The dangerous language of ‘crankery’ on the Labour left

10th August, 2018 2:40 pm

Jade Azim’s LabourList article ‘The real battle for Labour’s soul? Lansmanites vs cranks’ certainly caused a stir. Reactions ranged from cheering to weariness, but also from the perplexed to the very personalised. I want to start by making a defence of Jade, though I disagree with much of her piece. Much of it took a sledgehammer to the debate, but there were elements of truth to what she said. There is a battle to define the Corbynite left. It’s hardly a new phenomenon: that struggle has been raging, below the surface, ever since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader in September 2015.

This is absolutely normal. In any big political upheaval, any ‘revolution’, there is always a battle for the spoils – a competition for who will take the driving seat. We’d be naïve if we thought Corbynism would be any different. What Jade has done is to bring that to the surface, and if we concentrate on the politics of this, rather than her personal political history, it could be a very interesting and important debate.

The first thing to say is that language matters. Various people have claimed that the use of term ‘cranks’ within the Labour left is just a way to isolate genuine antisemites and conspiracy theorists. Some have even described it as ‘banter’. But language is power, and slippage in language is even more powerful. Crankery is associated with racism, but then – almost within the same breath – also with people who aren’t prepared to go along with centralised decisions, or are dissenters in one way or another, or who have a particular campaign interest or political tradition that doesn’t fit the mould.

That slippage is important because, consciously or not, it isolates a far wider group. It becomes a way of creating a clique in opposition to the “cranks”. We’ve seen this build and become more generalised, first through jokes, then through a more general ‘groupthink’ and, latterly, the isolating language that accompanied the Pete Willsman being dropped from the Momentum slate and the almost sneering attitude to grassroots Twitter campaigns. This is a continuum, part of an ideological struggle, not a series of isolated events.

I realise that precision in language is tedious, but that’s what is needed – along with empathy. Tarring people can have huge effects, both on an individual’s mental health and, collectively, on the engagement of people in the political process. Macho politics doesn’t want to hear this: it’s a battle, there are losers, it says. But, if we’re interested in building a movement, very likely in defence of an embattled Corbyn government, we are going to start thinking in this way, rather than in terms of winning the spoils.

The reason for which this is so problematic and important for the Corbyn movement is that we’ve done things in an upside-down way. If you’d asked me five years ago what the plan was, I would have said: build locally in CLPs, win policy arguments, organise at conference; get more representative MPs; win the leadership – in that order. I would have talked in terms of a 10-year plan at a minimum. Instead, we did it back to front, winning the leadership in an extraordinary summer. None of that gave us time to educate, organise and agitate in the rest of the party and movement.

Naturally, in a party of 600,000, we have people who are inexperienced, some who are naïve, some who make mistakes and a small number of people who do and say unacceptable things. The latter group need to be confronted and dealt with through the disciplinary process – hardly anyone I know disputes this. The problem is the ‘bleed’ from that to the vast majority of activists and members who are brilliant, who have enormous potential, who have saved our party by being part of this ‘revolution’. Yet many of them are starting to feel they are not wanted in our party. That’s what language does.

There are two groups in particular that I feel concerned about because I think they are being slowly excluded. One is the group we might call the ‘old left’, shorthand for the active socialists in the party pre-2015, who have less access to social media and therefore a different experience of the changes that have taken place. However, their experience is vital, and they have wisdom to pass on to younger activists.

The second is a group, made up of all ages, who have discovered (or rediscovered) their activism via social media and been empowered in the process. This group is huge in number, not always familiar with the processes of the party, but it was fundamental to our victories in the two leadership elections. Both groups will have felt excluded by the dismissal of them implied in the talk of ‘crankery’, and both deserve more respect.

None of this is to deny the challenges we face. Undoubtedly, education is needed. Not lecturing, not a top-down approach that says: ‘we are the experts, now this is what you’ve done wrong’. It needs to be a genuine conversation, where we collectively work on positions, approaches and ways to deal with difficult issues which treats people like adults. That is part of a more general cultural shift that I don’t believe we’ve quite got to grips with yet. Our talk about the ‘grassroots’ hasn’t been matched by actions.

The real question isn’t who’s going to win in the battle between Lansmanites and so-called ‘cranks’, but what kind of movement we want. Is it a left-wing version of what went before, with a small, empowered elite deciding the ‘line’? Or a genuinely bottom-up, democratic, empowering politics? If it’s the latter, we’re going to have to open ourselves up, take risks and recognise the ‘gold dust’ symbolised by the wider membership. That means embracing all its messy variety: online, offline, of all ages and differing experiences. Cliques will never achieve that kind of power.

Ben Sellers works for Laura Pidcock, Labour MP for North West Durham. He is writing in a personal capacity.

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