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How Labour should be reacting to abuse on social media

IainMcNicolAccusations of abusive behaviour by the Corbyn-supporting left began from the moment Corbyn was elected leader. The Labour Party all of a sudden became, according to frequent media reports, a seething cauldron of racism, specifically anti-Semitism. It was also heavily involved, according to reports, in regular threats of violence, homophobia, and sexism. It didn’t matter that these reports were based on a tiny number of alleged cases or that most of the journalists involved (including sadly many leading journalists on the Guardian/Observer) had no interest in checking the truth or significance of these stories. Anything that contributed to the “get Corbyn” campaign was deemed okay.

The wave of alleged anti-Semitism was over in a few months and is now hardly mentioned. The media has moved on to other means of trying to attack the Labour leadership. The upshot has been however to make Labour politicians longing to remove Corbyn feel free to claim, on slender or no evidence, victimisation by Corbyn supporters. Mild heckling becomes “intimidation” and reasonable criticism is equated with “abuse”. The most notable feature of the abusive-Corbynite accusations has been lack of evidence to support the claims.

The regular reports of Corbynite abuse in the media plus the claims of victimhood by some of Corbyn’s opponents have created an atmosphere in which people, who have not looked into the details, are likely to have been convinced that a wave of abuse, threats of violence and actual violence has been introduced into Labour politics by the Corbyn leadership. There have been a few investigative pieces in the press revealing the dubious nature of the claims of overt and unacceptable hostility but these have been drowned out by the stream of anti-Corbynite claims to the contrary, virtually always with no substantial factual basis.

All of this sets the scene for the recent “leaked” communication by Labour Party General Secretary Iain McNicol giving examples of emails/tweets that have led to suspension from the party. The bulk of the factional abuse in McNicol’s thirty six examples comes from alleged pro-Corbyn sources and it is safe to assume that the document as a whole is intended to further smear Corbyn supporters with the charge of hate politics. Considered in detail, however, the document comes nowhere near providing grounds for that view.

The emails/tweets in McNicol’s document are mostly evidence of primitive mindset and no doubt many of them merit a disciplinary response of some sort (whether suspension is appropriate in each case is another matter). They are examples of what happens all the time on uncontrolled and unmoderated digital media which currently acts as a constant invitation to people to feel free to express views which are absurd, incoherent, and offensive. When tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands take to such media on a particular issue it is, unfortunately, entirely predictable that there will be a certain amount of this stuff. But let’s be clear none of this constitutes serious evidence of a generalised use of abusive language in the Labour Party. Even less does it constitute evidence of the use of such language by Corbyn supporters.

The examples in McNicol’s document are given in bullet points. For ease of reference I have changed these to numbered points but have made no other changes to the original.

McNicol gives no dates nor does he say how the material was collected. He gives no indication of the size of the collection from which his thirty six examples were chosen nor on what basis the selection was made.

Here is a summary of McNicol’s examples of abuse.

Quantity

Comment

4

Examples 5, 18, 23, 24. Very incoherent. Could be from people with learning difficulties.

10

Examples 4, 10, 11, 12, 13, 32, 33, 34 ,35, 36. Declarations of support for other parties.

8

Examples 6, 19, 20, 21, 22, 28, 29. Anti Israeli and anti-Zionist language that is so virulent that it is reasonable to see it as anti-Semitic. Example 31 is pro Enoch Powell!

2

Examples 26, 31. Anti-Corbyn.

12

Examples 1, 2, 3, 7, 8, 9, 14, 15, 16, 17, 25, 30. Abusive emails/tweets from people claiming to support Corbyn or which can be construed as having that intention.

Given the generally low standards of exchanges by email and social media this doesn’t amount to much of a general case – deplorable though the language used is. Some MPs have said equally deplorable things without them being in the frame for disciplinary action (e.g. John Woodcock tweeted that Corbyn at PMQ was a “Fucking disaster. Worse week for Cameron since he came in and that stupid fucking list makes us into a laughing stock” or Jess Phillips speaking of Corbyn “The day that … you are hurting us more than you are helping us, I won’t knife you in the back, I’ll knife you in the front”, Phillips was also widely reported to have told Diane Abbott to “fuck off” in an exchange about female front benchers). Many examples of abuse from the Labour right are given here.

