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'People Are Calling Each Other Vermin': Inside the Labour Party's Grassroots Crisis

Both pro-coup and pro-Corbyn members talk of a culture of bullying, harassment and aggression.

Momentum activists campaign to keep Corbyn. Dominic Lipinski/PA

Jeremy Corbyn is a bit like Michael Jackson in his final days when he was preparing for his This Is It tour: barely visible to the public and largely propped up by a loyal group of backing dancers, still promising everyone that the show must go on. Despite mass resignations at the top of the party and Labour MPs saying their leader's position is untenable, the weary-looking leader doesn't look to be going anywhere. Even big dogs from the unions such as Unite's Len McCluskey are talking about a "dignified exit" for the embattled leader, yet still Jeremy clings on.


Corbyn feels empowered by loyalists in the recently formed left wing Labour movement Momentum, which has ballooning membership figures. Momentum members say the party must respect Corbyn's mandate, pointing out that he would easily win if a leadership election was triggered. They refute claims that Corbyn sabotaged the EU referendum campaign with a lacklustre performance, and seem unconcerned that 80 percent of Labour MPs don't support him. For those in Momentum, it's Jeremy or bust.

But what impact is all this having on the grassroots Labour party: the thousands of councillors, activists and administrators that make up the Labour party membership? Answer: it is Game of fucking Thrones.

Benjamin Butterworth is chair of London Young Labour. He says that meetings and events have become increasingly divided. "It's got quite aggressive recently. On both sides people's attitudes have intensified and there's a bullying culture. It really has got to that point. There are people swearing, calling each other vermin. The tone of the debate has changed in the past month and most of it is coming from the Corbyn side."

Others agree. "If anyone starts criticising Corbyn at public meeting there's booing and hissing, people are getting howled down," says Luke Akehurst, a candidate for Labour's National Executive Committee, who campaigns in Oxford. "It's always been stormy, but the referendum has brought the whole thing to crisis point."


Pro-Corbyn Labour party members tend to agree that relations are strained, but say it's the other side that is causing the rifts. According to one Camden councillor, the mood at grassroots level has changed considerably. "It's become quite tense. Those backing the coup are being pretty aggressive in meetings. At a recent meet-up, anti-Corbyn members were heckling and smearing anyone who tried to speak in favour of him, and people were shouted down. A right winger came right up to the face of a Corbyn supporter after a meeting and shouted at him. The PLP keep referring to Corbyn supporters as dogs or the mob. It's so degrading."

Another North London councillor, who did not want to be named, agrees, adding that in meetings Blairites have been operating like "little gangs", trying to shout down and harass anyone that disagrees with them. "Last night a new Corbyn supporting member told me she had been too terrified to speak because Corbyn supporters were being howled and grunted at whenever they said anything. That seems to be a big part of the Blairite tactics - do everything possible to put new members off."

Both sides talk of bullying tactics, and although tensions are said to have settled down a little in the last week, many believe that the culture of aggression is being encouraged by those close to Corbyn. "I'm told people around the leadership have been telling people to protest their MPs. It's bonkers. The people at the top are basically saying it's fine," says Butterworth. "There's no respect for people disagreeing but still wanting to be in the Labour party. The leadership and people around it have made no effort to try and change that culture, they're relaxed about it because anyone who isn't wholly ideological will be far less likely to campaign in these circumstances and that will just leave the Corybn supporters."


He adds: "It wasn't like this a few months ago but now there's a slightly cultish attitude towards Jeremy. He can't do anything wrong, you can't even point out the practical implications of not having the support of the party, that's where it's at."

Labour's divisions have trickled right down to grassroots level and one of the repercussions of this is that party activists no longer want to campaign together. Simon Evans from Reading, who has been a member since 2006, says he now only canvasses with likeminded people. "To be honest, it's more fun that way. I've hardly seen a Corbynista on the doorstep, I only go out with the sensible ones when I'm canvassing."

Away from London, where active members are few and far between, losing or intimidating members has big repercussions. "Outside of London, here in Oxford for example, if you all fall out, who's going to deliver the leaflets? There won't be enough people," says Akehurst.

Although there are now reports that the Labour rebels are in retreat after admitting that Jeremy Corbyn cannot be removed, the future of the party is still unclear. If Corbyn does indeed go, then many fear his new members will go with him. "Momentum and the hard left know that if Corbyn goes they are finished in the Labour Party," says Evans.

Akehurst agrees. "I think, sadly, there may be a loss of members, depending on what happens. They'll protest about it by resigning from the party," he says, adding that he is optimistic this won't hurt the core of Labour voters. "Even during the Iraq war the vast majority of activists were sad and angry but stuck with it because the Labour party is bigger than one policy or one leader. It's grown for 100 years and people have strong family connections to it, you don't throw your toys out of the pram because leaders or policy change."


Right now, Blairites are clinging on to the hope that Corbyn's touted successor, Angela Eagle, former shadow business secretary, will challenge Corbyn's leadership and win. "She's better than Corbyn by a million miles and she's one the entire PLP can coalesce around. She'll be fine with the unions, she'll be fine for now," says one party member who stood for election as an MP in a northern constituency. "There'll be lots of policies that I wont necessarily agree with. She won't be the most forward-looking, progressive candidate but she's from the mainstream of the party. You've got to start the journey back - we're literally at the bottom of the well here. You can't immediately swim back from Corbyn to someone who would excite me. If it's got to be Angela Eagle then so be it."

As for the Corbyn fans? Bring on the fight, they say. If there's ever going be a moment to form a progressive left-wing government, this is it. For them, the show must go on.


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