I’ve just got home from the Bristol West CLP AGM.
After a bruising, chaotic and downright heartbreaking couple of weeks in politics, I needed to be with my local Labour family. I knew that given the current situation in the party there were going to be some strong differences of opinion and lively debate, but I hoped to come out of the meeting feeling comradely, refreshed, and ready to take on the challenges ahead with our newly elected committee. That was not what happened.
I want to say that the people running the meeting did so calmly, professionally (although we should all remind ourselves that they are volunteers who do this out of love and dedication to our movement) and handled a very difficult situation admirably. The turnout was bigger than anyone expected, so we had to use an overflow room. This meant that there were some changes to the order of the meeting, but every effort was made to ensure that everyone had a chance to hear and interact with our MP, Thangam Debbonaire. The room was too small and too hot, and nothing could be done about that, but most importantly, the elections were carried out democratically and according to the rules.
Once the procedural issues had been resolved, the meeting opened with a minute’s silence in memory of Jo Cox, after which the Chair Marg Hickman read her now unforgettable words “we have more in common than the things that divide us” and urged all members to act in the spirit of those words.
Thangam made a careful, reasoned and dignified speech outlining her position on the EU referendum and subsequent events, the reasons behind her resignation from the Labour front bench, and her personal response to the murder of her friend and colleague. She took as many questions as was feasible in the limited time, listened and responded carefully to each one. She was not afforded the same respect by her constituents.
It became clear that there were some very vocal Momentum members present in the room (many wearing the T shirts) who were interested in nothing but defending Corbyn and shouting down anyone who disagreed with them. Thangam, the Chair and most of the candidates for committee positions stressed again and again the importance of coming together respectfully to listen, discuss and work together as comrades in the same movement. Corbyn himself said this week that it was time for the party to come together. I would hope that if he saw the behaviour of his loudest supporters tonight he would condemn it.
We are all fighting the same fight. We are a family, a team and a movement, and that doesn’t mean we agree on everything — anyone who knows me at all knows that I’ve always placed myself within the left of the party and often disagree with the leadership and some elements of the PLP. But what it does mean, is that we treat each other with respect and dignity. The people in that room were shouting and screaming at Thangam, the Chair, and anyone with an opposing view as if they were shouting at Cameron on a protest march.
The atmosphere was absolutely toxic, and for the first time in my dealings with the Bristol Labour Party I felt threatened. As someone who likes to listen and reflect before I speak, I felt that there was no way for me to contribute. At one point I did speak up out of sheer frustration, and point out that those who shout the loudest aren’t necessarily the majority. The man next to me then pounced on me, telling me that “your lot” are trying to oust Corbyn. He called me a traitor and a conspirator, without even bothering to find out anything about me. If he had, he would know that I voted for Corbyn last year, but have had my reservations and now feel that he’s not the right leader for our party. I tried to explain that I wasn’t interested in taking sides on the Corbyn issue, that I was just trying to call for some respectful and tolerant discussion, but he continued to patronise me and shout me down. I could feel the angry tears pricking the corners of my eyes and I knew that if I cried I would be dismissed as a weak young woman, so I shut up. Which is exactly what he and the others like him wanted.
I hadn’t come to take sides, or to call for Corbyn to be ousted. I had come to listen, elect our new committee and work out how we can all move forward together. I’m glad that people are joining the party in their thousands, I want to work with them because everyone has something to offer. I didn’t want everything to be reduced to a binary dividing line between those who support Corbyn uncritically, and everyone else. But that was not the attitude I saw from the Momentum contingent tonight. They were there to say their piece, vote for their candidates and shout down anyone who wasn’t unequivocally supportive of Corbyn. It felt dangerously close to bullying.
Exasperated, I asked the man next to me if he thought that Thangam’s decision to resign from the front bench meant that everything she had done up to that point was irrelevant. Without hesitation he said yes. I’m sorry, but that just simply cannot be how we do politics. I’m no fan of Blair, and the Iraq war was a terrible decision and an absolute disaster (and incidentally, a much worse thing to do than simply step down from a junior position on the front bench). But do I think that civil partnerships, equality legislation, children’s centres and all the other vital pieces of legislation his Labour government introduced are irrelevant because of it? Absolutely not. Because I believe that the purpose of Labour is to be in government and change people’s lives for the better. As one longstanding member said tonight: “we are a political party, not a fan club.”
At the end of the meeting I stepped outside with a good friend who is one of the most dedicated campaigners I have ever met. He organised the local and mayoral election campaign in my ward which successfully put two excellent Labour candidates on the council, who are already doing great work, and he’d just been elected to a committee position which he’ll be amazing at. He was in tears and so was I, because what we had just experienced was so far removed from the sense of solidarity, friendship and common purpose of just a few months ago.
The Labour party is my home. If you share our values of solidarity, equality, fairness and democracy then by all means come in. But if you come in, you have to respect those of us who are already here.
This division is breaking my heart, and it isn’t going to help the people in this country who need us the most.