In 2002 Theresa May spoke out against the rising tide of old Conservatism which threatened to privilege the few and warned that the Conservative Party could turn into a ‘nasty party.’ One that increased inequality and remained stagnated in old, Conservative, traditional ways. In the present day, some have attributed this term to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. In doing so, critiques of the Labour Party have drawn on current media affairs such as the attacks on Jess Phillips and accusations of Ken Livingstone’s antisemitism. Some have even claimed that Corbyn himself is nasty in allegedly cosying up with members of the IRA and supporting terrorists.
However, these accusations are mostly based on claims taken out of context by the media. In resorting to personal politics, the Conservative Party have turned the tables on their own phrase to try and bite back just that little bit more. The truth is, they know they have lost this war and must sink to this tactic. Last Friday, the York Union launched a debate entitled, ‘This house believes Labour is the real nasty party.’ It featured two speakers; Chris Williamson, a Labour MP for Derby North, and Giles Udy, a historian and writer. The debate was incredibly charged but inevitably attracted more supporters of the motion than those against – it was, indeed, inevitable to a certain extent that the outcome would be 28 in favour, 24 against and 13 abstentions.
Giles Udy was in favour of the motion and claimed that Corbyn’s party was one that, despite appearances, favoured a culture of thuggish violence against women, using the example of Jess Phillips and the death threats she has received. Udy also claimed that within the party, there is a prevalence of hate speech, in which he drew on antisemitism claims. With this in mind Udy argued that, ‘something is going wrong’ with the current Labour Party. Aside from being a party promoting universal freedom and equality, Udy believed it is one of opposites. In using these claims, he believed that Labour is the real nasty party. Yes, there have been some serious allegations within the Labour Party but that does not mean that as a whole it is a ‘nasty party’ wishing to promote these values. In returning to media embellished personality politics rather than focusing on the real effects of social and economic policy, Udy embodies the culture of denial that is sweeping through the Conservative Party. This culture of denial allows the Conservatives to distance themselves from nasty party appearances and use personal attacks on Corbyn’s Labour Party instead of looking at the real effects of policies.
Chris Williamson attacked the quality of Udy’s argument as it mainly consisted of a seven-minute reel of personal sneering towards the Labour Party. There was no attempt at democratic, sophisticated debate using actual policies of the Labour Party but focus on media allegations. Williamson’s main opposition to the motion was based on Labour’s origins and their social policies. The Labour Party is responsible for the majority of social reform to date in this country; the NHS, minimum wage, equal pay and civil partnerships to name a few. The Labour Party has historically stood for progressive, social reform aiming to improve the lives of every citizen regardless of political persuasion. For a successful argument in favour of the motion, one would have to be able to argue that Labour’s social and economic policies create far more inequality than equality – and that is simply not feasible. When encouraged by Williamson to offer a defence of the Conservative Party’s policies and how these have helped inequality, Udy refused to answer and claimed that the debate was on the Labour Party and we should not be talking about the Conservative Party.
Now, for someone who argues for a living (Udy is a historian), this is a pretty petty excuse. The Labour Party and Conservative Party are the two main parties in Westminster and they are so inextricably linked, one cannot be discussed without the other. Additionally, the focus of the debate, ‘nasty party’, is a term established by Theresa May herself. This refusal to talk about Conservative social policy, to me, felt like a continuation of the attitude of denial.
Williamson so helpfully pointed out that recently the British Medical Journal has accused the current government of ‘economic murder’ as they estimate that 120,000 citizens have died from the direct actions of Conservative policy. And by 2020 this is expected to be at a figure of 200,000. If this is not a demonstration of the motion ‘nasty party’ then I do not know what is. When facing these harrowing statistics, Udy refused to offer or debate anything on them, indeed, parallels can be made with the Conservative Party. Last week it came out that the richest 1% own half the world’s wealth, which demonstrates a vast amount of inequality. However, within the debate Udy claimed that elitism does not exist. As a historian, he should know better and this is further illustrative of his policy of denial. Sometimes it seems that people are so engulfed in their own bubble that they cannot possibly see the extent of inequality going on around them.
Udy also attacked young people and the recent Corbyn surge in the 2017 election. He claimed young people were in denial and did not properly understand socialism. He claimed that they were disillusioned by false understanding and the socialism that Corbyn has promoted. He said they will be sorely disappointed. This is evocative of many current views and the interpretation of young politics; they are branded as people who do not understand, who are mindlessly optimistic and unaware of political realities. Many believe that the rise of young people participating and the possible election of Corbyn would induce some kind of chaotic mania of a government that would destroy the country. But this assumption has no validity when the country has gone steadily downhill since 2010. To assume that Corbyn’s surge from young people was based on misunderstanding and deception is frankly insulting – young people may be young and optimistic, but I see that as a good thing. They are the driving force in a political era of doom and gloom. But also, they are not blindly voting for Corbyn out of pure optimism. Young Corbyn supporters are fed up with a near decade of Tory rule and the effects they have induced on society. To not take the young vote seriously is a big mistake – and one made by Theresa May in the 2017 election.
Today, we are faced with increased problems of unemployment, homelessness and people taking their own lives due to the extent of deprivation and despair they feel. As one of the richest countries in the world, we are one that is also the most divided. The Conservative Party has been in power since 2010, but their policies of anti-Austerity have impacted the lives of many and forced many more into lives of poverty and desperation. With our NHS crumbling and the housing crisis looming, it is hard to not see social security declining and inequality on the rise. Whether it is a policy of denial or blindness, I do not know. But with this in mind, it is very hard to see Corbyn’s Labour party as the nasty one.