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Say No to Hate Speech Appeal- update

HOT’s Sean O’Shea updates readers on the ‘Say No to Hate Speech Appeal’ (March 2017), reminds us of the rule change on Anti-Semitism & Hate Speech agreed at the Labour Party Conference September 2017, and summarises some of the challenges facing the new local Labour Party Organiser. In the interests of securing a Labour victory in the next election, he appeals for a change of culture within the local party.

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“A starting point for all our actions as members of a party and a movement, is to treat all people with dignity and respect. This applies to all our dealings with people, offline and online.”

Labour Party, Social Media Code of Conduct, 2017

“Some Labour party members still don’t seem to appreciate the difference between appropriate assertion and aggression or abuse. This is a distinction understood by most sixth-formers.”

Sean O’Shea

Risk of speaking out in a climate of fear

For over a year, I’ve been writing about the issue of hate and the left, and doing interviews with some activists on these topics for Hastings Online Times (HOT). See for example: Hate and the Left.

Having observed with dismay reference being made to Tories as ‘vermin’ at last year’s Momentum Festival in Liverpool, and also noticed usage of the expression locally, I contacted the Hastings & Rye Constituency Labour Party (HRCLP) to request clarification of their policy position on the use of such hate speech. I specifically enquired if they felt that reference to political opponents as ‘vermin’ that should be ‘eradicated’ was acceptable language for a party member to use?

I was informed that this language was a forceful but reasonable way of demonstrating strong disapproval of an opponent’s political position. I was astounded at this response and strongly disagreed with it, regarding it as a failure to comply with Labour Party Policy and codes of conduct. This is still my view. Incidentally, the party member about whose language I’d expressed concern, later actually retracted his remarks and conceded that his use of such language was in fact inappropriate.

Subsequently, and convinced that many ordinary Labour party members would not share the view of senior party officials on this subject, I became involved in a ‘Say No to Hate Speech Appeal’ (March 2017). I wrote an article for HOT: Say NO to Hate Speech to try and raise awareness about the issue, advocate positive actions that members could take to address the matter at branch level – and ask them to endorse Corbyn’s pledge renouncing the use of hateful language.

I’m also indebted to Hastings Independent Press (HIP) for having the courage to publish this article, which was critical of the fact that hate speech still seemed to be tolerated and defended by senior officials in the local party. In the current environment this was an admittedly risky issue for a local paper to cover, as appeal members and I were in effect challenging respected and powerful local politicians on their interpretation of Labour party policy and codes of practice.

At the same time I regret that HIP felt unable to follow up this story by publishing some of the reactions to the appeal which were relayed to them. Some of these were disapproving (see example below), but many were actually supportive of the appeal. Had they decided to publish these contrasting responses it would have given their readers an opportunity to form their own judgements on the merits of the case in dispute.

Hate Reaction

As hate and racism are still perceived by some Labour party members as primarily a problem for their political rivals on the right, I was fully aware that attempting to openly address such a controversial subject, with local elections imminent, was likely to be resisted and could possibly expose me – and others involved in such an appeal – to the risk of retaliation. See: Say NO to Hate Speech reaction

I knew for example, that people who were brave enough to admit to voting ‘Leave’ at the EU referendum were labelled as ‘racists’ by some local comrades. Secondly, a number of councillors who expressed their private support for the appeal, felt unable to publically endorse it for fear of repercussions. And I hadn’t forgotten either, that during the Labour Party Leadership election the atmosphere became so toxic that branch meetings were prohibited, ostensibly in the interest of ‘protecting’ party members from the wrath of their own comrades.

Unfortunately the imminence of elections of one sort or another continues to be cited by some party members as justification for the suppression or curtailment of legitimate debate on difficult and potentially contentious issues in the local party. This siege mentality and defensiveness is perhaps understandable given the prolonged onslaught on the party – and Jeremy Corbyn in particular – by the mainstream media including the BBC. However, battening down the hatches and avoiding open debate on difficult subjects is, in my opinion, a mistaken and self-limiting reaction, which serves to undermine rather than promote party morale and can in fact exacerbate an incipient paranoia.

Labour Party approves rule change to tackle Anti-Semitism & hate speech

In the light of the above events I’ve been pleased to note that the often light-handed or avoidant approach to party discipline on this issue, has now been acknowledged by the leadership as a ‘problem to be addressed’ within the party. A rule change backed by the Jewish Labour Movement, supporting a tougher line on hate speech and anti-Semitism has at last been backed unanimously by the NEC and approved at the Labour Party Conference.

