The following was written by my friend and fellow Labour member Caroline Holding. She wrote this in reponse to last week’s BBC Question Time.
This is an open letter to Alastair Campbell
I watched you on BBC Question Time a few nights ago and I woke up the following morning in a foul mood. I feel compelled to tell you that your description of Labour members and their conduct does not marry well with my experience.
I joined the Labour party quite recently, I am what some longer standing members would call an entryist, although I’m not sure entrist is the correct term for someone who joins an organisation because they like the policies and beliefs of its democratically elected leader.
Initially I had no intention of getting involved in Momentum. You see I am a single parent on a low income, in fact you might say I’m exactly the sort of demographic the labour party was formed to represent. But there already aren’t enough hours in my day, or pounds in my bank account to keep getting to these meetings and paying these fees. I was intending to join my local party, get involved as I could possibly manage but I didn’t think I’d have the time for Momentum.
The first Labour Party meeting I went to with my friend Rosa was in the council chambers, with its lovely old oak panelled walls and sweeping staircases. It was packed and we were late. We’d found out about it at very short notice and I had struggled to get the kids fed, find childcare and get there, and I wasn’t going to be able to stay long.
One of the only remaining places to sit was off to the side, next to a harried, efficient looking man grasping a bunch of papers. As we squeezed on to a small bench I explained to the man that we were both new members and this was our first meeting.
He seemed happy enough to answer my whispered questions about the labour party and its charmingly archaic processes. I’ve never joined a political party before, it’s been fascinating learning about your delegates and your motions, and all the different committees you have. At first he was very welcoming and friendly, until my friend took her coat off. I watched his face surrupticiously as he caught sight of the Jeremy Corbyn badge she was wearing on her cardigan and instantly his whole demeanour changed, it was like someone had crept up behind him and poured a bucket of cold water over his head.
A few minutes later, once the meeting was under way, he gripped the edges of his chair and after lifting the legs a few inches off the floor he shuffled about a metre to his left and rotated. When he finally came to a halt and the legs were lowered back down, he had turned his back to me. The situation was made even more absurd and ridiculous by the fact that this was a man I would guess was in his late 50’s, he spoke with a cut glass upper class accent. I was stunned, I had pegged him as one of those buttoned up brits, the sort that is so cringingly polite, so compelled to adhere to social niceties that they would never ever consider doing anything so churlish. Clearly I was wrong.
Perhaps he didn’t think I’d notice? Perhaps he was worried I was a plant, that I’d read the information on his papers and pass them on to my Momentum comrogues? I’m not sure, but knowing as he did that this was our first ever meeting, his behaviour struck me as almost comically rude.
You’ll be pleased to read Mr Campbell that I didn’t lose faith at this point. In fact this delegate and his chair manoeuvring antics were the subject of many an entertaining anecdote for weeks afterwards. The tale was met with gasps of outrage and disbelief from members and none members a like, but it was the way the people I’ve met through Momentum responded that I have found most interesting. They don’t laugh, or gasp they simply nod, as though this is an all too common occurrence.
The second Labour Party meeting we went to was our local branch, although still busy, this was a much smaller, more intimate affair. There was a speaker, the poor woman had been booked weeks before the EU referendum. We all politely listened to her presentation on cycling and it would have been an interesting talk on any other occasion, but we were all eager to discuss the more pressing matter of should Jeremy be allowed to continue as leader.
What followed was a passionate but essentially polite and reasoned debate. There was a lot of support for Jeremy but there was also lots of concern that he wasn’t right to lead. It was clear that everyone there was speaking from a place of genuine concern about the grave state of the parliamentary party. On this occasion unlike the AGM, I was allowed to speak. I asked lots of questions, heard lots of different views. I enjoyed myself, it was interesting.
At the end of the meeting another man approached us, also older than me, white and more well spoken than anyone I ever usually come into contact with. He grabbed my coat and shouted in my face. I had no right to be there. I didn’t know what I was talking about. He’d been a member of the party for over 40 years etc etc. After he’d said his piece he stormed out before I’d had a chance to formulate my reply. Its interesting that targeted he us. We weren’t the only new members at the meeting, nor the only supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and we certainly weren’t the most outspoken but it is notable that we were the only woman.
