How to Deal with Extremists (in political parties, that is)
It’s been a difficult week for those at either side of the Labour Party. If I hear the phrase ‘the party is a broad church’ one more time then my eyes are going to roll right out of my head. However it’s true, a Labour member at the left of the party can have very different views to someone at the right of the party. Sticky issues like Trident, foreign policy and tax policy are often dividing lines. Some are divided on anti versus pro-Trident; isolationist versus interventionist foreign policy; and more taxation versus less taxation.
Ultimately, these things don’t matter on a day to day basis. Labour members usually get along fine, knowing they are at least united against the Tories with a progressive agenda, no matter what.
Labour MPs however, seem to have forgotten how to get along. The Parliamentary Labour Party has undergone a sharp transition, from being told by Harriet Harman to vote with the awful Welfare Bill in the summer, to being told by Jeremy Corbyn that people who disagree with the Shadow Cabinet would do better to voice it from the backbenches (just like he did, for decades, before being elected leader).
Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, has upset every Labourite associated with Progress by describing them as to the right of the party. Again, I doubt many would disagree with the description, but perhaps he could have been more sensitive about it. This is where ‘honest, straight-talking politics’ really gets you; a lot of dirty laundry aired in public. But hey, let’s call it a catharsis and hope the therapy session is over by the May elections.
The left of the party has boomed in recent months, with many joining because they saw the party going back to a left-wing agenda. Corbyn’s campaign group, Momentum, you could say is the opposite of Progress. An internal pressure group to keep the party on the left side of the road. People in Momentum may have formerly been in the Green Party, the Socialist Party or single-issue campaign groups. They are campaigners first and foremost and the right of the party fears they focus too much on making a noise and not enough on getting elected to actually enact change.
This internal tension was fostered by the story of Corbyn’s reshuffle built up over the Christmas holidays, leading to MPs considering resignation letters the week before as they were fearful of a ‘culling’ of pro-Trident supporters. A Welsh MP’s resignation on live TV was the messiest of all, leading to an opportunity for David Cameron to break the news to Corbyn at PMQs.
The interesting thing is, this isn’t just a problem in Labour. The Conservatives have it just as bad, it’s just that less people are talking about it. The divide in the Tories materialises as Eurosceptics v ‘pro-EU businessmen’. Cameron should have been the story of the week, as the Eurosceptics (and by proxy, UKIP) scored a win in him allowing Government Ministers to campaign to leave Europe. An anti-EU Secretary of State, with the levers of power in front of him, will be able to use government resources to move in an anti-EU direction. This is utterly ridiculous and many who foresaw it said as such; but instead, the media has mostly focused on Corbyn, and let the Eurosceptic win slip by without commentary.
This makes it, all in all, a very good week for UKIP. Their obsession with Europe and their campaign for a referendum has gone very well. Cameron has delivered the referendum — a campaign pledge he never thought he’d need to fulfil due to the unexpected Tory majority — and his EU negotiations seem to be going pretty badly, thus delivering a perfect campaign platform for Farage to launch a ‘Brexit’ campaign.
It’s ironic that talk of terrorism and religious extremists has aired such dirty laundry for both parties. MPs resigned from the Shadow Cabinet by citing comments from former Shadow Europe Minister, Pat McFadden, which they agreed with and Corbyn did not. They essentially boil down to ‘does the West’s action influence the rise of terrorism?’ For me and many others on the ‘left’ side of Labour, the answer is ‘absolutely’. For those on the right, the answer is ‘of course not, these things happen anyway and the West is trying to stop them’. Simplistic answers to a complex question; we should all be paying attention to the question more whilst the UK bombs Syria. There is no simple answer.
So how should parties deal with their internal extremists? Probably not how they’ve been doing this week…