This article is originally from the Belfast Telegraph (9th October 2015).
At the Labour conference last week, the party’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, appealed for a new, ‘kinder’ form of politics. Seven days later, as Conservatives gathered for their get-together in Manchester, some left-wing protesters refused to heed his call. Delegates entering the venue were abused, spat at and even pelted with eggs and other missiles.
The protesters didn’t distinguish between Conservative activists and neutral visitors to the conference either. BBC Northern Ireland’s political correspondent, Stephen Walker, and even the high profile, hard-left columnist, Owen Jones, were among journalists who experienced the novelty of being described as ‘Tory scum’, as they covered events at Manchester Central.
Politics has always been a tribal business, exciting high passions and strong emotions, but there seems to be a particularly nasty, uncivil tenor to some of the debates currently raging across the UK.
During the independence referendum in Scotland, the bullying tactics of some ‘Yes’ supporters were highlighted in the media. ‘Cybernats’, as they became known, hectored people who disagreed with them online, targeting vocal supporters of the Union, like the author JK Rowling, and lingerie tycoon, Michelle Mone, who eventually left Scotland as a result.
Unfortunately, the abuse wasn’t confined to the internet. Then Labour leader, Jim Murphy, was subjected to vitriolic taunts, describing him as a “traitor”, “scum” and “paedophile”, when he campaigned on Scotland’s high streets. While Charles Kennedy, the former Liberal Democrat leader, suffered a campaign of intimidation, including finding rubbish strewn across his property, during the weeks running up to his death. The late politician’s father was convinced he was a victim of bullying by nationalists.
The Scottish referendum sparked a robust conversation, across Scotland, attracting unprecedented numbers of people to get involved in politics, but, at its fringes, a substantial minority of activists seemed determined to demonise anyone who disagreed with them.
The aftermath of the Conservatives’ victory at the General Election prompted another torrent of abuse, as protesters took to the streets to voice their displeasure. The slurs were mainly verbal but, on the weekend after the results emerged, protesters sprayed “f**k Tory scum”, on a memorial in Whitehall, dedicated to women who fought in the Second World War.
Many such acts can be attributed to vandals and extremists, but politicians and other prominent people in public life don’t help, if they abuse their opponents and contribute to an atmosphere of hysteria around political issues.
In Northern Ireland we’re used to political figures inflaming emotions to the extent that it arguably contributes to disorder on the streets. We’ve had allegations of political policing, from either side of our divide, dark mutterings about ‘securocrats’ from republicans and even a prominent MLA holding on to the front of a police Land Rover during trouble in North Belfast. Provocative leaflets about the removal of the Union Flag at City Hall were distributed by unionists, and attacks on Alliance Party offices followed soon after. Some of our politicians are masters at stirring up tensions, then denying responsibility if things get violent.
Political rioting and violence is rarer In Great Britain, but incidents do take place. In London, members of a hard-left, anarchist group pelted the Cereal Killer café, owned by Northern Irish twins Gary and Alan Keery, with paint bombs. They claimed their attack was a protest against ‘gentrification’. Meanwhile, far-right groups like Britain First are increasingly active, mounting ‘foot patrols’ and other intimidating demonstrations, directed at immigrants and Muslims.
Political arguments need not stir up violence to become damaging. It’s enough that they’re often conducted in such a shrill, outraged tone, corroding the substance of debates and encouraging hostility and name-calling.
Even as Jeremy Corbyn called for respect, at the Labour party conference, Len McCluskey, general secretary of trade union Unite, took to a stage at the same event and claimed that government proposals on strikes are like “what the Nazis did to trade unionists in the concentration camps at Dachau”. The plan is to require strikers on picket lines to wear armbands for identification. You don’t need to think the Conservatives’ proposals are right, to recognise that comparing the measure to Nazi persecution is gross hyperbole.
The debate around welfare reform in Northern Ireland has taken place at a similarly shrill pitch. Rather than discuss calmly the merits or otherwise of the current system, the costs it entails or alternatives to replace it, the Stormont parties often prefer to sling insults at one another. The opponents of reform bluster about ‘Tory cuts’, rather than setting out their objections in any detail.
The word ‘Tory’ derives from a Gaelic word meaning ‘outlaw’, and originally implied ‘an Irish rebel’ in English. Ironically, in Northern Ireland in particular, it has returned to its nineteenth century roots as a term of political abuse, as well as a disapproving adjective attached to anything some politicians and campaigners don’t like. The trade unionist, Bumper Graham, who represents the public sector union NIPSA, caused anger when he told the Nolan Show that he’d gladly put “all the Tories in Northern Ireland who voted in the General Election” onto a bus and send them “back to England”.
The left-wing doesn’t have a monopoly on malice, though. The referendum on membership of the European Union, which will be held by 2017, is likely to cause an outbreak of incivility on the political right.
Much of the rancour is likely to take the form of infighting, as the Conservative Party divides along the fault-lines of ‘in’ or ‘out’. Many Tory Eurosceptics are inclined to describe their own party colleagues as either ‘sound’ or ‘unsound’, depending on their views on Europe.
At the same time, the debate around immigration has taken on an increasingly unpleasant colouring, with some politicians implying that people coming to the UK are responsible for poverty and unemployment among longer term residents.
Unfortunately, politics has always entailed an element of nastiness and politicians are necessarily a tough breed. However, the current high-pitched tone is distorting important issues and encouraging an unpleasant atmosphere, even outside the political bubble.
No-one should have to suffer abuse or even, potentially, assault, just because they disagree with someone else’s opinions. Nor is it ok to demonise people because they vote for a particular party or even attend its conferences.
Jeremy Corbyn is right when he says that politics should be ‘kinder’ and that issues should be debated without personal abuse. It’s up to political leaders like him, not only to set a personal example, but also to persuade colleagues and followers to consistently take a more respectful approach, with less tribalism, less scare-mongering and less name-calling.