The Labour Party has a 25 year itch. Every quarter of a century or so it goes through what some might charitably call ‘some internal self-examination’ or what others would more accurately term ‘a big argument’.
The Party did it in the 1930s. They did it again in the late 1950s. They did it last in the early 80s. All three featured (mostly) different people arguing over different issues in very different contexts, but all three major internal ructions essentially took place in the same way. Men and women would gather together in Parliament, or in cheerless hotel bars in seaside towns, or in meeting rooms in community centres – even, on a couple of occasions, in one of the giant conference centres in Wembley – to debate and insult each other. You had to be there to take part; there wasn’t really another way.
It’s different now. Much of the major row that this Labour Party is going through is being conducted on social media. Others have written insightfully about what this might means for Labour’s electoral prospects, but what about for its personnel, for its unity, for its morale?
I was a bit baffled when, some weeks ago, a Labour Councillor friend of mine told me that he would be keeping his head down during the leadership campaign. I see why now. Social media, Twitter and Facebook in particular, can be nasty. It can be vicious in a way that, although plenty of previous Labour arguments have been brutal, has an edge to it. It is perhaps hard to angrily question the very political allegiance of somebody on the other side of a table from you. You can see the whites of their eyes. It’s so much easier, to throw insults via social media at people you’ve never met, never will meet and don’t care about anyway.
I don’t want to overstate the case. Most people on Twitter are quite capable, as with most people in real life, of behaving with some common decency. Some arguments, particularly when you break the confines of 140 characters, are well made. There is no definition of online abuse and some people can be ludicrously over-sensitive to legitimate questioning. I’m not shy of expressing who I support on social media but have largely not experienced anything unpleasant myself.
But the campaign has not been wholly fought, by supporters of all leadership candidates, in a wholly pleasant manner (the insane length of the campaign doesn’t help either). There is an ugly tribalism – perhaps thanks to the echo chamber effect of social media – that can take hold, and people who’ve given years to the Labour Party, who’ve sat through endless dull committee meetings and uninspiring fundraisers, are suddenly insufficiently Labour because of who they choose to support.
A bitter aftertaste would not be surprising. People may be first inclined to keep their head down, then just give up on the Party anyway. Perhaps accusations of being a Tory may eventually become self-fulfilling, especially to those who may not necessarily be members but vaguely support Labour. The Labour Party did itself immense damage in the early 80s not just electorally because of their policies, but because ordinary members were put off by the virulence of it all – many so much so that they left to form a new party altogether or just left altogether. These are the people that stuff envelopes, give money, deliver leaflets, become Councillors.
A whole new party won’t emerge now, but as with Labour not learning the lessons from that low decade in electoral terms, perhaps the damaging effects of a bitter internal debate are also being heightened by today’s social media world. If so then whoever wins, the Party – and the country – loses.