A plea for tolerance

Photo: Louisa Thomson (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Duncan Bowie says civic values and internal democracy must be restored as the lifeblood of the Labour Party

The Labour Party is in a sorry state. We have a situation in which many active members seem to spend more time attacking other members, including the party leader, than attacking the real enemy: the Conservative Government. When my own constituency party is not passing motions calling for the resignation of Keir Starmer or the sacking of the party’s general secretary, it is passing motions attacking our own representatives on the local council. Meanwhile we have so-called political education sessions on how every Labour government has betrayed socialism or was at best ‘a lost opportunity’. Jeremy Corbyn is attacked for not being socialist enough, as we would have won the last election if we had promoted a Trotskyist version of socialism. To learn from history, it is best not to rewrite the past to fit our own worldview.

Most inequality and relative disadvantage and oppression is due to inequalities in wealth and income, yet we have become obsessed with identity politics, which assumes that your ‘identity’ is the main determinant of your politics. I may be an abled-bodied heterosexual white male and of pensionable age as well (I can’t do much about that), but I would never claim to reflect the views of or represent all individuals who share those characteristics.

Contests for even the lowliest of party positions are now increasingly on the basis of which factional slate someone is on, rather than whether you are actually competent to do the job, or what your individual experience or political views actually are. And once you are actually appointed as a delegate to the General Committee or to Party Conference, many feel free to vote a factional line, irrespective of what their mandating organisation has actually agreed.

Yet the party organisation has not responded well to this situation. Constituency and ward parties are now told what we can or cannot discuss and local party officers are suspended for flouting directives or being critical of the current party leadership. There will be different views within the party, but we should not stop someone expressing a view in case someone in the meeting may disagree or even be offended. The issue, surely, is not what we discuss, but how we discuss it, avoiding being gratuitously offensive, but also not personalising everything and being so self-righteous about our own personal views.

How are we to persuade the electorate to support us and to share our values, when we are so preoccupied with attacking each other that we seem to be unclear as to what our values actually are? Comradeship does not seem to be very widespread within the party at the moment. Members whose background is from an ultra-left organisation don’t seem to understand that, within a mass party, they have to behave a little differently. Listening to other people’s views rather than just haranguing them might occasionally be a good idea. And using bureaucratic mechanisms to block discussion is also unacceptable. Members who take on positions such as chair or secretary need to be neutral in both factional disputes and policy discussions, rather than seeing their positions as some form of power base.

Rather than spending so much time on factional power struggles for positions within the party, should we not actually be saying what are our own values and policies, and be going beyond the party to argue our case with the wider electorate? We have no chance whatsoever of getting into government unless we do this, and what is the point of the Labour Party if we never have the power to actually do anything other than criticise and moan? Do we actually represent anybody else other than ourselves? We cannot assume that somehow lower income households, more of whom voted Conservative than Labour in the last election, will vote Labour next time. Moreover, this is not a simple matter of North versus South, or Brexit, or the working class all now being nationalists and so Labour has to adopt their views.

So, a little more respect for each other and tolerance of different views – there are many forms of socialism – might be a good place to start. Let’s listen to what each other has to say and think for a moment before just getting abusive. Let’s stop categorising each other. I am not a Blairite or a Corbynista – I have my own views and can think for myself rather than rely on instructions from one or other factional grouping. Let’s stop trying to identify a ‘Starmerism’ that we have to either support or oppose. The party leadership has to be a collective, incorporating a range of different views. Occasionally it’s a good idea to look at the facts for ourselves rather than rely on the ‘alternative facts’ provided either on social media or elsewhere. And when we attack others for decisions we don’t agree with, let’s understand a bit about the context in which these decisions were made and whether in the specific situation we could have actually done something different. It is easy to be an armchair purist.


  1. Nothing to disagree with in Duncan’s plea for tolerance. One particular problem with the current shouty/factional “discourse” is that there is little said or learned about how a future Labour Government might tackle the very real problems in housing.

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