I’d like to be able to say this didn’t affect me but it did, I was shaking, verging on tears by the end of his short diatribe. I think I’d been wooed into a false sense of security by how friendly and reasonable everything had been up to that point. As I said earlier, this was only the second Labour Party meeting I’d ever been to, and yet it was the second unpleasant experience I’d had, the second time I’d been informed that, in no uncertain terms I wasn’t welcome. I won’t lie to you, I was about to walk out of there and never return again.
I have always been taught to respect my elders, and even though I am now a parent and as much as I would like to believe otherwise most definitely an adult this is still a rule I live by. Even if I don’t agree with your views, regardless of class, gender, etc if you are older than me I believe your years alone still give you knowledge and experience that deserves my respect. So it is upsetting to keep being attacked and snubbed in this way by people who I feel really aught to know better.
Thankfully this second altercation didn’t go unnoticed. Recognising that Rosa and I were both upset, the branch chair and a number of other people swooped in, apologized profusely and pleaded with us not to be put off. It was at this point, after chatting to other branch members that I decided to go to the following weeks momentum meeting, if I was going to carry on with these labour party meetings I wanted to find some allies.
If I’m honest was a bit nervous. I’d heard about Momentum and I was worried I might not be radical enough for them and I was tired of being shouted at. I’ve never read Marx, if I’m honest don’t really know much about Trotsky, or even what it means exactly to be a Trot.
The Momentum meeting took place on an early summers evening, and it was so packed that the room was uncomfortably warm and stuffy. The first thing I noticed though was how colourful and how diverse it was. I don’t mean to be rude Mr Campbell, and what I’m about to say isn’t based on any sort of scientific research or anything, but all the Labour Party meetings I’ve attended so far (and I’ve been to quite a few now) attract a certain type, you can spot the new people a mile off.
The more traditional party member is as likely to male as female this is true, but they are almost without exception, white, middle class and over 50. Jeremy Corbyn it seems has changed this, the Momentum was meeting filled with people of different ages and backgrounds and colours, they had different accents, seemed to belong to an amazing array of different subcultures.
There were a lot of people I’d met before, both from the Labour meetings I’d attended but also familiar faces from my own community. There were people wearing the hijab, people with blue hair, people wearing cardigans and sensible flat shoes, people with tattoos and piercings. The meeting was exciting and invigorating and a hell of a lot more welcoming and supportive than anything I had encountered up till then.
In addition to this, our MP has made it plain on more than one occasion, both in his weekly emails and at meetings that he has been impressed by how, even though we have some huge ideological rifts and disagreements, our Labour party meetings continue to be reasonable and civil. I cannot account for the way all Jeremy Corbyn supporters conduct themselves country wide on social media or in real life but I can confidently attest that in my constituency, they are largely civil and polite.
It was only when I woke up on Friday morning I could really put my finger on why in particular your description of Momentum had angered me. I have noticed Fiona Miller your partner at Labour events a few times now. I’m a fan of Fiona’s work. I’ve read two of her books and I think her commitment to comprehensive education is admirable. The motion she submitted on Tuesday’s meeting about grammar schools for this years Labour Party conference was excellent, and I am proud to belong to a constituency that is sending such an important motion to conference but I feel at this point I must point out, although I’ve repeatedly spotted Fiona I have yet to see you.
So in response to your talk about Momentum, and how sinister they are, how can I respectfully suggest that you get yourself a long to a few of your local labour party events and meet some of these people? You may be pleasantly surprised.
To conclude let me explain that I haven’t written this letter because I am expecting an apology from you Mr Campbell or anyone else for that matter. I appreciate that my experiences at the hands of our shared constituency members were unfortunately timed but arguably unrelated single incidents and I had no intention of airing this publically but I resent the implication that it is Jeremy Corbyn supporters and only Jeremy Corbyn supporters are a rude and unruly rabble.
You may have met with trolls on the internet who have behaved in a threatening or intimidating manner. Well they have accosted me in real life. And although I am tempted to retreat further into my local Momentum group, to surround myself with people who I agree with, who make me feel safe, who don’t verbally attack me, I understand that this rift that currently exists in our party is in desperate need of repair and we can only fix it if we reach out to the people we have differences with.
Whatever the outcome of this latest leadership election, the Labour Party has been changed forever and there is no going back. And as John McDonnell rightly pointed out on the panel you both shared on question time; Labour is now the largest social democratic party in Europe. This is an exciting and positive thing, but don’t take your new members for granted, because if you continue to attack us, to smear us, to treat us with contempt you will lose us.