WHY didn’t you censor our members’ letters? It may sound like a slightly curious premise to start a complaint to the local press, but sure enough that’s what senior figures in Camden Labour’s set-up wanted from us after accusing their colleagues of using Nazi analogy against them.
First Neil Fletcher, the former Kilburn councillor who was once a high-up on the old ILEA, used the word ‘quislings’ to describe local politicians in articles in both the Camden New Journal and the Hampstead and Highgate Express, and then Terence Flanagan, questioning Camden’s performance on affordable housing, reached for the words of a Nazi propagandist to say in the letters pages: “The cynic within me suggests that Camden’s Labour councillors have adopted the tactics often attributed to Joseph Goebbels that ‘If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it’.”
Such sentiments caused distress inside the party, but it seemed odd that those who wanted to make clear how angry they were about the choice of language from these internal critics seemed more cross that the newspapers had published the letters in the first place… than the fact they had come, not from rivals from other political parties or anonymous writers, but their own membership.
They were, it should be said, not commissioned by us.
Some members were very offended, particularly those with personal stories to tell, and yet nobody in the Labour Party felt the offence was of such concern that they enforced a sanction strong enough to stop it happening again. There were months between Mr Fletcher’s first use of the word ‘quislings’ – originally taken from the name of the Norwegian puppet leader Vidkun Quisling who did a deal with Hitler – in the New Journal and his use of it again in the Ham and High, yet on both occasions he was able to write as a party member.
His opponents were ready to hammer the local press for running them, but inside their own party the story goes that Mr Fletcher was asked to apologise, he declined to, and that was more or less it. And he’s still writing away as a voice from within the Labour membership.
There is clamming up when asked what other disciplinary measures have been taken – ‘we won’t discuss internal Labour Party matters etc etc’ – and Mr Fletcher says it would be ‘news to him’ if he was facing any suspension or expulsion threat.
Labour whip Richard Olszewski went on to call Mr Flanagan a “ranter” on Twitter, before fellow councillor Theo Blackwell wrote to both papers with his own comeback. If Cllr Blackwell sounded angry in the CNJ doing this, he ratcheted it up another notch for his contribution to the Ham and High: “Ranting Terry Flanagan likens hard-working councillors to Nazi propagandists, just as his buddy-in-anger Neil Fletcher has repeatedly baited us as ‘quislings’ about our attempt to build social housing on the site of the old council offices at West End Lane. It’s more evidence of the normalisation of such language within crank hard left circles these days.”
Crank hard left circles? Inside the Labour Party? Cllr Blackwell, who spoke up for Liz Kendall in the Labour leadership campaign won by Jeremy Corbyn last year, perhaps deliberately reveals the fault line here. Whether these very vocal critics really represent the hard left, or whether they even identify themselves as Corbynites is not known. Any thoughts about how the cranks these days may affect the selection of council candidates in the future is also a puzzle probably best left for another day. As is the whole question of the tetchy temperature in West Hampstead right now and whether the planning committee will truly be able to be seen to be making a fair verdict when 156 West End Lane is eventually decided after the divisive and public debate which has already taken place with some of their councillor colleagues.
It’s often said that if you want to check the pulse of a local newspaper, have a look at the health of its letters page. The breadth each week in the New Journal is one of the things that makes the paper a good thing. Sometimes people feel their letters have been cut too sharply but that’s just because we want to get as many voices in as possible, on as many different subjects. The most disappointed claim that criticism of the paper or its editorials is deliberately cut from public view, but there’s a whole archive of back issues at Holborn Library which show this isn’t the case.
But what about that Nazi analogy? Were the papers wrong to publish the comments in the form they were sent in? You wouldn’t just print anything, one councillor upset that they did go to press said to me this week. and they are right: No, we wouldn’t. Like we didn’t take ads from the BNP when they approached us.
The councillor, however, also pointed me to the internet theme, Godwin’s Law, in which it is suggested that once such language is deployed in an argument, then its user has as good as lost. If that rings the true, then the letters would expose a victory and defeat here, surely. The readers after all can make up their own mind about what they think of someone and their views from the language they choose, and whether the use of quislings and Goebbels is actually a sign of desperation and weakness.
My own view is that throwaway references to the war, Nazis, concentration camps and so on are used too often generally, and strangely enough often by people who are blessed with a natural eloquence. The respected polymath Jonathan Miller once suggested, for example, the market arch put up by the council at the start of Inverness Street Market in Camden Town many years ago resembled the gates of Auschwitz.
I used to live right by the overground station at Alexandra Palace and when they put up new fencing around the bridge, some unimpressed neighbour told the Ham and High in Haringey that the wire barriers looked like a concentration camp. I’ve never been to Auschwitz, but I’m guessing it’s got a different look and feel to Inverness Street Market or Ally Pally station.
I wrote a blog on all this then, finding from a quick scan of local newspapers across the country that there were people busy comparing holiday camps, housing estates, anything with an arch or a gate to concentration camps all over the country. You’d think everyone should be able to think of a better comparison or words to say they don’t like something, but there’s no doubting it has creeped into regular use. I can understand how that will be upsetting for many, but whether we are should censor it is an open debate.
In the end, in this case we come back to the point that we are talking about Labour Party members disagreeing with Labour Party members, and these correspondence were not a hate speech letter or an anonymous poison piece dropped through the door in green ink. Maybe the real frustration for those who blamed the papers this week actually lies with some of the people they will be sitting opposite at the next branch meeting.