Ugly scenes outside the Conservative Party Conference earlier this week were grease to the mill for politics geeks, but for the fully rounded human beings that make up the other 99.87 percent of the population the vandalism, intimidation, abuse, spitting and rape threats did little to restore faith in politics.
By why is there such an asymmetry of dislike between the two main parties?
Sure, Conservatives aren’t very nice about Labour supporters. They think they’re well meaning but naive, a bit too keen to spend somebody else’s money and a little wooly on security and foreign policy. Tories can be condescending, patronising and probably a little arrogant, but there’s no malice.
Contrast that with the Labour view of Tories and you’ll quickly notice the difference not only in vehemence but also in style. The most obvious and worrying aspect is the tendency to dehumanise Tory supporters – “scum”, “filth”, “vermin” are all common synonyms for 11 million voters. The famous Never Kissed A Tory t-shirt is a bit of fun but taps into the same mindset, that Toryism is akin to a disease, something dirty that you can catch, not just a loose set of values and priorities. Even when Labour begin to grant Conservatives human status it’s with caveats like heartless or soulless, because as anybody who’s studied genocides or hate crimes will tell you it’s far easier to rouse and maintain hatred against things that aren’t considered human.
However cathartic this is when you’re in the middle of a baying mob, it severely hampers you in the world of grown up politics. Tories think Labour are wrong, but Labour think Tories are both wrong and bad. And when you think somebody is a bad person it’s taints everything else. For example why would you want to understand a bad person? Why would you wish to examine why people are attracted to this bad person’s message rather than yours? It must be because they’re bad people too, right, so we might as well write them off too. Your world quickly becomes monochrome, with you and your ever decreasing circle peeking out from behind the redoubt just long enough to hurl an insult at all the bad people.
This thought process even extends to ideas and polices you started but they adopted. Private sector involvement in the NHS began under Labour but when the Tories do it it’s suddenly morally bankrupt. When the Sun supported Blair all was fine, but when that support shifted the Murdoch name became mud.
The Labour Left’s anger at Tories and modernity in general is born out of an understandable frustration. The world has moved on from the comfortable certainties of the 70s and ideologies are, by definition, famously resistant to change. The modern voter doesn’t see monolithic government as the answer to everything, it knows deep down that spending has to bear some relation to income, it’s small p patriotic and doesn’t like being called fascist for asking questions about benefits or immigration. Labour need to get their heads around this new reality but stubbornly refuse to. Even the electorally successful Labour leader Tony Blair only managed to achieve what he did by acting and sounding like a Tory. The Labour movement suffered a trauma in May and it had a choice between reaching for the medication or reaching for the comfort blanket, and it chose the latter. And though not wanting to push the analogy too far, it’s behaving like child in the middle of a tantrum, unable to get what it wants and opting to stomp its feet and scream at how much it hates those who have deprived it of what it wants.
One would like to think that the worst excesses of the protests in Manchester were the work of a tiny minority, which is technically true. However even a cursory glance at social media showed how much support the spitters and intimidators had among Labour supporters who deep down probably want to do something similar. Half hearted condemnations were rolled out by some senior Labour figures, but tellingly only the tactics were criticised, not the hatred that fuelled them.
The modern Labour movement is a 20th century animal alone, lost and frightened in the 21st. Fear and uncertainty are the catalysts for hate, and until Labour can find a message that speaks to modern Britain hate will be the only thing keeping it going.