By Emma Burnell
On Sunday I attended a remarkable public meeting. Labour MP Stella Creasy had arranged it to give her a chance to explain to constituents why she decided to vote for air strikes to Syria. Creasy had been sent pictures of dead children and labelled a murderer. Members of her staff had received abusive phone calls. As a result of advice from the police (and to make sure that attendees were genuine constituents not agitators from outside), we were only told the venue of the meeting one hour before it started. Nerves were – understandably – a bit frayed.
In the end, the meeting went well. The audience were against her decision by a huge margin, but they aired their views largely respectfully and listened to the discussion intently. I don't think anyone's mind was changed and as Stella herself said, that wasn't the point. It was for constituents to hold her to account - and they did. This was the best of political disagreement in action. Sadly discussion elsewhere has not been as edifying.
The vote on action in Syria is just the latest example of real life events spilling over into abuse and threats online. It's not new to Creasy who has been targeted previously with rape threats for her support for feminist campaigns. Online politics has often been the home of quite rotten abuse. The so-called "Cyber-Nats" were a particular case in point during the Scottish Independence referendum, with anyone on the side of Better Together labelled a traitor and worse.
But what feels different this time is that this is left-on-left, even Labour-on-Labour abuse. It started to really kick in during the leadership contest. What started as genuine difference of opinion between passionate supporters of different Labour traditions quickly descended into pretty nasty name-calling from a few on all sides. And nothing the candidates could say seemed to stem the flow of nastiness in either direction. Some will argue that the abuse was overwhelmingly from Corbyn’s supporters to other candidates, but I would contend that this is not necessarily the case. Their greater numbers in this case may well reflect their greater numbers overall.
However, much of the abuse was also gender specific. While MPs of all genders have been attacked over Syria, women have got it much worse. The language and imagery used about Liz Kendall in particular during the leadership contest, showed a really nasty, unreconstructed streak among the British left.
Of course MPs don't have a right to do their job unchallenged. A lot of the current heat in the discussion the Labour party is having with itself is a direct result of debate being stymied for so long. The lid of the pressure cooker has blown off and a lot of steam is escaping. But this inevitably brings both good and bad. And it's vital that Labour MPs, activists, members and commentators learn to distinguish between the two. MPs should be held accountable and be challenged on their decisions and their service to their constituents. But they have an absolute right to do their job without harassment and abuse and without fear for their safety or that of their staff.
I have problems with having separate codes of behaviour for online and offline. Bad behaviour is bad behaviour and we shouldn't differentiate. As Labour learns again how to debate policy in a meaningful way, it will also have to understand what that means and what it cannot mean.
Perhaps like Stella Creasy it means standing up in front of your detractors and being held – politely but firmly to account. Perhaps that model is the future. But it should not be a future that has to involve asking the police to advise on security. Openness of debate is essential. But that openness should not be threatened by the abusive behaviour we have seen over the past couple of weeks. It is now up to the whole of the Labour Party to ensure it isn’t.
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