Abusive behaviour is always deplorable but if Ian McNichol is serious about wanting to do something about it then there are several things he should be doing. If he thinks the problem of hate politics is at a serious level in the Labour Party then:

  1. he should ensure that every party member receives clear guidelines about what is and is not acceptable when party members discuss contentious issues on social media, or anywhere else;
  2. in order to evaluate the scale of the problem he should ensure some proper sampling and statistical analysis of cases of abuse. Without that, producing a few dozen examples hardly gets beyond the level of anecdote and is not evidence of a special problem in the Labour Party rather than the general one of the way all too many people express themselves in unmoderated digital exchanges.
  3. he should produce a report indicating the scale of he problem in terms of the number of incidents reported, the number verified and how they were verified and how each case was taken up along with the conclusions reached.

We have the right to expect that the General Secretary of a major national political party would be sufficiently professional to do these things.

28 Comments

  1. Barry Hearth says:

    It seems to me that there are forces at work to denigrate party members who support corbyn, just as the poster says. That venerated journalists just soak up all and any wild accusation (i.e.; brick through window at midnight could be by a Corbyn supporter) and print without any kind of corroboration.
    Even that once revered organisation the BBC ( hope we don’t have another war, who will people listen to then?), have fallen to the same level of pathetic journalism.
    I think that the very best example of all this is when during the leadership head to head debates, Smith makes a contentious comment, like the “loyal 172 PLP”, which draws an immediate response from audience members, and his rehearsed comment is “There they go again”. Repeated in the press the day after as “Owen gets abused by Corbyn supporters!”
    The reaction from the anti Corbyn factor is to blame the man himself, when surely it should be either the NEC or McNicol under instructions from the NEC, to set out unacceptable behaviour rules.
    That Owen continues to accuse Corbyn of racism, by not being strong enough, is just another form of abuse designed to show the world that he cannot lead the party. This is just an example of the top down thinking that prevails within both the PLP and large sections of CLP’s.
    I’m hoping that Conference will see that dynamic change and change for the better, will give clear and unambiguous guidelines that we can all follow, without the fear of somehow posting the wrong word or comment and getting banned.

  2. David Pavett says:

    ADDENDUM TO MY ARTICLE ABOVE

    Since I wrote the above piece an article appeared in The Observer which attempts to revive the charge of widespread anti-Semitism on the left. The article is by Joshua Simons and makes no attempt to substantiate any of the series of very serious allegations that it makes (this is apparently acceptable to the editors of The Observer if it coincides with their political leanings).

    The accusations are outrageously untrue and even go so far as to claim that the Corbyn team censored a Hebrew expression in Corbyn’s passover message on the grounds that it might be seen as “Zionist”. Joshua Simons wrote

    Without a hint of irony, one senior aide asked that I remove the greeting “Chag Kasher VeSameach” from Corbyn’s Passover message, for fear that Corbyn’s supporters might think the use of Hebrew ‘Zionist’.

    The problem with this accusation is that the message was printed on 21st April in the Jewish Chronicle with the allegedly censored phrase. All of this clearly conforms to the maxim that one should “never let the truth get in the way of a good story”.

    1. Barry Hearth says:

      David that’s an excellent point and shows that the establishment will do ANYTHING to destroy Jeremy Corbyn.
      On the head to head BBC question time, very close to the end, a young Jewish man asked a question. He was immediately “found” by the cameraman and the sound man and his assertions that anti- semitism was rife within the Labour ranks and that Jews were frightened to walk the streets, went unchallenged.
      For the record my son in law is Jewish and I asked him are you scared to walk the streets, he told me only in some areas where most people would prefer not to walk.
      Julie Walters, in an interview on Victoria Derbyshire, told the audience that Theresa May is a “good woman” and that Corbyn couldn’t lead and Smith was untrustworthy. Could she now face the dreaded Purge?

