In recent years, we have witnessed a worrying relationship between online bullying and politics – with social media being a catalyst. When Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, he promised to usher in “a kinder, gentler politics”. Whilst the Labour leader appears genuinely sincere in his aim, certain followers seem determined to behave in a manner which completely contradicts and undermines this ideal.
Social media has undoubtedly changed the way that day to day politics operates. It allows us to share our thoughts immediately and very publicly and has given elected representatives a valuable means of communicating directly with voters. However, whilst social media has its benefits, recent events have exemplified the more concerning and dangerous aspects of social media use – ones that are poisonous to our political process.
Political intimidation on social media is nothing new. Last year’s Scottish independence referendum was marred by the actions of so called 'Cybernats': pro-independence supporters who engaged in an aggressive campaign against pro-union campaigners online. More recently, the Labour leadership election has given rise to avid 'Corbynistas' – supporters who attack centrist MPs and Labour supporters online. If you have been active on social media since May, you will have noticed that some of Corbyn’s supporters have called for the removal of ‘Tories’ from the Labour Party. This is an umbrella term for anyone who doesn’t share their enthusiasm for radical socialism.
Some proclaim themselves as representatives of ‘True Labour’ – a fictional name for a party untainted by the Blair and Brown years and the many successes in government they yielded. I have been subject myself to such remarks following online expressions of disagreement with Jeremy Corbyn. Attacks like these seem to miss one fundamental point. If people like myself really were Tories, we probably would have already joined the Conservative Party. Indeed, I find it deeply sad that other people who claim to be Labour supporters feel the need to attack individuals they disagree with in such a confrontational and sometimes vitriolic manner.
Recently, Abby Tomlinson, a committed young Labour activist and leader of the Milifandom craze, found herself on the receiving end of attacks, after posting the views expressed to her by voters on the doorstep. Bullying fellow Labour supporters on social media only serves to achieve one thing: it reinforces in the minds of voters that Labour is gripped by a damaging division. Corbyn’s leadership victory has clearly excited and motivated new supporters to join the Labour Party. However, by failing to clamp down on those who are engaging in foul conduct online, his claim of making politics kinder and gentler is being severely undermined.
Attacks on fellow members are concerning enough, but the abuse currently directed towards certain Labour MPs is even more alarming. The reaction to the recent vote on Syrian air strikes illustrated the sinister nature of some politicos online. Whilst Corbynistas argue that people from all wings of the party engage in abusive behaviour, the comments that followed the vote were clearly aimed at MPs who had supported the government’s action. On my Twitter feed that night, I saw horrific accusations levied at MPs who voted in favour. Many were labelled as ‘warmongers’ and ‘child killers’, and some even received pictures of dead children.
Regardless of whether or not you agree with our response to this complex, difficult issue, I would hope that all would agree that such vile comments need to be condemned. Jeremy Corbyn gave members of the PLP a free vote on this issue as a means to facilitate an open, mature debate. This was a bold, principled decision consistent with Corbyn’s voting history and the platform he stood on during the Labour leadership election.
Labour moderates are beating Corbyn at his own game
Corbyn recently sent an email to party members, within he said that the Labour Party does not tolerate ‘abuse and intimidation, which have no place in politics’. However, this claim has not been substantiated through any meaningful action. Those who engage in abuse fail to remember that the Labour Party has always been and will remain a broad church comprised of people with different views. No one group after all can claim to be the true representatives of a political movement. Some of the most vocal online Corbynistas obsess over the pursuit of ideological purity within the Labour Party. In doing so, they fundamentally misinterpret the nature of a political party in a democratic system.
Ultimately, the Corbyn leadership needs to take a much firmer stance. Key figures like Ken Livingstone and John McDonnell talking openly about threats of deselection only encourages the Corbynistas to carry out more nasty attacks on moderate members. This cannot go on. If Labour is to stand any chance of convincing the nation that it is a credible opposition party, it needs to urgently escape from its present disunity.
Indeed, if nothing is done, the “kinder, gentler politics” Corbyn promised will mutate into something far more sinister. And, if this happens, it won’t just be the Conservatives who will be afflicted by the term the ‘Nasty Party’.