By David Osland
No amount of cajolery, the creator of the National Health Service insisted, and no attempts at ethical or social seduction, could eradicate from his heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party. So far as he was concerned, Conservatives were lower than vermin.
Nye Bevan’s speech to a Labour rally in Manchester in 1948 is one of the most celebrated in the party’s history. Almost all members will know at least the punch line; many can quote the passage verbatim.
It’s a rather more eloquent standard of put-down than hastily denouncing the Conservative Party as homophobic scum at a late night fringe meeting after a few bevvies. Some 70 years after the event, even the Guardian were doing a brisk line in ‘lower than vermin T-shirts’.
By the standards of political discourse of the day, Bevan’s metaphor shocked, in much the same way as Winston Churchill’s claim that a Labour government would need a Gestapo to implement its manifesto had shocked three years earlier.Activists lap this stuff up; the electorate tends to be rather less taken with it. Some historians even contend that Bevan’s vermin outburst was a factor in Labour’s loss of office in 1951. That looks to me something of a stretch, but the proposition that it cost votes is perhaps more plausible.
The subject of political invective has been much in the news since the murder of Tory MP David Amess last week. In particular, we have been told that the level of debate has been degraded to the point where it has created a climate conducive to such tragedies.
But the allegedly guilty parties are – predictably enough – never the rightwing newspapers that run a lucrative business in peddling bile, but individual Labour politicians.
Rayner has been the main target this time round, with the S*n denouncing the Labour deputy leader under the headline “MPs must avoid toxic words that incite losers to kill”. That’s right, the same publication that gave Katie Hopkins a platform to denounce migrants as “cockroaches”.
“The visceral hatred of Tories at the heart of Labour has to end right now,” demanded Dan Hodges in the Mail on Sunday. That’s the bloke who wrote an article accompanied by a graphic reading “Labour MUST kill vampire Jezza”, just days after the fascist assassination of Jo Cox in 2016.
Argument over what comments are acceptable when will always be with us. Language is a living thing, and some insults are mere everyday turns of phrase.
When John McDonnell cracked a funny about lynching Esther McVey, he wasn’t actually calling for a gang of tooled up Scouse heavies to round her up and hang her from the nearest tree.
Equally, when Jess Phillips spoke of stabbing Jeremy Corbyn in the front, she probably hadn’t been lurking in the bushes of Islington North, polishing her breadknife while awaiting the apposite opportunity to plunge it into Jezza’s beating heart.
The line has to be drawn at serious rather than figure-of-speech threats of violence and even death, which genuinely are a matter for the police rather than the commentariat.
But the media has no credibility in singling out the left for homilies on the need for civility. During the first Corbyn leadership campaign, I wrote an article for Jon Lansman’s now defunct Left Futures website, outlining some of the jibes directed at Corbyn supporters by the mainstream media.
They were drawn from the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, S*n, Guardian, Spectator and New Statesman, all of which are either widely-read or taken seriously in political circles.
Ordinary Labour Party members backing a Labour MP of three decades’ standing for the leadership were branded “Trumpton revolutionaries”, “pig ignorant lefty click activists”, “psychotically furious about everything”, “infantile and possibly mentally impaired”, “petulant children”, “gibbering perpetual adolescents”, “a rancid collection of single-issue nutcases”, “the green-ink brigade”, “halfwits”, and even “feminist lesbians, human-rights campaigners and race-obsessed mentals”.
Feminist lesbians! Can you even imagine a grosser degree of moral depravity?
On the one hand we were ‘smug, London middle-class liberals’ and ‘terribly well-orffff, doncha know’; on the other we were ‘dog on a string radicals who view a bar of soap as a tool of capitalist oppression’.
The assault did not ease up in the subsequent five years, and continues to this day. Sometimes the diatribes are even attributed to Labour MPs, always without naming them of course.
Let me make it clear that I dislike crude insults in politics myself, and at least try my best to make mine clever.
But the whole leftwing activist milieu knows the truth about shrill and opportunist concocted outrage of the type that has been on display since Friday. We’re more sinned against than sinning.
David Osland is a long-time leftwing journalist and author. Follow him on Twitter at @David__Osland
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