Irresponsible racist scapegoating discourse and an utter incapacity to join the dots in the media. When Jo Cox was murdered, her killer shouted “Britain First” – the name of the political party formed by former BNP members, which has over 1.5m likes on Facebook. The Daily Mail buried the news of his conviction for murdering a sitting MP on page 30, almost as if the Mail thought it was somehow unimportant.
Minority groups are demonised and denigrated as a matter of routine and tradition – at what point does our feigning ignorance of this process turn into complicity with it? The problems we face as a society are not caused by immigration, but by socioeconomic inequality, with widespread, growing poverty, exclusion and youth unemployment faced by working class people of all ethnic backgrounds. Pointing the finger at immigrants is an attempt to mask how current government policy is actually exacerbating inequality.
The rise in targeted abuse of MPs of all stripes
It’s quite remarkable that Conservative MP, Simon Hart, claims: “Abuse of candidates and activists is “driving people away from politics,” and it’s also entirely predictable that he almost exclusively blames left wing campaigners. However, we do need to tread carefully when using labels such as “bullying” and “abuse”. We need to be careful not to allow politicians to lump reasonable opposition, challenges, legitimate democratic dialogue and action into the same category as examples of abuse.
This is a government, after all, that has sneeringly labelled those reasonably calling for an end to austerity, adequate funding for our public services and adequate social security protection for disabled people as “unrepentant Marxists”, “Trots”, “the Hard Left”, “the Loony Left”, and who ran almost all of their election campaign as a strategic, pointed, deeply personal smear attack on Corbyn and some of the shadow cabinet.
The Conservatives ran an election campaign that was almost entirely about character assassinations and smearing the opposition, rather than offered policies. It was also about telling the electorate who they must and must not vote for. They seem to have forgotten that it is the public who decide who is “fit” to run the country, not the increasingly authoritarian incumbent government. We live in a democracy, after all, not a one-party state.
Hart told HuffPost UK that “silence” from Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour grassroots campaign organisation Momentum had meant the intimidation of candidates had increased. Labour immediately responded, expressing “deep dismay and concern at the vitriolic personal attacks” carried out and financed by the Conservative Party.
A spokesperson for Momentum dismissed Hart’s criticism as a “ludicrous smear”. I’m inclined to agree. Many of the right wing tabloids have predictably tried to blame Jeremy Corbyn entirely for political attacks.
Yet the same tabloids have printed horrifically dishonest, abusive articles about Corbyn, and historically, against the Labour Party more generally.
One of the great political scandals of the 20th century. Shortly before the 1924 general election, a letter purporting to be from Grigory Zinoviev at the Comintern in Moscow to the Communist Party of Great Britain appeared in the Daily Mail, along with “concerns” about a proletariat revolution. The Conservative landslide victory four days later was in part attributed to the fake letter, which is now known to have been a forgery.
Corbyn has previously revealed that the abuse thrown at him over the course of the Labour leadership campaign has been “deeply hurtful” to his family and close friends. Yet he has consistently said: “We’re not responding in any way; we don’t do that kind of [abusive] politics.”
Hart, the MP for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, said the “general thuggishness” of the election campaign was “deterring” people from getting involved politics.
I agree. Right wing thuggishness is writ large in screaming headlines, smear campaigns and slanderous columns. The Conservative approach to election campaigns has normalised abuse. The nasty party probably think that positive role modelling involves the fashioning of voodoo dolls of the opposition out of plasticine to stick their malicious and vindictive pins into.
It becomes obvious with a little scrutiny who is actually doing the attacking on a very personal level. Debate and political criticism are one thing: personal commentaries, character assassinations, attacks, threats, bullying, abuse and harassment are another. I have seen that quite often, abusive tactics include manipulating people’s perceptions and diverting attention to portray themselves as the injured party, with their target being portrayed as the villain.
The danger of portraying democratic opposition as “abuse”
The Conservatives seem to be outraged at the very idea of political opposition, to the extent that the Conservatives’ rhetoric and practices are now bordering on political totalitarianism.
The Conservatives have a habit of stifling legitimate criticism, personalising public issues and frequently labelling the opposition’s concerns with negative terms such as “scaremongering” , “grandstanding” and “crying wolf” in what ought to be democratic debate.
This kind of discrediting and dismissive language, and unwillingness to engage in a genuine dialogue, sidestepping accountability and transparency, sends a wider message out to the public. Cameron’s “one nation” politics has extended more of a one party state message, creating an illusion of a national consensus bandwaggon that does not exist.