    2. Bazza says:

      Yes David and I started getting the Observer in recent weeks after cancelling the New Statesman for its generally anti-Corbyn stance and in Sunday’s issue there were what could be argued as 3 awful attacks on Labour which fit in with everything you mentioned and sadly I think were by Jewish journalists.
      The irony is one piece referred to a few famous cases against a couple of well known activists (without naming them) and from then on referred to the Left as “they” as though we are an homogenous group hmmm.
      So goodbye Observer and Friday’s Guardian is in the last chance saloon.
      At least my New Left Review is due then Red Pepper then New Internationalist.

      1. Imran Khan says:

        It sounds as if you only want to read what you believe. You can pull the covers over your head but the world will still be there I’m afraid.

        1. Bazza says:

          I get information from a range of sources including TV news and the BBC website – I also read the Times which is available in a pub I go in and have even bought the Telegraph to see what the rich and powerful are up to, but I don’t believe the media is neutral and dont have to subscribe to journals with poorly argued articles lacking in evidence and making assumptions plus treating groups in society as though they are homogenous.
          I am a left wing democratic socialist who stands for what I believe in and for independent CRITICAL THINKING from my perspective.
          Not pulling covers over head just not prepared to waste my valuable time.
          P.s. someone suggested to me that the Right Wing Israel Ambassador in UK (ex Israeli Govt Spin Doctor) may be pulling a few strings in attacks on Corbyn but I wasn’t sure -don’t think they would interfere in UK democracy? Discuss.

          1. Bazza says:

            Oh and I recommend all socialists should also read the financial pages of newspapers – I often find these the most political.

  3. Doug says:

    I would have thought by now that those of a Leftist persuasion would have known not to expect accuracy and fairness in the reporting of the BBC. Surely, the myth of impartiality has been destroyed long ago. Ask the Hillsborough relatives and Orgreave miners, for starters. BBC coverage reflects the ideological views and assumptions of the people who run it and the senior journalists who report on events.

  4. Tony says:

    I see that the Guardian is no longer claiming that a brick was thrown through the window of Angela Eagle’s office.

    “In July, Angela Eagle, then a challenger for the Labour leadership, halted public surgeries for constituents following police advice after a window was smashed in the stairwell of the building housing her Wallasey constituency office.”

    The above passage was tucked away in this article:

    http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/sep/12/brick-thrown-through-window-labour-mp-mary-creagh-wakefield-office

    It is difficult/impossible to see how the original misinformation could have originated other than from Angela Eagle’s own office.

    1. David Pavett says:

      In my experience nearly all the incidents of alleged abuse or violence turn out, on investigation, to have little or no substance. Seema Malhotra’s complaint of alleged violation of her office privacy was simething of a classic case. Anti-Corbyn MPs seem to be vying with each other to claim victim status. No one in their right mind condones abuse, threats or violence. On the contrary we must all oppose them. But MPs using false claims victimhood for political effect are undermining the seriousness with which genuine complaints need to be treated.

      1. Bazza says:

        And we still don’t know the name of the Right wing ex-Labour Shadow who resigned over Corbyn then returned to their ex-office and wiped the computer clean of Labour’s considered position on the Finance Bill!

        1. Tony says:

          No, nor the name of the north east Labour MP who was reportedly thinking of defecting to the Conservative party.

      2. Tony says:

        Absolutely!

        Some Labour MPs have been on the receiving end of some terrible abuse. But then they often, without any evidence, attribute it to Corbyn supporters.

        I do not like Mary Creagh very much. However, at least she has not invented an incident and then blamed Corbyn supporters.

  5. Susan O'Neill says:

    Thousands of Corbyn supporters have had to endure many months of being vilified, insulted, demeaned and misrepresented.
    Where is McNicol’s demand for respect for them?
    Why has McNicol betrayed so many Corbyn supporters?
    Why has McNicol been allowed to show such one sided bias in favour of anti Corbyn abuse?
    Why has McNicol been allowed to use his position of authourity and trust to deny justice to some supporters whilst promoting the cause for people conducting this hate campaign against Corbyn supporters.
    McNicol has served his own interests and his own agenda, something he should be disciplined for because it is in direct violation of the duties his position requires.
    McNicol, therefore, should be removed from his post, having demonstrated his dereliction of duty in pursuit of his own self serving interests and his membership of the Labour Party reviewed.
    He is anathema to democratic justice and the epitome of opportunism.

