The chair of this year's Labour Party conference, Margaret Beckett opened proceedings yesterday emphasising the importance of civility. A few hours later, Angela Rayner delivered some remarks to a Labour conference fringe event which included the following description of the Tories:
— Mikey Smith (@mikeysmith) September 25, 2021
Rayner: “I’m sick of shouting from the sidelines, and i bet youse lot are too. We cannot get any worse than a bunch of scum, homophobic, racist, mysoginistic, absolute pile …of banana republic…Etonian…piece of scum…and I held back a little…that I have ever seen in my life” pic.twitter.com/YzDAKlWflt
Well, she’s running. Labour's deputy leader has suffered false starts in her efforts to drop the ‘deputy’ from her title but such brazen pandering is a sure sign she hasn't given up her designs on Sir Keir Starmer’s job. Tories might object to locutions such as ‘Etonian… piece of scum’ and try to imagine the level-seven nuclear meltdown that would proceed from a senior Conservative calling Rayner 'schemie scum’ or the like. They might think that being condemned as ‘racist’ by a member of the Labour Party is like having your parenting skills questioned by Rose West. They might wonder why Rayner couldn’t express her views in moderation, in good humour – in English. ‘That was post-watershed, with a group of activists at an event last night,’ she told Sky News this morning, enjoining them ‘to get fire in your belly’. She said she was trying to get across ‘anger and frustration’ and such language was the ‘passionate way in which I do it’. The s-word, she said, is ‘my street language’ and ‘a phrase you hear very often in northern working-class towns’.
— Trevor Phillips on Sunday (@RidgeOnSunday) September 26, 2021
Angela Rayner defends describing Tories as "scum", describing the comment as "street language" that you'd hear "very often in Northern working class towns"Follow #Phillips live: https://t.co/p91FXzumkX pic.twitter.com/4DpnSdd5Qm
To a certain kind of Labour member, though, this is ‘four score and seven years ago’ stuff. They want to hear the Tories called scum because that is what they believe them to be and because they think politics is an exercise in moral shepherding, separating Labour sheep from Tory goats. This is what comes of organising your political beliefs around an exaggerated sense of your own virtue. Labour's ethical superiority complex is not new and Rayner’s jeremiad is simply a less fluent rendering of Aneurin Bevan’s most famous speech:
“[N]o amount of cajolery, and no attempts at ethical or social seduction, can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party that inflicted those bitter experiences on me. So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin.
Bevan’s inflammatory, sinisterly dehumanising language drew a reprimand from Clement Attlee, who wrote to tell his health minister his speech was ‘unfortunate’, 'singularly ill-timed’ and had provoked 'a great deal of criticism… including a good deal from your own party’. Where a Labour member comes down on this disagreement, 73 years later, is a reliable barometer of whether she believes it the party’s role to do right or be right. That the phrase ‘lower than vermin’ remains in currency today suggests the latter could give a decent accounting for themselves against the former.
Bevan’s speech was ill-timed because it was delivered on July 4, 1948, the eve of the NHS's launch. Attlee thought the speech had undermined the government’s rollout of its signal achievement and could jeopardise Bevan’s own efforts to get doctors on-board. Bevan also succeeded in bringing together tens of thousands of right-wingers to form anti-Labour campaign group the Vermin Club, which Margaret Thatcher is reputed to have encountered and joined later that year. Attlee chided Bevan for a polemic which he felt had distracted attention from the minister's skill in getting the Health Bill through Parliament – ‘without doing any good’. When you are so thoroughly convinced that you are good, there is less motivation to do good.
Bevan was a gobby hater who did not just good but great things. So far Rayner appears to have the first bit down pat but has yet to shown signs the second part is on its way. In this she is emblematic of Labour's soft-left, who divide their time between talking among themselves and talking down to everyone else. Their self-righteousness is a schoolmarmish form of self-harm in which tutting at the world becomes a substitute for changing it and purity in defeat cherished over compromise in power. Winning would sully them.
Expect some to retail the nonsense that Rayner's verbal bludgeoning of her opponents will appal and disgust the voters. The voters don't care about politicians calling each other names. They call them much worse. The only thing that will appal them is the discovery that there are people who voluntarily spend their Saturday nights in half-empty function rooms talking about politics. Self-righteous and weird.