In a letter to Conservative party chairman, Sir Patrick McLoughlin, Labour’s Ian Lavery and voter engagement spokesman Cat Smith wrote: “The Conservatives ran a negative, nasty campaign, propagating personal attacks, smears and untruths, particularly aimed at one of the most prominent women MPs, and indeed the first black woman MP, Diane Abbott.
“Such attacks on politicians, the consequent intimidating and abusive language and threats of violence towards them online, deter many people from entering politics. Parties and politicians have a responsibility to set an example, by treating others with dignity and respect, including those with whom we strongly disagree. The Conservative Party has instead promoted personal attacks as a core component of its national campaign.
“Abuse against candidates on social media is completely unacceptable. The Conservative Party perpetrated this on an industrial scale by spending millions of pounds to post highly personalised and nasty attack adverts on voters’ Facebook timelines without their permission.”
They say that the Labour party “fought a positive, hopeful campaign” and insisted that all its MPs ran campaigns based on its policies rather than personal attacks.
All of this is certainly verified by the televised debates and media coverage of the election campaigns.
On Monday, Theresa May asked whether Jeremy Corbyn was “doing enough in response to complaints of intimidation” and said she was “surprised at any party leader who’s not willing to condemn that”. Yet Corbyn has publicly condemned personal abuse many times.
May has ordered a review of the law after saying she had been shocked at the number of colleagues who had talked to her about intimidation and harassment during the campaign. It’s notable and telling, however, that the mainstream media’s role in the general election campaigns won’t be included in the remit of this inquiry.
I deeply suspect that this inquiry will be about the hijacking of abuse from the right: it won’t be about an intention to genuinely deal with cross-party cases of abuse to eliminate it, but it will be about an ambition to weaponise abuse, using it as a political prop to attack the left and silence criticism.
By emphasising online abuse only, and ignoring the elephant in the room – the hateful right wing media and the Conservatives’ own abusive approach to public debate – the Conservatives are attempting to paint the entire left as being defined by viciousness and hatred, intolerant of opposition, threatening even, according to this narrative – and that of course will be used to justify why they must be kept from power.
That’s absolute hypocrisy, indicating clearly that the Conservatives see the mainstream media as an asset, rather than as a source of aggressive and divisive right wing ideological narratives.
It may also be used to justify more repressive reform to social media. May has already pledged to create new internet that would be controlled and regulated by government. I can’t help wondering if that will entail a “management” of “left wing bias”. Who can forget Iain Duncan Smith’s despotic and hysterical “monitoring” of the BBC for any “bias”.
As I write, every single right wing broadsheet has a deeply misleading published article portraying the left as being entirely responsible for abuse of (all) MPs. Yet the report was about abuse directed at BOTH Conservatives and Labour MPs.
The Conservative Party have cheer-led the personal abuse people on the left receive. The Tories made a strategic decision to discredit, smear and delegitimise the official opposition, portraying Labour’s left supporters as “extremists”, “dangerous”, and “terrorist sympathisers”. Such an attack tactic has some very chilling and profoundly anti-democratic implications, because it leaves the left exposed as a dangerous internal enemy, which legitimises radical right wingers’ belief that the left needs to be “eliminated”.
The “abuse” accusation is one of many techniques used by the right to police the boundaries of “acceptable” political thought.
The right and the dangers of dog whistle politics
It is worth remembering that it was a Labour MP, Jo Cox, who was murdered by a far right terrorist. This has been linked to the rhetoric employed by hardcore right wing Brexit campaign. Others, including myself, have linked it with a growth in wider social prejudice, and the social divisions which have been politically fostered, motivated and manipulated by the Conservatives. Lynton Crosby’s dog whistle racism and negative campaigning strategies have been a key feature of elections over recent years and have normalised below the radar “coded” racist messaging, with the inbuilt “safeguard” of plausible deniability.
Dog whistling is designed to trigger previously indoctrinated prejudice, bigotry and hatred without being recognised by outsiders as hateful speech in prejudiced communities. The legitimising of sentiment which has previously been considered inappropriate is one of Crosby’s trademarks, and this approach has steadily pushed at public moral boundaries, making hate speech and hate crime much more likely.
The philosopher Jennifer Saul has how the linguistic drift of increasingly intolerant speech can lead to racist violence. As we become habituated to a subject of speech, our standard of what is acceptable to say (or not say) shifts, which in turn opens up possibilities for how we may act.
