POLITICS

Labour MP Jamie Reed On The 'Trolls', Jeremy Corbyn And Why 'Cornbynistas' Hate Humour

28/12/2015 15:36 GMT | Updated 29/12/2015 13:59 GMT
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“There's nothing like getting told to die by an anonymous egg,” says Jamie Reed, the Labour MP and lightning rod for Twitter abuse from supporters of Jeremy Corbyn.

He knows why he gets it in the neck, but refuses to curb his criticism of his party leader on social media to pacify the "trolls".

“That’s where the frontline of the debate is,” he says of the fight for the future of his party.

Reed, 42, was a shadow health minister when Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party in September.

Within a minute, he had taken to Twitter to publish his resignation letter, quitting the frontbench because of “poorly informed” opposition to nuclear power (his Copeland constituency includes Sellafield, the major employer) and fears over Labour being banished from power.

“That was take-off,” he says.

For many involved in politics, social media in general and Twitter in particular has become an increasingly hostile environment. Some think it started with the Scottish independence referendum and the rise of the “Cybernats”, and taken to a new level by “Corbynistas”, the hard-left, fiercely loyal supporters of the new leader.

Reed, called variously a Blairite and “moderate” (he prefers social democrat), has taken a stand: taking on the “eggs” bidding him “good riddance”, branding him “Tory scum”, or worse.

The MP for Copeland in Cumbria, who backed Andy Burnham's bid but also wrote glowingly about Liz Kendall's campaign, had already detected online enmity before requesting a P45 from Corbyn that “lit the blue touch paper”.

“That was phenomenal. That was the basis on which I was invited to go on ‘I’m a Celebrity …’ because it was driving so much traffic.”

A bit of a silver lining?

“Not a silver lining at all,” he makes absolutely clear. “That’s when the hostility set in, and set in deeply.”

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Dealing with the 'trolls'

What separates Reed from other Labour MPs critical of the Corbyn leadership is his willingness to talk back, perhaps only matched by veteran Labour MP, Mike Gapes, who regularly appears to be the angriest man on the Internet.

By contrast, Reed is playful, owing as much to Viz comic, the Beano and Carry On ... as the tenets of the 1997 general election landslide. His Twitter avatar has been the British actor Andrew Lincoln in zombie series The Walking Dead. It is currently the leader of the Rebel Alliance starfighter corps from Star Wars.

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Jamie Reed's two most recent avatars

Do the most outlandish requests get to him?

“The occasional threats of violence … nobody wants that but it doesn’t unsettle me. It makes me want to try to come up with a witty riposte - and sometimes they are, sometimes they aren’t.”

He recalls one commentator who had "imagined some slight or offence” and “demanded an apology”. “He just kept asking and asking," he says. "I would look in from time to time to see if he was still asking and he was, and he was getting really upset."

If not threatening, the trolling is “Invigorating” and “surprising”.

“This demagoguery was rampant,” he says. “This wasn’t about a set of ideas, a cause or a platform. It was almost a cult in a way. It still surprises me - the ferocity and depth and venom.”

He says former Tony Blair adviser John McTernan put it best: the hard Left hates humour. “It can’t co-exist with it. Just treating people who are clearly incensed - and in some case for reasons they don’t know why - with a light touch is something they hate.”

His fellow traveller, Labour MP Mike Gapes

He likens the online army of to the the “green ink brigade” that traditionally filled local newspaper post bags with “poison pen letters”, but without the accountablity of attaching a name to a missive. By contrast, he gets very little abuse by email - which would be much easier to trace.

"They can maybe have a little bit too much to drink, sit in front of their TV and have their finger over send. It enables that 'last orders' feeling, which you can cop for if you're a politician in the public eye. It does remove accountability.”

And it has a domino effect. “It has popularised that kind of sentiment. Almost part of a zeitgeist or a meme,” he says.

"The anonymity or lack of accountability on social media doesn't help politics. Politics is all about transparency, accountability and openness. Standing by what you've said."

Why does any of this matter? Some dismiss social media as irrelevant, citing Labour’s general election failure being out of sync with the prevailing mood on Twitter. But Reed doesn’t marginalise its importance. He suggests there should be no opt-out.

“This debate about the future of the Labour Party isn’t being had in meeting rooms and church halls or council chambers. It’s being held on social media. That’s where the frontline of the debate is. I’m not leaving that debate. Ever.”

With the bit between his teeth, and a dash of self-awareness, he likens what is happening online to the Jürgen Habermas theory of the public sphere - the space where political action is debated - being “re-imagined for the 21st century”.

“The Viennese coffee shop democratic culture,” he says. “Saying that out loud sounds dreadfully New Labour-ish. It sounds like a policy wonk shop.”

But he sticks with it. “Social media is changing politics. Some of it is really good. Some of that is really really bad. It's a new dialectic if you like – that'll please them. It’s got to be understood or engaged with."

Reed re-tweets some of the abuse he receives

His problems with his leader are manifold, beyond the “personal bone of contention” over nuclear power.

“MPs need a leader of the Labour Party who can win a general election,” he says. “Otherwise we are a protest group. And none of us signed up to that. We, and I think every activist, whether they are from the left or the right, signed up to make people’s lives better. They signed up to change the country and establish progressive governments.

“The further we are from mainstream opinion in Britain the less likely we are ever again to form a government. So the people who we were founded to improve the lives of are being dealt a grave disservice by us.”

What about those who say respect his mandate? Give it a chance? “I don't have a crystal ball but I do have a history book,” he says, referring to Labour’s 1980s political wilderness. “And we do know how this goes. It really isn’t funny.”

corbyn rally

“MPs need a leader of the Labour Party who can win a general election."

Reed played a central role in the failed attempt to oust former Labour leader Ed Miliband before the general election, and is angry about him distancing the party from New Labour.

“People really need to acknowledge the role Ed had had to play in the calamity we now find ourselves,” he says, starkly.

“Everything seems to be about defining ourselves in opposition against the New Labour years - even the massive successes of that. That was by all accounts the most redistributive government in British history. Why are we defining ourselves against that?

"To define yourself against success, to define yourself against taking children out of poverty, to define yourself against progressive government that could persuade people of other opinions to come with you.

“If you can understand the modern world and the dynamics of modern politics, party politics, and what is changing – which social media represents in so many ways. If you understand that, then to define yourself against something that understands that, is absolutely inexplicable to me."

He has little time for Momentum, the pro-Jeremy Corbyn campaign group that has criticised for publishing - then deleting - a “de-selection list” based on Labour MPs that voted in favour of George Osborne’s budget. Some left-wing Labour MPs have been very supportive of its aims.

READ: Labour MP Jamie Reed Hits Out At 'Attempted Hostile Takeover' Of New 'Momentum' Group By Far Left Entryists

"On the evidence I've seen the de-selection stuff is appalling, the lack of transparency and accountability in the organisation is outrageous. That the party now has a party within the party and it’s sanctioned and tolerated – more than tolerated, welcomed - is incredible.

“It’s not the Fabians. It's not Progress. It’s not Compass. Engage people in politics through the Labour Party. Take the Labour stand to get people excited about politics. We don't need a People's Front of Judea to do that for us."

And a message to the trolls?

"Buy a dictionary and thesaurus. And a simple guide to grammar would help. 140 characters is no excuse."