How Twitter helped the Labour Party tear itself apart
PUBLISHED: 13:58 19 March 2020 | UPDATED: 15:43 19 March 2020
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Few people have been as deeply entangled in Labour’s infighting over recent years as MP Shabana Mahmood. She tells MATT WITHERS about what went wrong, how to put it right and how Twitter has harmed the party.
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For the past four years, Shabana Mahmood has had a front-row seat for one of the most bruising internal battles in recent political history.
As a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC), the party’s governing body, the 39-year-old MP for Birmingham Ladywood has been in the room for the struggle for the party’s heart and soul between the Corbynite true believers and those holding out against their creeping dominance.
And she was there as one of the three members representing the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), the MPs and a grouping still widely loathed by the outgoing leader’s most fervent supporters for what they dub the #ChickenCoup, the vote of no-confidence Corbyn ignored in 2016, leading to a largely irreparable rupture between the leadership and its cheerleaders and their own parliamentarians.
“The last few years have definitely been interesting,” she muses euphemistically as we meet in her Commons office over, controversially, Yorkshire Tea (it suits the hard London water). “I’ve been in the room for a number of quite big moments for the Labour Party, some quite frustrating moments as well.
“The NEC is made up of all of the different bits of the Labour movement and there’s been lots of disagreement between the different constituent bits of the movement, and obviously the PLP’s occupied a particular position in that, so... sometimes there are moments of big tension and when we were voting on the challenge, Owen Smith’s challenge to Jeremy Corbyn and what the rules were going to be, whether Jeremy was automatically on the ballot or not [there was a debate as to whether he should be allowed on the ballot automatically, without the process of securing nominations from MPs first].
“Those are really, really big moments and I suspect the rest of the NEC thinks ‘well, those three PLP reps are going to go in this direction’.” [Mahmood supported Smith’s unsuccessful challenge.]
“None of us are the sort that go for big bust-ups, but we definitely have our say and do so in very forthright terms but, as in parliament, we just have to get used to losing quite a lot of votes because the numbers in the room suggest things are going in another direction.”
In fact, Mahmood’s professional life has been a lot of attending difficult meetings. The PLP’s own Monday-evening meetings since Corbyn won the leadership in 2015 have been a must-visit for political journalists camping outside to hear the latest tensions.
“Some of the meetings have been very, very difficult, very tense, very anxiety-inducing and anger-making... it’s not been a happy time for the Parliamentary Labour Party and on sort of really big issues like anti-Semitism as well there’s just so much frustration because you feel like you’ve spent a few years banging our heads against a brick wall and that the party hasn’t moved fast enough.”
Jeremy Corbyn would routinely not attend and send general secretary Jennie Formby in his place.
Now Mahmood, as part of a group called Labour Together, has been part of a commission to analyse and learn from the party’s crushing December election defeat, taking evidence from, among others, all defeated candidates and those on the target list. Labour Together is an attempt to bring together all factions of the party from the Corbynite Momentum to the Blairite Progress. Although it is seen as linked to Lisa Nandy, it is not supporting any one candidate for the party leadership (nor, officially, is Mahmood herself) although the need to stress its independence, she says “shows you how bad things have got in the sort of internal bits of the Labour Party”.
Mahmood says: “We set up a commission immediately after the general election and, again, it was really important to us that it had representation not just from the institutional bits of the Labour Party like local government, trade unions, but also on a factional basis, like everybody could see people who would demonstrably have similar sort of Labour politics to them in it, which is why we’ve got someone like Manuel Cortes from the TSSA [Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association], one of the more self-described left unions, [Corbynite commentator] Ellie Mae O’Hagan, myself, Lucy Powell [MP]... we’ve got a range of views in the room.
“We really believe that blame game politics is not the way forward for Labour and we didn’t want to see the post-election analysis just descend into one side saying ‘it’s all Brexit’ because they want to protect Jeremy’s politics, his policies and his legacy, and the other side saying ‘it’s all Jeremy’ because they don’t want to discuss other issues like Brexit that were also feeding parts of what happened to us and our electoral coalition. That’s not a good binary to be in.”
But if there’s a deep dive into the reasons for Labour’s loss, I venture, it’s not visible in the leadership election, where little evidence of granular analysis is evident, even less so in the deputy’s race, where the party machine’s candidate has suggested setting up a cinema club.
“I don’t think it’s the fault of any candidates, it’s just the way we do things,” says Mahmood. “We lose and then we go straight to asking people to have ready-made answers to something I think takes a bit of time to learn from.
