas Mair stabbed and shot Jo Cox in his right-wing fury, then Steven King’s left-wing rage inspired him to tell Eagle “next time you see me I’ll be with a real gun or knife cutting your life to an end”. King’s defence was that he was “letting off steam”. After all, within the Direction of Punching Framework of Aggression, he can be understood as the maligned party, a shop worker expressing his understandable anger against a powerful woman who was trying to frustrate a beloved representative of the working class. Hate has been welcomed into politics, dignified with theory, given a home.