Of course intolerant speech is that which creates categories of outgrouped others, and this process of othering hasn’t been confined to ethnic minorities. The Conservatives have also stigmatised disabled people, social security claimants more generally, trade unions, public sector workers, among others and have systematically demonised and personally discredited critics, opposition (including charities and academics), and especially, those on the left.
The government has consistently sent out a broader message, in the form of a series of coded emotive appeals and sometimes, quite explicitly stated, that the left has/will take your taxes and give it to “undeserving” minorities. Those “minorities” are disabled people, people in low paid work, people who have lost their job, as well as asyum seekers and migrants.
As opposed to undeserving millionaires and rogue multinationals.
The Conservatives have normalised bullying and intimidation to silence dissent
Conservative MP Anna Soubry has spoken out at the Conservatives’ “bully boy tactics” employed against Mark Carney by some of her Tory colleagues. Carney came in for attacks from senior Brexiteers like Michael Gove and William Hague, while other pro-Leave campaigners have called on him to be sacked as governor of the Bank of England. In the run-up to the EU referendum, Tories accused Carney of “interfering” in the campaign by his simple and evidenced warning about the economic effects of a vote to leave.
Speaking to Sky News, former business minister Soubry said: “This is what I mean about almost bully boy tactics, this idea that you just slag people off and then you go to some of our newspapers and they join in this very unpleasant campaign which means people like Mark Carney don’t have any defence, they can’t really come out and fight their corner as they should do.
“He shouldn’t be attacked in the way that he was. He’s done a great job. He was universally recognised as being a real coup for our Bank of England, for our country. I’m just sad that he seems to be going early, but I’m delighted he’s staying.
“We all seem to have almost taken leave of our senses in this country.”
The language mirrored that used in an article for LabourList from Rebecca Long-Bailey, then the Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury.
She wrote at the time: “That a committed public servant like Dr Carney has been the subject of briefings, on and off the record, questioning his fitness for the role – when he himself has no opportunity to respond – is an indictment of the toxic atmosphere now brewing inside the Conservative party.
Denigrating reasonable criticism and monstering campaigns for social justice
Work and Pensions Secretary Damian Green criticised “irresponsible scaremongering” by Labour and insisted the Tories “will always look after the most vulnerable”, following legitimate concerns raised by the opposition about the impact of the proposed dementia tax and cuts to winter fuel payments for the elderly. The United Nations inquiry into the Conservatives’ grave and systematic abuse of disabled people’s human rights certainly doesn’t support Green’s claims. He said: “At the heart of this report lies an outdated view of disability which is patronising and offensive. We strongly refute its findings.”
However, it is the government that hold a deeply patronising, outdated and discriminatory view of disability, and they are the ones dismissing the concerns raised over and over by disabled people who pushed to instigate and evidence the inquiry in the first place, because the government have disgracefully and systematically marginalised us, and consistently refused to listen to our grave concerns about the harms, distress and premature deaths that Conservative welfare policies are increasingly correlated with.
Hart says: “I wrote to every MP at the beginning of last week to say would they like to come up with examples of where this has been happening and the only examples I’ve had are of attacks by the left on the right. If there are others, I haven’t heard of them.”
“I know a lot of Labour MPs have been subject to quite nasty abuse over a number of years now. It’s not exclusively left-wing attacking right-wing, or left-wing attacking center, but there is certainly more evidence of that than there is the contrary.”
Perhaps Hart doesn’t read the tabloids. Or listen to the malicious comments of his colleagues made frequently during election campaigns.
Try as I might, I just simply can’t imagine Jeremy Corbyn calling Boris Johnson a “mutton-headed old mugwump”, or a “benign herbivore”. Nor can I imagine him dismissing United Nations rapporteurs as “loopy Brazilian lefties” or “partisan marxists”.
The Conservatives don’t take independent criticism of the adverse effects of their draconian policies very well. However, the UK is a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which means that Ms Rolnik’s independent findings should carry weight within the British justice system and prompt the government to abandon this most inhumane of policies. Rather than approach this public issue with impartiality, government ministers decided instead to launch a disgraceful personal attack on Raquel Rolnik.
I condemn personal attacks and abuse on MPs of any political stripe. However, it seems to me that the Conservatives are launching a gaslighting campaign, with the sole intention of diverting attention from their own appalling track record on systematic abuse and bullying, and to attempt to further discredit the left.
