UK Politics

Labour leadership: Dialogue of the furious

Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith Image copyright PA

Labour's most entrenched warriors aren't listening to each other.

Shouting sometimes, protesting often, rowing frequently. But not listening.

Abusive incidents have made headlines but raw anger in Labour's debate has become commonplace.

Outside a party meeting in Walthamstow, north east London, I listen to a Momentum member challenge an Owen Smith supporter: "If you want Tory light," he asks, "why don't you join the Tory party?"

At a debate in Gateshead, Owen Smith says politics isn't about what T-shirt you wear and is noisily booed.

Image copyright Getty Images

Having spent a week talking to unions, NEC members, MPs, and rank and file supporters of both sides it's striking this is not so much a dialogue of the deaf as the furious.

It's not enough to prove opponents wrong: they have to be shown to be malign and stupid too.

The party's left-right battle has been this way for decades of course.

The difference now, is the message from the left comes not from a tiny parliamentary sect, but a movement with many thousands of people backing Jeremy Corbyn.

The contempt of so many Corbyn critics is founded on the belief he cannot possibly win a general election, could destroy his party in the process, and doesn't care all that much about losing.

Electability issue

A former cabinet minister told me: "They don't give a damn about elections. Just controlling the Labour Party is what these people have been trying to do for years."

Corbyn's team insist he can win and is determined to prove it but at the London Labour meeting, a passionate supporter puts a different view: that Owen Smith can't get to Number 10 either.

The sort of politicians who oppose Corbyn lost the 2010 election, and the 2015 election, and - spectacularly - the 2015 leadership contest, the argument goes.

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Media captionLabour activists clash in Walthamstow: 'If you want Tory light why don't you join the Tory party?'

Electability isn't much of a unique selling point if you can't get elected.

Some Labour members think they're choosing between losing under a leader they don't much like and one they love and who can shake up politics, and they are opting for the latter.

As the Walthamstow meeting nears an end, some members shuffle out for fresh air, grumbling about their MP Stella Creasy, much criticised by local activists for backing UK air strikes in Syria.

One asks who is giving a speech in the hall, and when told "just Stella" announces: "I'll stay outside then."

Profound questions

The meeting itself, I'm told, is cordial but there's no shortage of contempt.

And this is the easy bit. Fighting and deriding colleagues is straightforward compared to the challenge of answering the profound questions facing Labour.

What could a centre-left party offer voters when there is little spare money?

What policies would really turn a Corbynite dream of society in which no-one is left behind into a concrete reality?

How, after the SNP's extraordinary success in Scotland, could Labour, in any guise, win a majority in Parliament again?

Before Labour gets to those questions it will have to ask how it can come together after this leadership election. Many think it won't, and is doomed to split.

Perhaps. But if it is to continue as a single party with a hope of governing, its tribes will have to try to listen to and maybe even understand each other once again.

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