  6. Giles Wynne says:

    The Abuse comes from the Labour Party Management, the Rebel PLP and the Capitalist Media. They have been knocking on my the door since I became politizised. Thankfully,for most, words are now the only way to express their feelings and hurt others. Ignore it because of what could be worse.Sticks and Stones ?

    1. Imran Khan says:

      They have been knocking on your door since you became politizised. Could you give us more details?

  7. Doug says:

    I’ve stopped buying the Guardian and my son no longer gets Private Eye. These people have really shown their true colours now and don’t deserve our custom.

    1. Barry Hearth says:

      I stopped buying any papers years ago, came to rely on the BBC for a sort of impartiality, blown away when I saw the Marr/Chomsky interview.
      I now take the view that if they are reporting THAT then it’s because they don’t like it on a personal basis.
      Plus Murdoch owns everything now.

  8. Robert Green says:

    The list of MPs that came out detailing the worst of the abusive anti-Corbyn coup plotters has been dubbed by Owen Smith a `de-selection list’. That is correct. It should be the starting point for a campaign for de-selection of these right wingers and if they cannot be winkled out then candidates pledged to vote for the formation of a Corbyn-led Labour government if there is a majority should be found to stand against them so that their seats can be retained for Labour. Sure as eggs is eggs nobody is going to vote for these coup plotters knowing that they would refuse to form a Labour government but are more likely to bloc with Tories and Lib Dems in a government of national emergency against the working class.

    1. David Pavett says:

      … candidates pledged to vote for the formation of a Corbyn-led Labour government …

      It is really important to defocus from personalities and focus on policies. (1) This makes it easier where opposition has expressed itself in opposition to a person and (2) Corbyn is a single individual, what if he becomes ill or worse? Where would that leave us?

      I want MPs to make it clear that they will support a leadership carrying out the agreed policies of the party. This, of course, highlights the urgency of developing such policies. Jeremy Corbyn’s personal views, and even his ten pledges, do not constitute party policy. Even though it is natural to focus on the individual who spearheads a breakthrough we must, I suggest, resist the temptation to focus everything on that individual.

      1. C MacMackin says:

        Corbyn is a single individual, what if he becomes ill or worse? Where would that leave us?

        The importance of this point can not be overstated. We need only look to Venezuela to see what can happen when a political project becomes centred around an individual. Once Chavez died, there was so little independent political capacity that the movement blithely accepted his hand-picked successor, who is clearly not up to the task. Chavez was very, very far from perfect, but he did at least have some capacity to improvise and come up with fresh ideas. Now that he’s gone, Maduro seems to have no ideas other than to try to keep things exactly how Chavez left them, despite the fact that those policies are clearly no longer working, and the movement lacks the ability to articulate policy for itself.

  9. Jim Denham says:

    Some claims of anti-Semitic abuse are true. It does the left no good whatsoever to deny this.

    1. David Pavett says:

      Wouldn’t details of such incidents and an evaluation of their significance and extent (what is “some”?) be in order here (or at least an appropriate reference)? Serious evidence is, in my experience, pretty hard to come by.

      1. Karl Stewart says:

        David, I disagree with a lot of what JimD writes and he and I have had some robust exchanges on here.
        But he has a point in this respect, and as an example, the remarks made by Ken Livingstone were unacceptable, certainly revisionist.

        1. David Pavett says:

          Ken Livingstone’s remarks were very unhelpful. My point though, was not about this or that individual case but about the need to evaluate the depth and extent ofvthe problem.

  10. Stephen Bellamy says:

    Why is it reasonable to regard anti Israel and anti Zionist language as antisemitic, however vitriolic. Don’t you need antipathy towards Jews for that?

    1. Jim Denham says:

      Yup: and a lot (not all, mind) of “anti-zionism” is, in fact, antipathetic towards the majority of Jews (eg the recidivist Jew-baiter Livingstone).

      1. Stephen Bellamy says:

        HI Jimbo. And of course Palestinians are anti Zionist almost down to the last man and woman. I guess all Palestinians are racists.

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