“I think that the way we do leadership elections in the party and how we very quickly move to set-piece events, hustings in big conference halls, it doesn’t lend itself actually to very careful, considered debate where people have time to take stock and think about things and bring something new to the table. It gets going quickly.
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“I haven’t got an alternative way of doing it. I just think that sometimes taking some time institutionally before you press a button on the leadership election is quite important.” It didn’t help, she suggests, that deputy leader Tom Watson stood down before the election, leaving nobody to “hold the ship” while a wider review took place.
Does the membership want to learn, though? A recent poll suggested Corbyn remains the base’s favourite post-war leader; one doesn’t have to venture far down a Twitter thread to find those who prefer a “socialist” Labour in opposition to a “neo-liberal” one dirtying its hands in government.
“There has definitely been a bit more of that in the Labour Party over the last few years, but it’s a mistake to think that that’s a character of the whole of the party or even that that’s a character of a very big majority of the party,” says Mahmood, a keen weightlifter (a minor injury from which means she can’t currently wear her parliamentary pass, meaning she’s awkwardly stopped in corridors).
“I think people feel... like, for example, the membership made the choice for Jeremy in 2015 and then felt like that choice was derided and disrespected and sneered at, unsurprisingly they then turn on people who are sneering at them.
“It’s not that different to Brexit, actually, funnily enough, in the way that we say the establishment has treated Brexit voters. But when people feel that they made a perfectly reasonable choice based on their freedom to vote and now you’re just kicking them for it, they are going to be more, not just defensive but they’re going to say ‘hang on a second, but who are you to tell me that my choice was wrong?’.
“And I think that there’s a lot that amongst members. It’s not unreasonable of them to say ‘I made a choice, why are you saying I’ve done the worst thing ever?’.
The internet, I say...
“Has ruined the Labour Party!,” laughs the barrister, anticipating my theory. “And Twitter in particular, I think... I’m sure if you did an analysis you’d see that mostly Labour people are just talking to each other.
“I do despair, actually. Because it’s made conversations that should happen offline, private, you know, where there’s lots of trust... it’s made everything performative.
“If it hasn’t happened on Twitter it has not happened. And I just sort of think, when did that become our Labour politics? I find it very dispiriting. Honestly, I often joke about deleting my account but then I think I’d cease to be a Labour MP.”
Mahmood’s time as an MP has not been without its controversies. In 2014 she was accused of promoting “mob rule” following a YouTube video in which she spoke about her role in a demonstration against goods from Israeli settlements which temporarily forced a Birmingham Sainsbury’s to close.
“Basically I had a long-standing position of supporting a boycott of goods from the illegal settlements,” she says. “That was my position before I was a frontbencher, before I came into politics, that was my position afterwards. But I don’t consider that to be incompatible with supporting the IHRA [International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance] definition on anti-Semitism, which I have supported, you know, the very first time it was discussed on the Labour Party National Executive.
“I think most people on that NEC would agree I’ve taken a very strong line on all issues relating to anti-Semitism. And I have been pushing the leadership to do more.”
And last year she was criticised after being accused of defending Muslim protestors in Birmingham who objected to pupils being taught about same-sex relationships in schools.
“I was misrepresented in that story,” she says. “Essentially what people did was conflate the remarks I made in a debate in Westminster Hall, when I was talking about parents in my own constituency, none of whom were protesting and none of whom had gone on any protests, with an issue happening in the neighbouring constituency of Birmingham Hodge Hill relating to Parkfield School which at the time was making the news.
“My position was essentially just to say that when equally protected rights under the Equality Act come into conflict with one another, the way forward is to have everybody around the table and thrash it out. My comments were unfortunately misrepresented. I did condemn those protests that were taking place at Parkfield School.”
Mahmood will have been in parliament for 10 years in May. The first half saw her rise quickly up the shadow ministerial ranks as, she says “shadow minister for the Daily Politics and Andrew Neil for a period”. The second she was, she says, “embroiled in the internal battles of the Labour Party”.
Under a Nandy, and probably a Starmer, leadership, one would expect her to return to frontbench duties.
“I’d like to carry on playing a role,” she says. “There’s a big job of work to do within the party and I think even members of the NEC that would disagree with me would say that I try and play things with a straight bat, do things the right way and try and bring people together wherever possible. I’ll do whatever I’m asked to do.”
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