W Stephen Gilbert
I do not believe in personal abuse of any sort. Treat people with respect, treat people as you wish to be treated yourself, listen to their views, agree or disagree but have that debate. There’s going to be no rudeness from me … I want a kinder politics, a more caring society. Don’t let them reduce you to believing in less. So I say to all activists, whether Labour or not, cut out the personal abuse, cut out the cyber bullying, and especially the misogynistic abuse online, and let’s get on with bringing real values back into politics.”
Those were the words of Jeremy Corbyn in his first conference speech as leader on September 29th 2015. He was heartily cheered.
The parliamentary Labour Party has many members who, in all seriousness, would rather lose the next election under another leader – some would say any other leader – than win it led by Corbyn. That their own survival and that of their allies as MPs might well depend on winning that election is clearly not part of the calculation, so determined are they to stop Corbyn. This faction in the party seemed to have gone quiet last summer, when it momentarily would have been hard not to be dismissed as churlish to criticise the leader for delivering a much better result in the general election than any of them had imagined possible.
Of all Corbyn’s stances they have shown themselves ready to thwart, the one about abuse, respect and a kinder politics has been the one most trampled. The rhetorical practices of individuals in politics, in public as well as in private, are on a downward slide. Seemliness and decorum have gone the way of courtesy and consideration. While some complain more and more vociferously that they are subjected to abuse and vilification, others step up the invective and the venom. In practice, many combine these stances, putting themselves forward as indomitable martyrs. We live in strange times.
In the Palace of Westminster late on a Tuesday, Margaret Hodge confronted her leader. Whether it was a chance encounter or a planned ambush goes unrecorded. What she said is not disputed. There were witnesses.
You’re a fucking anti-Semite and a racist.”
It’s perfectly impossible to imagine a comparable verbal attack by an MP on a party leader – of any party at any time in parliamentary history – taking place. Bill Cash assaulting John Major in such terms? Woodrow Wyatt saying things like that to Harold Wilson’s face? Antony Nutting bearding Eden on any terms at all? Absolutely unthinkable. It also cannot be imagined that personal abuse to the face of any other party leader would not be received with the most virulent condemnation from all sections of the party in question. There would be questions as to whether the MP was drunk. It would certainly be universally accepted that the MP would lose the whip and probably be expelled from the party and banned from the Palace of Westminster.
Yet MPs duly condemned Corbyn’s office for describing Hodge’s words as “unacceptable” and saying that “action will be taken”. If Hodge’s words are acceptable, how come much of the media reproduced them substituting “f******” for “fucking”? That implicitly announces that the word is not acceptable to readers, viewers and listeners, an awkward circle for Corbyn-hating editors to square. What about the accusations against Corbyn? If it’s acceptable to accuse someone of being an anti-Semite, is it okay to call someone a swindler or a paedophile? If Hodge’s words are acceptable, then where is the threshold? Can anyone say anything to anybody? Who can complain at being described as a fascist in the House or being called a cunt on social media?
Once upon a time, politicians were witty and resourceful and, if they wanted to insult someone they did it in a way that made everybody else and, with luck, the victim laugh. Churchill was good at this. The redoubtable Bessie Braddock, stout of heart and form, encountered the PM in the Palace of Westminster. “Winston, you are drunk,” she chided. “Bessie, you are ugly,” Churchill shot back. “But in the morning I shall be sober and you will still be ugly”. Churchill wouldn’t have heard of body-shaming. No, it’s not politically correct, but nor it a baseless slur decorated with an expletive.
Like Falstaff, Churchill was not only witty in himself but the cause that wit was in others. Margot, Lady Asquith said of him “He would kill his own mother so that he could use her skin to make a drum to beat his own praises”. I bet he enjoyed that.
In the House, there are many sins that you are not permitted to pin on a fellow member, including being drunk and being a liar. Disraeli nimbly stepped over this when anatomising Gladstone: “the right honourable member is a sophistical rhetorician inebriated by the exuberance of his own verbosity”. The House knew just what he meant but Mr Speaker was outfoxed. We like our politicians to show that they can tap-dance rather than merely stamp their feet.
Margaret Hodge has been the member for Barking since 1994. She accepted a damehood in the dissolution honours of 2015, just seventeen days before Corbyn became party leader. Nine months later, she was one of two MPs to request from the Labour Party chair that a vote of no confidence in the leader be moved.
She and Corbyn have history. It was on her watch as leader of Islington Council that allegations of child abuse in the Council’s children’s homes emerged. Hodge was obliged to reach a financial settlement with a whistle-blower whom she had attempted to discredit. Corbyn, an Islington MP throughout this period, has been accused of ‘silence’ on the issue, especially by one of his most consistent detractors, John Mann. Perhaps he was implicitly supporting Hodge. Had he condemned her, it would have carried weight.
One of the ways in which women have sought to challenge the predominance of men in many fields has been to talk like men. Is this all to the good? It used to be said that a gentleman was never unknowingly rude, a nice perception that confirmed the notion that there are rules of behaviour to be broken deliberately or not at all. I have no doubt that Dame Margaret intended to defame her leader. If she hoped to provoke him, she mistook her man. John Prescott perhaps would have socked her in the jaw. John Woodcock might have told her to go fuck herself. Corbyn said “I’m sorry you feel that”.
Cool, classy, effortlessly rising above it. Whatever else you make of this unprecedented vignette, you can certainly draw the conclusion that Margaret Hodge is no gentleman.