Owen Smith. Image, BBC, fair use.
On 14th July, ‘The Canary’, a crowd-funded news website, published an article entitled “BREAKING: Labour are trawling your social media to stop you voting in the leadership election”. The piece claimed that Labour’s Procedures Committee “have reportedly announced that anyone who uses the words ‘traitor’, ‘scab’ or ‘scum’ in relation to another member of the party, will automatically be barred from having a vote in the leadership election”. The writer asserted that the party was seeking to exclude up to “50,000” members through this mechanism, and concluded by calling the move “Stalinist”. I am sure that for many members new and old, who had encountered the Labour Compliance Unit’s energetic attempt last year to bar those who did not share “Labour values” from voting, this article confirmed their suspicions. Thousands of them shared it on social media.
There was just one problem: it wasn’t exactly true.
The only evidence offered by The Canary was an uncited text image, which was originally posted by Dr Eoin Clarke on Twitter. Eoin Clarke himself cited no evidence for the claim, and the Labour press office has not confirmed the existence of any such guidelines (though they haven’t denied them). A Morning Star reporter shared what were apparently leaked guidelines for how the NEC should treat voter registration applications, which did indeed include a line stating that “traitor, scum or scab” would be considered terms of abuse. But the guidelines only applied to those applying to be registered supporters, and if the guidelines were breached, the consequence was that the application would be referred to the NEC – there was no “automatic” ban for “everyone” who used such terms, as originally claimed, and it categorically did not apply to existing members. Other reasons given for disqualifying registered supporters included banning them if they have made “statements of a racist, homophobic or otherwise abusive and discriminatory nature”. Hardly the stuff of Stalinist purges.
I relate this particular story, which in itself might just be an example of bad journalism on the part of an independent media outlet, to emphasise what I believe is already becoming a problem with the 2016 Labour Leadership Election in the age of social media. Factual debate, honest examination of candidates’ records and fair criticism has, in my view, been substituted on the Corbyn-supporting side for a post-factual defence of Jeremy Corbyn and denigration of his opponents.
The best examples of this are the many social media images claiming that Owen Smith, Corbyn’s opponent for the leadership, is pro-austerity. It is true that Smith has questions to answer about why he abstained on the 2015 Welfare Bill, as well as his job as a PR person for pharmaceutical company Pfizer. But rather than undertake criticism on this aspect, many Corbyn supporters seem to be zeroing on an interview Smith gave to Andrew Marr last weekend. In one exchange, Smith said “I personally am going to argue that austerity is right, but that we need a plan for prosperity”. Angela Eagle, who was sitting next to him, then added: “We agree on anti-austerity, I just think it’s time for a woman”. Given Smith’s numerous statements on his opposition to austerity, his promise to spend £200bn on rebuilding Britain’s infrastructure and his defence of disability benefits as Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, I think it is fair to say that Smith made a gaffe – he misspoke, either forgetting to add a “not” or saying “right” rather than “wrong”. The Corbyn-supporting Canary, however, repeated this rumour without context, as did hundreds of Corbyn supporters on Twitter.
The constant repetition of this phrase, stripped of its context as a gaffe and ignoring his actual political views, has frustrating echoes of the Republican Party’s 2012 campaign against Barack Obama. In that year, the GOP took a poorly worded phrase from an Obama speech, “if you’ve got a business -you didn’t build that” and hammered him endlessly on it, even making it the theme of their convention. It didn’t matter that Obama had said in full:
“It didn’t matter that Obama had said in full: “Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business – you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen”. All that mattered was that they could take it out of context to attack him.”. All that mattered was that they could take it out of context to attack him.
Taking things out of context is not the only thing that seems to be popular in the new post-factual politics, however. The pro-Corbyn “Red Labour” page, which is followed by 28,000 people, shared a Facebook post which asserted that Owen Smith was a leader of the coup; that he courted the arms industry; that he “actively pushed for privatisation of NHS services” when working for Pfizer; that he will introduce an American-style health service if he wins; and that he wants to split the Labour Party and will not serve in Corbyn’s cabinet if elected. No evidence was offered for these assertions, and many of them are in direct contradiction to Smith’s own beliefs, record and statements. The only source given was “someone within the Blarite Labour camp”. Yet a Facebook page credited with kickstarting Corbyn’s 2015 social media campaign uncritically shared it to their 28,000 highly engaged left-wing followers. Craig Murray, a former SNP supporter who was rejected as an SNP parliamentary candidate, wrote an article calling Owen Smith a fake in which he asserted that Smith supported privatisation and academies, even though Smith has voted against both and has said he believes in a "100% publicly owned NHS". Yet Murray’s article so far has been shared by 13,000 people.
I am not saying that there aren’t genuine criticisms of both those involved in the rebellion against Corbyn, or of Owen Smith. Smith backed the benefit cap when he was Work and Pensions Secretary, abstained on the Welfare Bill in 2015 and voted in favour of Trident. His recent interview, in which he agreed with a reporter’s assertion that he was “normal” is something he needs to explain and (in my view) apologise for. These are all facts and fair criticisms of a man who, whatever he argues, is not as left-wing as Jeremy Corbyn. It is also fair to argue that the rebels in the Parliamentary Labour Party launched their rebellion at the worst possible time – and that the act of it has done damage to Labour at a time of national crisis. I would agree on that front, and I am not an uncritical supporter of either Jeremy Corbyn or Owen Smith (indeed, I hope that nobody would uncritically support any politician, especially not a party Leader). But I am someone who aspires for our party to have debates and elections based on facts and genuine policy differences, not assertions and theories which have little to nothing to back them up.
In my view, the fact that we are having a leadership election in 2016 in which both candidates are anti-austerity; in which both support re-nationalising the railways; in which both pledge government investment in the economy; and in which both talk passionately about reducing inequality – this is incredible. 6 years ago I watched as David Miliband, Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and Andy Burnham debated how much we should cut public spending (with Dianne Abbott providing the only voice of opposition). Now I am watching as both our candidates debate how left-wing our party should be. This leadership election is happening, whether we wanted it or not, and I think we need to have a sense of perspective on how far Labour has shifted to the left – and how big a role the anti-austerity movements of the past 6 years have played in that shift.
Regardless of who wins in September, Labour needs to come together as a coalition and take the fight to the Conservatives. If we can conduct this campaign with respect, fairness and on the basis of genuine policy debates and facts, that will be much more possible than if we do not.