What about the abuse directed by right wingers on social media? Some have claimed that Corbyn supporters are a “cult”, painting a picture of Corbyn’s supporters as “blind” followers of a strange doctrine. It links us with some of the worst instances in political history and develops a narrative that positions Corbyn and his supporters as “dangerous”. It is a poisonous term that should be deployed with caution. But sadly, that hasn’t stopped Corbyn’s opponents.
This tweet has now been deleted. It’s from Financial Times’ political columnist Janan Ganesh, who seems to have realised his is a difficult narrative to push, as the likes of Stephen Hawkings, Noam Chomsky and much of the academic world explicitly endorse Corbyn’s project.
The Telegraph has patronisingly declared that young people who voted Labour are “deluded about Jeremy Corbyn, and about much else besides”. With the likes of Tory MP, Andrew Bridgen complaining: “The BBC will do everything they can to get their hero Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street. Now with things like this year’s Glastonbury, it’s becoming ever more blatant.
“They are at the stage where if the BBC give it one more push, we will end up with a Marxist in No 10.”
“Marxist” is used as a term of abuse here. Yet in this context, a marxist is simply someone who wants to adequately fund public services, raise our standard of living and introduce a progressive tax system – something that the Conservatives have deemed “reckless” and only possible with the help of a magic money tree. Mind you, that same magic money tree has been supporting the millionaires in handouts for the past few years.
At the same time that George Osborne told us that we needed to make cuts, rolling out his austerity programme that targeted the poorest citizens, he awarded millionaires £107, 000 each per year in the form of a handout tax cut.
You have to worry at this particularly authoritarian comment, too: “If the BBC feel Labour are potentially close to power, any semblance of impartiality can be disregarded because with the Left, the ends always justify the means.”
The BBC’s coverage of the event does not indicate “bias”, it’s simply coverage of an event. In a healthy democracy, that should never even be an issue. It’s not the BBC that decides voter’s intentions. It is the voters. It is the nation that decides what is in the “national interest” not the Conservatives.
Labour’s pledge to make university education free was claimed to be “the £11 billion bribe”, according to the Daily Mail. Unlike, for instance, the £350 million “save the NHS” lie plastered on Boris Johnson’s Brexit campaign bus. Or the Liberal Democrats’ giant cardboard cutout promise that tuition fees would absolutely never in a million years go up to 9K per year. Nope. Honest…
Since when was an inclusive manifesto considered “bribery”? Have we travelled so far down the road of Conservative authoritarianism, which has normalised the politics of stigma and exclusion, that reaching out and democratically engaging with politically betrayed, marginalised social groups to acknowledge and reflect their needs is considered so baffling and alien?
The language use that has been used to describe people exercising a democratic right to protest peacefully against government policies, variously described as “mobs”, a “rabble” and “thugs”. As a disabled activist I have been called an “extremist” by the Conservatives and their supporters.
In 2015, a campaign group working to protect the NHS criticised Employment Minister Priti Patel, after she allegedly described members that gathered at her office – some of whom were elderly and others were disabled – as a “thuggish gang”.
Members of the People’s NHS gathered outside Patel’s constituency HQ in Witham, Essex, to urge her to protect the NHS against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnerships which they fear will lead to the health service being privatised. A photo of the protest shows around a dozen peaceful demonstrators holding a banner reading “fight for our NHS” and protecting themselves from the rain with umbrellas.
Patel responded to the demonstration by writing to Unite union boss Len McCluskey, who she wrongly believed was heading the campaign. The letter read, according to The Sunday Mirror, that the woman who works at the Witham Conservative Association office “felt harassed, frightened and intimated” by “a thuggish gang of People’s NHS campaigners”. Patel went on to accuse the group of “intimidation and harassment”.
However, someone in a position of power using such derogatory labels to discredit, smear and pathologise people raising legitimate criticism is intimidation, harassment and bullying. We live in a democracy, and the right to protest is a manifestation of the right to freedom of assembly, the right to freedom of association, and the right to freedom of speech. Whether the authoritarian Conservatives like it or not. From the historical UK Labour movement, civil rights protesters such as Rosa Parks in 1950s America, to the 60,000 participants in Gandhi’s Salt march, people throughout history have chosen to resist injustice because, as Rosa herself said, they’re “tired of giving in”. In contemporary Britain, disabled people are fighting a battle of life and death proportions. People are dying as a consequence of draconian policies. No-one is listening, so we protest.
