Politics provokes great passions. Those involved in politics care deeply about the issues that brought them in to activism and the ideology that provides the framework to solving those issues. I am a big believer in passion in politics. Without it, we become dry, technocratic, dull and uninspiring.
But passion can spill over into other more troubling types of behaviour. Sometimes our passion – either for our ideology or for the processes and powers of politics can spill over into darker activities that should have no place in the modern political process.
We saw this in the Liberal Democrats with the Lord Rennard scandal. One man became too important to the Party’s processes to have complaints of misbehaviour acted on until it was far too late. it was repeatedly brushed under the carpet until it exploded into the mainstream media.
The Tories, too, are seeing a similar problem arise. It seems Mark Clarke and his Road Trip 2015 were just too valuable to the Tory election effort for the mounting numbers of complaints against him to be properly acted on early enough – potentially with extremely tragic consequences.
What Rennard and Clarke and their supporters seem to have in common is the love of the game (and a twisted version of the game at that) over and above the values that drove their initial activism. No one should find that what become more important to them is the way their Party is organised and managed than the real world impact it can and should have. Equally, no one support of a greater cause.
Neither sexual harassment nor bullying should have any place in any political party. But Labour can ill afford to make hay from the scandals happening in other Parties. We know our part is far from perfect – indeed much of our recent debates have sometimes allowed the heat of passion to overspill into some fair questionable behaviours. We have all either seen or heard about things we are uncomfortable with members of our party doing.
Labour has recently updated its bullying and harassment policies and these are available for all members on MembersNet (and if you don’t have access to that, NEC members or the party will be able to provide you with a copy). they aren’t perfect in my humble opinion, but they are a good start. It is essential not only that we have these procedures, but that they inform how we do politics at every level. It is issues with our culture that too often drive issues with individual behaviour. We need to change that to make those behaviours not just unacceptable, but unthinkable. We could do worse than refer to the statement made by Jeremy Corbyn last night as a guiding principle for how to behave.
Activists must be able to feel safe when taking part in politics of whatever persuasion. We cannot allow our passion for our ideology to undermine our basic humanity. We must always start from a place of assumed decency. If politics becomes merely way of shouting across each other in a void, with the one who feels most insulted – not the one whose argument is defeated – losing, then we all lose.
Having said all of that. I am concerned about reports that Labour’s NEC are drawing up guidelines for how members should behave on social media. I don’t think we need a separate policy for social media. Our behaviour should come up to scratch under all circumstances. There shouldn’t be different guidelines for different mediums, but an application of an agreed set of rules, standards and cultural norms about how we treat each other.
Any guidelines that can be enforced on the huge numbers of members that now make up the Labour Party will either have to be so vague as to be unenforceable or so prescriptive that enforcing them will be several people’s full time jobs.
The more we treat social media as “different” the more we licence people behaving differently on it. I won’t tolerate a lower standard of behaviour online than I will off line. And neither should anyone else. We don’t need policies for different media. We need a culture that recognises the value that comes from having differences of opinions and hashing them out in a challenging but ultimately responsible way.