I would have opened with an acknowledgement that Labour is currently more openly divided than it has been within my lifetime, if I wasn’t wholly convinced this would send any potential readers running for the hills, screaming.
‘Labour is divided’ articles are reaching that apex of ubiquity where none of their content constitutes news, and is no more worth comment than any other imperative truth of the universe. Gravity still works like we think it does, and the Labour party remains in a state of division and turmoil, from the PLP to the wider membership base.
What else can there possibly be to say, or to draw out?
Quite a lot, according to a number of other party members. At least, judging from the number of grassroots factions, new online forums, ‘official’ Twitter accounts and Facebook pages that have sprung up in the approximate four months of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Surely here, we might see detailed evidence of the comprehensively different outlooks, the opposing policy ideas, the conflicting ideologies that must be at the root of all of that social media sniping we’ve heard so much about. Except we don’t, really.
There’s certainly conflict, but, like all the best drama, it’s largely character driven. What works for a three-part BBC (haha) Christmas serial does not, unsurprisingly, work to foster constructive discussion of ideas amongst the membership of an electorally disappointed opposition party. Within the parameters of our online debates, Jeremy Corbyn and Tony Blair are two central characters we alternately cheer, hiss, throw at each other as insults, or hold up as shields so we don’t have to bother interrogating other people’s arguments or risk venturing an idea of our own.
People involved in the party want, and need, to discuss where we went wrong and what we should do going forward. However, in spite of lots of people’s best efforts, the leading topic of discussion is almost invariably a variation on pro-Corbyn vs. anti-Corbyn (or Blairite, as the term has seemingly been popularly redefined to refer to anyone who expresses disagreement with the leader).
In itself, this is incredibly tiresome. But what’s worse is that it actively stymies important discussions about policies, new ideas, and silences members who would like to instigate more productive discourse.
When even groups like Open Labour, explicitly set up to “improve the quality of debate”, still bear visible evidence of the great battle of leadership personalities past and present, it’s apparent the problem is endemic. For all good intentions, I can’t help but think that most of us, to varying degrees, are to blame.
There are thousands of comments, replies, likes and shares accompanying statuses, images, and Tweets from Labour members unrelentingly criticizing Corbyn, or lionizing him while insisting that others in the party are at best ideologically bereft and at worst ill-intentioned. The same goes for social media output shouting about Red Tories, or telling members who joined to vote for Corbyn that it isn’t their party.
You’d have thought Jeremy Corbyn took Michael Dugher into the woods and brutally murdered him from the barrage of reactions following his sacking from the shadow cabinet. Similarly, some of the replies to Jonathan Reynolds’ principled and exceedingly polite resignation letter give the impression that he spent 300 words outlining why he hated socialism and all baby animals to boot.
Too many of us are collectively taking the easy way out and attacking one another, complaining into the void about internal party decisions we cannot change. Too many of us are reticent to come forward with opinions or ideas because it’s less intimidating to say nothing to avoid the squabbling; in practice, passively condoning it.
Aside from tentative signs of change preceding the vote on bombing ISIS in Syria, genuine discussion of positions, consequences and uncertainties simply isn’t happening. Debates we’re having now could only have real-world ramifications if it were possible to travel back in time to prevent either the genesis of New Labour, or Corbyn’s leadership victory, dependent on personal preference.
No one should need to point out that our debates must have real-world ramifications. Otherwise, even if we were having meaningful discussions with one another, we’d be a talking-shop with nothing concrete to take to the electorate. Currently, we’re a very loud talking-shop with very little to say.