The Conservatives fear civil unrest, yet every Tory government prompts protest because of their grossly injust, punitive policies. Protest is what happens when governments refuse to listen. It’s what happens when policies are non-inclusive and nasty. It’s what happens when ideologies are manifested, causing people distress and harm.
Simon Hart has complained that almost half his election campaign boards were defaced, stolen or damaged, adding that he and other MPs received abuse on social media “on an almost daily basis”.
“These are things that have significant financial consequences and it’s driving people away from politics, even on the fringes, at a time when actually it’s never been more important that they’re part of politics,” he said.
The importance of practicing what you preach, and keeping your own house in order
However, Hart seems to have forgotten all about the details of his own election campaign, and some of the issues arising because of his election boards being placed without permission on private property. In fact one of the Tory MP’s own campaigners attacked a local resident, slamming his van door on the man, and hurting his arm, before driving at him – in a row over Hart’s election boards.
John Kilcoyne, a Conservative campaigner for Hart, infuriated local Adam Morres, after he put up signs promoting Hart in a field near the local’s home in Manorbier, Wales, back in May. Morres took them down and billed the local Conservative party for rent and damages – but then caught Kilcoyne putting them back up a day later.
The video appears to show the volunteer smacking the villager in the arm with his van door – before repeatedly DRIVING his van at him along a rural road. The police arrived moments later and are now investigating the incident.
Morres said: “Normally, I would choose who to vote for based on their policies, but in this instance I will be choosing based on the party I think has employees who aren’t going to attack me.”
The furore began on Sunday, May 7, when Morres was out for a walk with his ex-partner in the fields that she rents for her horses. They spotted two blue signs supporting incumbent MP Simon Hart nailed to a fence post inside the field. Morres says that he phoned the Electoral Commission who he said told him they could be removed, so he took them down the next day.
He invoiced Camarthen West and South Pembrokeshire Conservatives £50 for rent and damages.
“The damages are in case out neighbours thought the signs meant we were Conservative voters,” he added sarcastically.
He claims John Kilcoyne – named as the seconder on Mr Hart’s 2015 election nomination document, came to both his home and his partner’s house. Kilcoyne claimed he had permission of the land owner to put the signs up, and left. Moments later spotted him back next to his ex’s field getting new “Simon Hart” signs out of his van and the two men rowed.
The video appears to show the pair arguing before the volunteer sharply pulls his van door onto Morres’ arm before mocking him, saying: “Watch out, watch out.” He denied his actions. With a smirk.
Morres phoned the police and when he stood in front of the van to record the licence plate, claims Kilcoyne repeatedly drove at him.
The footage on the video – taken moments before police arrived – appears to show the car inching towards him as he moves away across the road before driving off.
Astonishingly, Morres woke up the next day to find the signs had been reinstated.
“The police have told us not to touch them in case they get damaged and Simon Hart claims criminal damage,” he said.
Dyfed-Powys Police said: “The force received a report of an assault without injury at approximately 9.40am on Tuesday, May 9.
“The incident took place at Wheelers Way, Manorbier. The investigation is ongoing.”
The Welsh Conservative Party and Simon Hart refused to comment. Kilcoyne, from Pembroke Dock, Pembrokeshire, said: “Have you spoken to Mr Hart?
“I’m in the same position as Mr Hart. There is a police officer dealing with it. I have nothing at all to add.”
Meanwhile, Wales Office minister Guto Bebb said he had also been a victim of online intimidation, and has surprisingly accused serving police officers of being among those who have abused him.
Ah yes, the sensitive Guto Bebb, who dismissed Dylan Barlow’s Asperger’s syndrome as a “sob story” in a series of emails after his constituent raised questions on foreign matters.
The MP for Aberconwy, North Wales, wrote: “If you have mental health issues then you should possibly refrain from commenting in the public domain since it might create problems for you.”
I’m disabled because of illness. I am a campaigner that supports Labour’s policies. I have had a lot of abuse, ranging from name-calling such as “leftard” , “trot”, “loony leftist”, “scrounger” , “lazy” to organised hate and smear campaigns, malicious communications that have used my social media account details and my photograph, resulting in death threats, rape threats, threats to my family and a threat from Combat 18. I involved the police at the time. I have also received very offensive comments calling for disabled people to be shot.
