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By dehumanising the opposition, Labour undermines its own credibility

If political debate is to be more than a brutal slugging match of abuse, oversimplification and cheap slogans, then we must learn to respectfully disagree with our opponents, writes Barry Gardiner

Saturday 15 April 2023 19:40 BST
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‘We need to give hope to our country, not sling mud’
‘We need to give hope to our country, not sling mud’ (Labour)

Attacking the prime minister is exactly what any leader of the opposition should do. The attack should be about their policies: pointing out failures, broken promises, their complete lack of vision for our country. There’s no shortage of material. It should not seek to dehumanise them as monsters who don’t care about sexual assaults on children.

In war, dehumanising the enemy is a common strategy. It is a bad strategy. It is what leads to human rights violations. In politics, the strategy is just as flawed. There may be people in politics who are genuinely evil, setting out deliberately to ruin the lives of others.

Rishi Sunak is not one of them. His policies have ruined lives, but that is because he’s wrong, not because he is evil. If we blur the distinction between policy and person, we descend into the gutter. Child abuse is a sickening crime, not an instrument to be weaponised against a political opponent.

Tactically it’s also a mistake. It potentially undermines Labour’s own credibility. If people don’t recognise the monster we paint, they will not believe our valid criticisms of his policies. We are strongest when setting out the facts: rock bottom conviction rates, 7 million people on NHS waiting lists, the spiralling energy costs and half a million children needing food banks.

I don’t know how anyone can feel good about humiliating their fellow human being. If political debate is to be more than a brutal slugging match of abuse, oversimplification and cheap slogans, then we must learn to respectfully disagree with our opponents – and that applies equally to those within our own party. Our arguments will emerge stronger through democratic debate, not through a climate of fear where uniformity is substituted for unity.

It is depressing that the same dehumanisation finds an echo inside the Labour Party – stopping the former leader from standing as a Labour candidate. The strategists rightly want to show that “the party has changed” but seem to be frightened by the monster they themselves have painted.

If any member has broken the party rules, let them be disciplined. But transparency is crucial. To cast aside due process is wrong. To simply say we believe that a person’s candidacy is not in the best interests of the party is a new and subjective test. In fact, it is no test at all.

Labour’s election gurus should ask how a successful political strategy can rely on constantly reminding the voter of how unelectable their party used to be?

We need to give hope to our country. Families have seen wages cut, housing and employment become insecure, the NHS failing both children and grandparents. Against Conservative austerity and decline, Labour needs to share an optimistic vision of the new jobs and better quality of life that a green industrial revolution will bring. New technologies that Labour will harness to work for everyone. Labour has that vision. Dehumanising people only distracts from it.

Barry Gardiner is a Labour politician and the member of parliament for Brent North

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