I joined Labour before the last leadership election. Cards on the table: not only had I been deeply sceptical about Labour since the Blair years, but I have never been much of a joiner. I have often felt more comfortable as an outsider, even to those organisations/parties I most support.
From outside, it is easier to examine one's own mind first, easier to avoid the perils of groupthink. But unless the outsider finds ways of engaging the world and making a contribution, this I acknowledge can be a lazy and negative position to hold, allowing others to take the flak and do the work. Yet when Jeremy Corbyn miraculously made it onto the leadership ballot, I felt hopeful and energised by Labour for the first time. And so, I did the previously unthinkable - I joined.
My reasons for joining have been given elsewhere, but certainly I continue to battle those demons - am I in it really? Yikes - do I want out? Might I find some comfortable space in the margins? Those demons never go away, and that is fine. They keep me awake, keep me productively doubtful, allow me to defend each person's right to answer that age old question "what can I do?" in his or her own way. Each person's right to say "I don't know" about a whole host of things. Not knowing can be a useful position to take. In fact, I think we should all practise it a little more.
So in good faith, I attended both party meetings and our newly founded local Momentum group. The party meetings were sometimes trying, marked by insider knowledge and procedures that would seem a little mysterious to any newcomer. This was not the fault of the longstanding members who did their best to be patient and welcoming. But, and although no member wishes it, organisations tend to have a force of their own and they sometimes suck the life and ideas out of things.
At Momentum, I was able to breathe a little more freely. We were there because we hoped to move Labour in what we believed was a more progressive direction, one aimed at delivering a stronger anti-austerity programme than Labour had shown in the disastrous general election defeat. Given my original reasons for joining, it came as no surprise that I found it easier to put the bulk of my efforts into Momentum. My sense is that I was not alone in this, and it may be the cause of some understandable mistrust towards new party members. It remains an unfinished project for the branches and local Momentum activists to find positive ways to work together.
What of Momentum itself? Less mired in history and procedure, the problem of groupthink seemed less in evidence than I might have feared. Yes, we support Corbyn. That does not mean he is never criticised. There have been debates about Corbyn's ideas and tactics, about how best to work together with our local branches, how to support the hundreds of new members looking to become more involved. We had heated debates about the anti-Semitism row and Labour's handling of it. We did not agree on many of these issues. But we have kept going.
Not once in all the meetings and events I attended did I hear a single utterance of personal abuse against other party members or the Labour MPs currently involved in the revolt against Corbyn. Strong criticism, yes. Mistrust, yes. Threats or personal abuse, no. And as things heated up, each meeting has seen one or more of us issuing a strong reminder that we must take care how we treat all the key (local and national) players. Finally, while we agree that social media is a great organizing tool, we also remind ourselves that personal threats and abuse are not only wrong, but thoroughly unhelpful to our causes.
Of course, we condemn any instance of such abuse. In the aftermath of the murder of Jo Cox, this has become more urgent. Yet there is undeniable abuse occurring out there. It is flying in all directions. But I simply have not seen it in my local experience, in the Momentum currently being vilified by some MPs and some journalists.
Demands that Corbyn "call off" his "dogs" or his "rabble" have been lapped up by a media keen to exploit Labour's divisions. Two points here: first, these too, are terms of abuse. Those seeking to unseat Corbyn should not use them. Second, we can no more expect Corbyn to stop rogue abusers than we can demand that Angela Eagle stop the threats against Corbyn. What we can ask of both sides is that they lead by example and that they issue regular public demands that all threats cease.
At the same time, both sides need to think carefully about those uncertain lines between passionate debate and abuse. Colorful language there will be at times. And so there should be. Everybody has to work to create space for language, argument, even anger, but without these ever silencing the other or making anyone feel unsafe.
There have been mistakes on all sides, statements that have not helped to cool heads. Politics is rather like life as described by Kierkegaard - it "can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards."
Sadly, Labour's National Executive Committee (NEC) appears to be trying to stop us living at all right now. Members disenfranchised, supporter status now only available to those with money, meetings banned. All of this will breed resentment and distrust, trying the patience of those who wish to participate, whether they support Corbyn or not.
When I joined Labour, reluctantly vacating my place in the margins, my little land outside, I never imagined that the party would attempt to throw me back out to that land. Sadly, that is how it feels today. Practising my "I don't know," I cannot say how it will end. But right now, I am staying in.
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