Conservative rhetoric, policy practices and in particular, their anti-welfare campaign which has been amplified by the media, has systematically dehumanised and scapegoated disabled people and migrants, and has contributed significantly to my experiences of abuse these last few years.
Divisive rhetoric, such as Cameron’s “scroungers and strivers” dichotomy, and traditional, embedded Conservative prejudices (based on class, ableism, economic productivity, ethnicity and gender) have added to the problems of social division, encouraging and legitimising hate speech and hate crime.
The unedifying sight of Conservative ministers’ sneering contempt and laughter when they hear accounts of people suffering hardships and harm because of their policies in parliament isn’t a rare event. The persistent denial of a “causal link” between policy, hardship and distress, and refusal to investigate an established correlation between policy and hardship – all of this sends out a negative message to the wider public.
The message is that hate speech, bullying and abuse of marginalised social groups is permitted, and by gaslighting – negating or attempting to invalidate those group’s common experiences of harm and distress – the Conservatives have othered, isolated and dehumanised them.
A major contributing factor to the increase in bullying is the collective behaviours of the current government, which has perpetuated, permitted and endorsed prejudices against marginalised social groups, such as disabled and unemployed people, with a complicit media amplifying these prejudices. Their policies embed a punitive approach towards the poorest social groups. This in turn means that those administering the policies, such as staff at the Department for work and pensions and job centres, for example, are also bound by punitive, authoritarian behaviours directed at a targeted group.
People affected by those behaviours are then encouraged to blame other marginalised groups – migrants and asylum seekers, people who are “not really” disabled, and others politically deemed “undeserving”. This creates a hierarchy of needs, when the reality is simply that people have different but equally pressing needs for basic support. Everyone, after all, needs food, fuel and shelter. Without being able to fulfil those basic needs, we cannot fulfil higher level psychosocial needs.
As authority figures and role models, the government’s behaviour establishes a framework of acceptability. Parliamentary debates are conducted with a clear basis of one-upmanship and aggression rather than being founded on rational exchange and mutual respect. Indeed, the prime minister sneers at rationality and does not engage in a democratic dialogue, instead she employs the tactics of a bully: denial, scapegoating, vilification, attempts at discrediting, smearing and character assassinations. This in turn gives wider society permission and approval to do the same.
At prime minister’s questions, Cameron found it hard to rein in his Flashman reflex. His answers were frequently ever more sneering and personal, determined to characterise his political rival as weak and useless. It was not pleasant to watch the jabbing finger and the reddened face, especially when the Tory backbenchers behind him join in with bullying jeers.
Even Steve Hilton, David Cameron’s former aide has accused the political establishment of bullying Jeremy Corbyn after he was elected as Labour leader in what he described as “incredibly unattractive” behaviour.
It’s dangerous behaviour
Scapegoating has a wide range of focus: from “approved” enemies of very large groups of people down to the scapegoating of individuals by other individuals. The scapegoaters’ target always experiences a terrible sense of being personally edited and re-written, with the inadequacies of the bully inserted into public accounts of their character, isolation, ostracism, exclusion and sometimes, expulsion and elimination. The sense of isolation is often heightened by other people’s reluctance to become involved in challenging bullies, usually because of a bystander’s own discomfort and fear of reprisal.
Another tactic commonly used by Conservatives is projection – a defense mechanism used to displace responsibility of one’s negative behaviour and traits by attributing them to someone else. It ultimately acts as a diversion that avoids ownership and accountability. Simon Hart’s emphasis on “left wing bullying” is an attempt to steer us away from his own party’s entrenched prejudices, draconian policies, bullying practices and the hectoring approach to dialogue and debate.
The Conservatives have played the “blameshifting game” on many occasions over the past seven years. The objectives of the game of course are that it simplistically dichotomises issues, turning debate into often diversionary, personalised, simplistic arguments of reductive one upmanship: for the Conservatives, it’s about winning and getting your own way, while others lose and are also blamed for everything that’s wrong with them. Ad hominem arguments have been normalised by Conservatives.
It’s time for the government to consider the impact of negative role modelling – Conservatives regularly use abusive language when challenged. Politicians have a responsibility to set an example, by treating others with dignity and respect, including those with whom they may strongly disagree. However, the Conservatives seem to regard opposition and challenges as an irritating inconvenience rather than as an essential feature of a functioning democracy.
The Conservative Party has promoted personal attacks as a core component of its national election campaigns, and has used stigma as a justification for extremely punitive policies that target marginalised groups.
