Why is the Labour leadership contest so vile? It has been the bitterest, bitchiest battle that the party has experienced for a good long while, even though the last contest involved two brothers standing against each other in a very ill-humoured manner. Labour MPs are smarting that after years of fighting in the trenches for their party, they are being accused of being secret Tories – though some Blairites who experienced the misery of the wars between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown confess to a feeling of karmic satisfaction that Gordon Brown is also being described as a ‘Blairite’ by some on the left. One Labourite says: ‘The fact that Gordon himself is now a Blairite is excellent.’
One of the reasons for the increase in hostilities is surely that social media plays a much bigger role in this leadership election than it did in the 2010 contest, allowing any foul-mouthed Tom, Dick or Harry to abuse the candidates and their supporters, even if they themselves aren’t Labour members. Some of them are resorting to more traditional methods of insult. Karl Turner, a Labour MP who supports Andy Burnham, says someone called his office manager and ask ‘are you proud that you work for a fucking Tory?’ He adds:
‘Why am I not terribly offended by what I’ve described? Well, the reason is because the real truth is these people are not members or supporters of the Labour party, they probably supported the Greens, they probably supported other organisations and political parties such as TUSC. When you’re a member and a genuine supporter of the Labour party, you don’t behave in a way which would allow you to think it’s alright to ring a member of Parliament’s office and abuse staff members. These are not supporters of the Labour party.’
The question, though, is whether these people who aren’t real supporters have still registered as supporters for the purposes of this election. Turner says his local party membership has more than doubled: he could have done with that support back in May’s election, but there’s a chance that these members may not stick around for very long once the leader has been elected. Even if Jeremy Corbyn wins, he will presumably do things that annoy some of them.
Another factor in the fury is the way some of the camps seem quite keen to resort to a Brownite briefing operation about other candidates, which naturally upsets the supporters of those camps. Most level this accusation at the Cooper camp, but the Cooperites were furious this week when a Burnham source told Coffee House that their briefings were ‘straight out of the Ed Balls playbook’.
And another is the distaste at both ends of the Labour spectrum for those candidates who are in the middle. One wise Labourite points out that ‘the dynamic which screws everything up is the one thing the left and the right can agree on, which is that the mushy middle-of-the-road centrists, Burnham and Cooper, are completely without values or conviction.
‘So what you end up with is the left hate the right, the right hate the left, and the only thing the left and the right can agree on is that anyone in the middle is devoid of conscience. Normally you agree to coalesce around some kind of centre ground, but what if both your wings say that the centre ground is the only thing you agree is wrong?’
What this means is that if, as seems likely, Corbyn wins but ends up leaving before 2020, whoever runs as the centrist candidate will have to work out how to show that it’s not just those at the hard ends of the political spectrum who have principles and values. Otherwise the party’s bitter rows will continue for much longer.
Some think these bitter rows aren’t yet bitter enough: in this week’s politics column one Labourite suggests to me that there needs to be at least another year of fighting about the party’s future before it returns to anything like a healthy state. And if Corbyn is starting to issue threats to MPs who don’t want to support him about the consequences of them ignoring the grassroots, the fights look set to continue far beyond 12 September.