Anti-Semitism is of course objectionable but a further implication of this rule change is that the use of hate speech towards others on the grounds that they hold different ‘beliefs’ to ourselves will no longer be tolerated in the Labour Party. (See full text of new Clause 1, Section 8 of the Labour Party in note (1) below.)

As this has been a long-standing and still un-resolved issue of contention between supporters of the ‘Say No to Hate Speech Appeal’ and senior officials in the Hastings & Rye CLP, we very much welcome the rule change.

Because UK law on hate speech hasn’t actually included ‘beliefs’ alongside the categories of ‘ethnicity’, ‘disability’, ‘race’, ‘religion’, ‘sexual orientation’ etc. which are encompassed in the statute, some comrades have interpreted this omission as giving them carte blanche to be as abusive as they like towards political opponents, as well as sometimes towards their own comrades.

Jeremy Corbyn of course has never countenanced such behaviour and has been tireless in reminding us that respect for persons is a core value of the Labour Party, and that this includes respect for people with whom we may disagree. It’s sad that his example hasn’t been more widely emulated within the party.

Hopefully, senior officials and others within the local party, who may still consider misogyny acceptable (see above placard), the reference to political opponents as ‘vermin that should be eradicated’ as reasonable, or self-righteous wrathfulness as commendable, might now wish to re-consider their positions.

Finally, the rule change may ensure that the sometimes fearful ethos within the party, which has had the effect of stifling debate and quite possibly deters new members from attending meetings, may now be alleviated. But I won’t hold my breath.

Challenges for new party organiser – leadership & training

A new Party Organiser is to be appointed by the HRCLP. This is a welcome move. A more open, tolerant, democratic, and participatory culture in the local party is long overdue and I imagine eagerly awaited by many Labour Party members. However, there are elementary steps which need to be taken if a new kind of politics is to flourish, and I would appeal to the newly appointed Organiser to make addressing the above issues top of the list when they take up their post.

She or he will have the unenviable task of trying to change a very dedicated but somewhat exclusive, and defensive party culture, in which the few not the many still appear to make most of the decisions. It’s also important that the party, as well as its officials and members, regardless of their status, do not continue to consider themselves as being ‘above criticism’.

As membership has reportedly increased from 450 to over 1800 in the last 2 years, they will also have to get to know, engage and mobilise all these new entrants. This will require a facilitative style of leadership, a re-distribution of power, tolerance of difference, creating an environment in which people are free to openly debate and respectfully disagree without fear of retaliation (it’s OK to disagree!), and a willingness to include and learn from others. A big ask I know!

Training priorities: Anger Management–human relations strategy

As to training I would strongly recommend that the provision of ‘Anger Management Training’ be placed at the top of the list. From personal experiences recently, and daily observations of exchanges in the social media, it is clear to me that some Labour party members still don’t seem to appreciate the difference between appropriate assertion and aggression or abuse. This is a distinction understood by most sixth-formers. Furthermore, the vitriolic language still indulged in by impassioned local Labour Party members on Facebook, can only continue to damage the party’s image, reputation and electoral prospects.

There are competent teachers in the party, who would be delighted to provide the required awareness and skills training to address this critical issue. However education on its own won’t be enough. Sensitive but firm observance and implementation of the party’s disciplinary procedures and core values, to include member’s behaviour on Facebook, would be an essential element of any new human relations strategy.

Such changes to party culture are just one of the prerequisites that would need to be met if the Labour Party, locally and nationally, is to build on its recent electoral success and realise it’s often quoted, but still very much underspecified, transformational aspirations.

Note (1) : New Clause 1, Section 8 of the Labour Party, Sept 2017

“No member of the party shall engage in conduct which in the opinion of the NEC is prejudicial, or in any act which in the opinion of the NEC is grossly detrimental to the party. The NEC shall take account of any codes of conduct currently in force and shall regard any incident which in their view might reasonably be seen to demonstrate hostility or prejudice based on age; disability; gender reassignment or identity; marriage and civil partnership; pregnancy and maternity; race; religion or belief; sex; or sexual orientation as prejudicial to the party; these shall include but not be limited to incidents involving racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or otherwise racist language, sentiments, stereotypes or actions, sexual harassment, bullying or any form of intimidation towards another person on the basis of a protected characteristic as determined by the NEC, wherever it occurs, as conduct prejudicial to the party …”

 

SOS

 

Posted 13:08 Thursday, Oct 5, 2017 In: SOS

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