Bullying and abuse within the Conservative party
Let’s not forget poor Elliott Johnson: the young Conservative who was destroyed by the party he loved, and subsequently took his own life in 2015, aged just 21, as a result of blackmail and persistent bullying. Earlier this year, the Conservative party were accused of withholding evidence from police about the death of the young party activist who said he was systematically bullied. Others have since come forward – a further 13 alleged victims of Mark Clarke came forward, the so-called “Tatler Tory,” over a 20-month period, and allegations included six accusations of “sexually inappropriate behaviour”.
Clarke, who was appointed by the party to run its RoadTrip2015 election campaign, came under heavy scrutiny after Elliott Johnson, a young Tory activist, took his own life in September 2015 and named Clarke as his tormentor in a suicide note.
Then there was the Tory MP who “faked” a death threat, accused of threatening to sack a member of staff if she took four weeks off work sick – as advised by her doctor.
Telford MP Lucy Allan was accused of launching a “vicious” verbal attack on a female staff member who phoned in sick. Allan accused the alleged bullying victim Arianne Plumbly of having an “alcohol problem,” dismissing her claims to be ill as “pathetic”. In a recording of the telephone call handed to the Evening Standard, Allan is heard telling the alleged bullying target Arianne Plumbly: “I’m not paying you for that then; it’s ridiculous” and told her she had “pissed around on my life”.
The Nasty Party and dehumanising language
Rosemary Carroll, a Conservative councillor, shared a post about a man asking for benefits for his pet dog, making very offensive racist comparisons.
She was Mayor of Pendle until last month but was suspended from her party after the post appeared on her account, pending an inquiry.
Only last week, a Tory Brexiteer described the UK leaving the EU without a deal as a “real n****r in the woodpile” at a meeting of eurosceptics in Central London.
Anne Marie Morris, MP for Newton Abbot since 2010, made the astonishing remark while discussing what financial services deal the UK could strike with Brussels after 2019.
The phrase she used is from the nineteenth Century, and refers to slavery. It is thought the phrase arose in reference to instances of the concealment of fugitive slaves in their flight north under piles of firewood.
The origin of the phrase is from the practice of transporting pulpwood on special railroad cars. In the era of slavery, the pulpwood cars were built with an outer frame with the wood being stacked inside in rows and stacks. Given the nature of the cars, it was possible to smuggle persons in the pile itself, giving rise to the phrase.
In July 2008, the leader of the British Conservative Party, David Cameron, was urged to sack Conservative peer Lord Dixon-Smith, who said in the House of Lords that concerns about government housing legislation were “the n***er in the woodpile”. Dixon-Smith said the phrase had “slipped out without my thinking”, and that “It was common parlance when I was younger”.
Despite using the racist term, none of Morris’s fellow panelists, including Tory MPs Bill Cash and John Redwood, reacted at the time.
Racism isn’t the only traditional Conservative prejudice. Who could forget David Freud’s offensive comments, made when he was a Conservative Welfare Reform Minister, that some disabled people are “not worth the full national minimum wage” and that some “could only be paid £2 an hour.” Cameron claimed the disgraceful comments made by Lord Freud at the Tory conference do not represent the views of government.
However, his government’s punitive austerity measures and the welfare “reforms” tell us a very different story. The comments came to light after they were disclosed by Ed Miliband during Prime Minister’s Questions.
Freud’s comments are simply a reflection of a wider implicit and fundamental Social Darwinism underpinning Tory ideology, and even Tim Montgomerie, who founded the ConservativeHome site has conceded that: “Conservative rhetoric often borders on social Darwinism […] and has lost a sense of social justice.”
David Freud was made to apologise for simply being a Tory in public. The Conservatives have systematically blamed poor people for their poverty rather than acknowledge that poverty arises as a consequence of political decision-making and policies that financially penalise the poorest while handing out rewards to the wealthiest.
Conservative policies are not only entirely ideologically-driven, they reflect traditional Tory prejudices. We have a government that uses words like workshy to describe marginalised social groups. This is a government that is intentionally scapegoating poor people, unemployed people, disabled people, asylum seekers and migrants. If that isn’t bullying and abuse, I don’t know what is.
One Tory councillor, Alan Mellins – called for the “extermination of gypsies”, more than one Tory MP has called for illegal and discriminatory levels of pay for disabled people. Philip Davies has also said that the national minimum wage is “more a hindrance than a help” for disabled people, and proposed that we are paid less. A Conservative deputy mayor – retired GP, Owen Lister – said, unforgivably, that the “best thing for disabled children is the guillotine.”
