From each according to his ability, is half of Marx’s founding ideas.
From the ‘sensible establishment’ supporters of Labour’s pre-Corbyn core, there is something different: forget abilities, what we require from each is a particular form of commitment to and participation in activity that we see as ‘correct’. The virtue signalling of the ‘Labour doorstep’, and the dismissal of those that don’t feel that this is the best use of their efforts in pursuit of a (supposedly) shared goal.
The idea that knocking on doors providing up to date voter data (oh, and having ‘conversations’, although in what form we’re never really told) is the only route of activism available to the foot-soldiers.
Having an opinion is frowned-upon until a certain amount of dues-paying doorstepping has been completed.
A Red Wedge-style series of fund- and awareness-raising gigs with high profile names is dismissed as meaningless in electoral terms. Unless they also knock on doors.
Labour far outshone the Conservatives in doorstep conversations in May last year. But, if knocking on doors alone won elections, it wouldn’t be the Labour Party in power: it would be the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In coalition with meter readers and Betterware franchisees.
Social media may be an echo chamber, but volume still matters. It’s where people are — but crucially most see no substantive delineation between platforms, between local and national issues, nor between ‘real life’ and the real people they communicate with online*. And that’s why Tom Watson’s digital project, and what it comes out with is so important: we do need to be able to understand how the psychology of people plays out as a whole. That includes conversations around unity in the media, and on the web. And it included targeted digital interactions.
I’ve a lot of time for Jess Phillips, the ‘outspoken’ MP for Yardley, or at least it seems I feel I have to spend a lot of time thinking about what she’s said now. She’s recently been talking about how people on the internet are stopping her being ‘herself’. She says that people are willfully misinterpreting her — and that’s contributing to the rise of the robot MP, too afraid to say anything put the scripted party line.
I wonder if she sees the parallels in how she jumps to give her opinion at things, often speaking before the full story is known, and how other people behave towards her? It is true that we often find most distasteful in others the behaviour that we recognise and dislike in ourselves.
The irony is that, yes, she was misinterpreted by the media — ‘I’ll stab him in the front’ — when talking about how Jeremy Corbyn was misinterpreted by the media and giving that as a reason to potentially work against him. Is she not worried that PLP member’s attacks on Corbyn risk him turning into a frightened ‘robot’ too? Isn’t that what we had for a leader in the previous two elections? How did that work out?
People I know, who know Jess Phillips say she’s the same in real life as she is online. That has certain merits, but it’s not quite true: everything we do online is mediated either by oneself or others. We have to understand the prisms through which we’re seen.
If you’re an MP, you’re not normal — you’ve had a particular set of ambitions, opportunities and experiences. If you’re more than passingly interested in politics, you’re not normal either. Look again at your Facebook feed: although it’s skewed towards your personal likes, is it more political or personal? Watching Googlebox, liking ‘indie music’, or tweeting about ‘bake off’ doesn’t give you some direct line to ‘people’. Only thousands of real conversations — and arguments — offline and online, and through the unfortunately mediated press, can do that. People like Jess are really valuable to that goal, so she needs to be onboard: but intra-movement discussion needs to be constructive as well as honest. We need to beware we don’t conflate a common touch with an actual principle.
But what if you aren’t ‘on the doorstep’? I find this criticism both disingenuous and exclusive. In reality it’s one of the stock criticisms that can now be laid at the new kind of activist: they’re not doing what we always have done.
Emails from our local party leaders often feel like they’re prickly at an influx of activists: they often “remind new members” of some protocol, despite there being no way for those enthusiastic neophytes to know.
This behaviour, and the exaltation of those ‘on the Labour doorstep’ feels like a set of shibboleths to assert control of the movement. It also feels like an all-purpose criticism to use when change feels uncomfortable. Change may be uncomfortable, but it has to happen.
*This new book Social Media in an English Village is well worth a read on real-life social media use, free to download from UCL Press.
This originally appeared on Labour Uncut.