07 June 2018
Jowell Silence Heckled
The solids in the pool.
By Robert Kilconner
Most people, whether members of the Labour Party or not, will be disgusted at the heckling which interrupted the one-minute silence held at a meeting of the Hampstead and Kilburn Constituency Labour Party to commemorate Tessa Jowell. Of course some will have disagreed with her politics, and the fact that she has died does not mean that they should change their views. Still, there is a broader point be made.
One thing we in Britain can be proud of is our acceptance that people are different. We do not (or at least we try not to) catagorise people by the colour of their skins, by their sex, by their orientation, by their class, by their religion, by their political views, or by other narrow distinctions, rather accepting them as individuals who, like the rest of us, have good and bad in their characters, wisdom and folly in their opinions. It is this which enables us to maintain friendships with people of different backgrounds and views. It is that which binds us together into a single community, which makes us the British people.
That is why it should be possible for people of all political beliefs to celebrate Tessa Jowell’s life. Whether you agree with her politics or not, she was a decent woman who dedicated herself to public service. That is something for which we should all be grateful, and indeed cross party respect and friendship have always been one of the better features of British politics. It is hard to think of two politicians whose views differed more than those of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Benn, yet when asked to comment on Mrs T, Benn would always qualify his criticisms of her policies by adding that he admired the way she followed her convictions. There were other famous friendships, too: Major and John Smith, Wilson and Thatcher, and these are just the tip of a large iceberg. Why then does a part of Hampstead and Kilburn Labour party run against the trend to the extent that it cannot even mourn one of its own?
If you have ever user a suction pump to clear a drain you will know the answer. Suck gently and, once the obstruction is clear, the liquid that flows through will be fairly clean. At a higher level of suction the water begins to cloud and then, if you turn it up to full power, the real nasties are scoured out of the drain bottom, and what comes through is very noxious indeed. It is the same with political parties. When party membership grows quickly, as that of Labour has recently, some fairly unpleasant people get sucked into the mainstream from the extremist cabals in which they previously lurked. In the case of Labour they are people of the hard left, but the Tories may find members of a similar quality washing up on their doorstep with the demise of UKIP. And that is only part of the problem. In every political party there are plenty of freaks who are kept quiet by the more decent majority. Once the scrapings of the drains begin to arrive, these people become energised by the bigotry of their fellow travellers. Now, after all, they belong to a recognised faction; how much grander than their previous life as an unnoticed excrescence stuck to the walls.
In a nicer world, one might excuse all this with a reference to idealists who get carried away with their ambition for their fellow man, their thirst for a better world blinding them to decency. Anyone with experience of politics will tell you that this is not the way of it. Certainly there are those who participate at a local level for philanthropic reasons. Normally they are the most straightforward ones, the ones who will listen to the argument from the other side before forming their view, who will argue fairly with the other side. After all, if their ambition is to help their fellows, they probably begin by liking them.
Then there is a different crowd, those for whom politics is, at least in part, an area in which to build a career. There are any number of motives here: satisfying egotism, the building of a professional or social position (either on the left or on the right), the creation of a role or raison d’etre, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with them. After all, why should a man or woman not decide to exploit his or her talents in the public service as much as in other spheres? The difficulty arises when ambition is allowed to cut out humanity and it is the same trap which faces those heavily committed in other fields. And yet there it is generally more muted. Many businessmen may be relieved at the demise of a rival, but to heckle during a silence held in his or her memory, that would not be acceptable. Nor should it be acceptable in politics.
A number of Labour figures have called for those who heckled to be expelled from the party. They are right about that. If the Party’s growth is going to result in these sorts of people being sucked in at the bottom, it is the Party’s responsibility to push the worst of them out again. “Fluids in, solids Out” if you will forgive an image drawn from the art of sewage treatment.
Labour’s record of confronting this sort of problem is a poor one. At party level they generally prefer to look the other way. Still, one day they may be our government and no one wants to see the hecklers from Hampstead and Kilburn with real political power. The party should throw them out quickly.