Let’s not forget Boris Johnson’s grossly racist comments describing black people as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” in the Telegraph in 2002. He only apologised when he first ran for London mayor in 2008.
And Cabinet minister Oliver Letwin also escaped disciplinary action after it was revealed that he had said black people have “bad moral attitudes” when he was a top adviser to Thatcher. He actually said that any government schemes to help black people would be wasted in “the disco and drugs trade.”
In August, 201, Dover Conservative councillor Bob Frost describes rioters as “jungle bunnies.” He lost his teaching job but the Tories suspended him for just two months. In 2014, he referred to the prospective Middle Eastern buyers of Dover port as “sons of camel drivers.” No action was taken.
In January 2013, Enfield Conservative councillor Chris Joannides compared Muslim children to black bin bags in a Facebook post. In April 2014, Barnet councillor Tom Davey complained online about “benefit claiming scum”, and said that it might be easier to find a job if he were “a black female wheelchair-bound amputee who is sexually attracted to other women.” He was not disciplined by the party.
These are NOT “slips”, it’s patently clear that the Tories believe these comments are acceptable, just as long as they aren’t made in public. We need only look at the discriminatory nature of policies such as the legal aid bill, the wider welfare “reforms”, the cuts aimed at disabled people s support and services – which were unthinkable before 2010 – and to research the consequences of austerity for the most vulnerable citizens, those with the “least broad shoulders” and the least to lose – to understand that these comments reflect accurately how Conservatives actually think.
That any of this is considered acceptable behaviour by a government – who serve as public role models – is an indication of just how far our society has regressed in terms of human rights and our democratic ideals of equality and diversity. This is a government that has purposefully seeded and permitted social prejudice in order to gain support and power.
The Tory creation of socioeconomic scapegoats, involving vicious stigmatisation of vulnerable and protected social groups, particularly endorsed by the mainstream media, is simply a means of de-empathising the population, manipulating public perceptions and securing public acceptance of the increasingly punitive and repressive basis of the Tories’ crass neoliberal welfare “reforms”, and the steady stripping away of essential state support and provision, for the public, which the public have paid for via taxes and national insurance.
At the same time that austerity was imposed on the poorest citizens, the millionaires were awarded a £107,000 each per year tax cut. It seems only some of us have to “live within our means”.
The political construction of social problems also marks an era of increasing state control of citizens with behaviour modification techniques, (under the guise of paternalistic libertarianism and behavioural economic theories), all of which are a part of the process of restricting access rights to welfare provision. Discriminatory political practices and rhetoric send out a message to the public, and that permits wider prejudice, hate speech, hate crime and discrimination.
The mainstream media has been complicit in the process of constructing deviant welfare stereotypes, folk devils and in engaging prejudice and generating moral outrage from the public.
The growing inequalities we are witnessing in western neoliberal “democracies” create profound psychological trauma, hermetic material and ontological insecurity. Humans are fundamentally social beings. We thrive best when we have a social rationale which tends towards the promotion of cooperative and collective creativity. This was perhaps expressed best in our civilised, progressive institutions and civilising practices, facilitated by the social gains and economic organisation that arose from the post-war settlement.
Those gains are now being systematically dismantled. Our culture has been saturated with conceptual schema that demand we remain committed to a socioeconomic Darwinism, a kind of economic enclosure: a neoliberal competitive individualist obsession with our private, inner experiences, the pursuit of economic self-interest, and ultimately, this embellishes our separability from other human beings. It alienates us.
Neoliberalism scripts social interactions that are founded on indifference to others, tending to be dehumanising, adversarial and hierarchical in nature, rather than social and cooperative. Neoliberalism is the antithesis of the responsive, animated human face; of collectivism, mutual support, universalism, cooperation and democracy. Neoliberalism has transformed our former liberal democracy into an authoritarian “still faced” state that values production, competition and profit above all else; including citizens’ lives, experiences, freedoms, wellbeing, democratic inclusion and social conditions that support all of this.
Neoliberal socioeconomic organisation has perpetuated hierarchies of human worth, and pitched social groups against one another in a fight for resources.
I condemn all abuse, be it from the left or right of the political spectrum.
However, it’s time the government took some lessons in the ethical use of power and influence, democratic inclusion and accountability.
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