The biggest talking point from the Shadow Cabinet reshuffle thus far was undoubtedly the appointment of Diane Abbott as Shadow Home Secretary. The appointment has seen the discord within Labour ignited once again as one of Corbyn’s staunchest allies has secured a prominent position.
Those who criticised the Labour Party for not having enough women in power have been oddly silent on Abbott’s appointment, but these were also largely people who supported Owen Smith despite his frequent sexist gaffes, and whom cheered for Jess Phillips ousting of Dawn Butler as Chair of the Women’s PLP.
Since the news broke about Abbott’s new role, the onslaught on Twitter and across social media has been relentless.
— Sir Peter Mannion MP (@PeterMannionMP) October 7, 2016
Except for Diane Abbott. She's full of shit. pic.twitter.com/bzwa6TTic9
— Jock McPaddyTaff (@Fedupwithclowns) October 7, 2016
@joglasg You have a problem you're obsessed with the word racist so why not call Diane Abbott a racist she hates whites is that ok with you?
— Joyce jack (@n00dle123) October 7, 2016
— Philip Rock (@rock2shark) October 2, 2016
Since Jeremy Corbyn was elected as leader of the Labour Party (the first time) Abbott has regularly been harassed online. She’s received torrents of abuse attempting to silence her and there have been hundreds of racist images online. Abbott has carried on with her work, rising above it all and refusing to respond.
A good deal of the reaction has been centred around the idea that Abbott is racist. It’s not something that stands up to fact because it’s only ever said in reference to whenever Abbott points out racism that people of colour face. What is clear is that white people cannot stand their privilege being threatened.
The charge of racism is often delivered from this quote in the wake of the Brexit result. However, what’s been largely ignored is that Abbott was specifically referring to those who voted on the basis of the current situation regarding freedom of movement, and certainly not all those who voted Brexit. Those who take this specific reference and use it to apply to all Brexit voters are engaging in their own ‘Project Fear’.
Abbott’s quote is also backed up by the anti migrant sentiment that has gripped our political sphere. Hate crimes have gone up by almost 60% since the vote to leave the European Union. Whether intentional or not, a direct result of the referendum has been an increase in xenophobia. Despite Leavers protestations that many people voted on issues such as sovereignty, this hasn’t stopped the fact that the focus before and after Brexit has been on limiting migration.
The entire Tory Party conference focused upon migration, and linked Brexit to a vote to cut immigration. Brexit is being used as a pretext for tough migrant controls while the government has ignored promises such as £350 million for the NHS. Leave made so many promises that it’s hard to even begin to fathom what people were voting for because everyone was promised a very different post-Brexit Britain and yet the only message the Tories have given is one of anti migrant dogma.
The stance by the Tories is so severe that they’ve gone as far to announce plans to force companies to reveal how many migrant workers they hire. Abbott’s comments therefore were not far off the mark; those within the Tories who wanted stricter migrant controls delivered by Brexit are promising a harsher future than what many in the country are comfortable with. So when the government is going so far, and when Abbott is staunchly defending all migrants and their human rights (white migrants from the EU and migrants of colour) then who exactly is guilty of racism?
Racism against white people cannot exist in the UK because white people have created institutions of power which are centred around their identity. Racism as a term is not about one incident, but about structural inequalities and discrimination which people face over the course of their lives. White people are inevitably protected by their skin colour, people of colour are not. What many white people cannot understand is that it is not to deny that white people may face issues in their lives (such as trauma, discrimination in other areas such as sexuality or gender etc.) but that they do not face systematic discrimination due to skin colour.
Xenophobic attacks have been on the rise as a result on the increase of nationalism in the UK in this post-Brexit landscape but that is still distinct to racism and a separate issue. Furthermore, Diane Abbott would be the first to argue against anti migrant rhetoric as she has regularly offered support to white Eastern European migrants while many in her Party pander to inflammatory language.
On issues that do impact the working class, Abbott has a strong and proud record. She’s challenged Blairism and particularly focused upon the unjust war in Iraq that led to the deaths of many Iraqi civilians. Troops in the army are overwhelmingly comprised of white working class young men and so her actions in standing against Blair, and standing for what was best for the UK public and Iraq, has meant that she has treated the white working class in Britain with arguably more respect than any of Blair’s allies ever did.
While Labour, under Harman’s leadership, failed to stand up to the Tories and the destruction of social security, Abbott remained committed in her position that the state should offer support to those who need it. Abbott has long argued that the poorest in society did not create the financial crisis. Instead, it was due to the irresponsibility of bankers and she’s gone so far as to support the bankers’ tax. The idea therefore that Abbott cannot be trusted to fight for the working class is not backed up by her record.
Abbott was the first to call out Labour’s shocking ‘controls on immigration’ mugs that were launched under Ed Miliband. She’s also worked tirelessly in her role as Shadow Health Secretary to try to protect the NHS which the working class of the UK will disproportionately rely on far more, due partly to likely long hours of work (especially those in heavy industry or carrying out manual labour) but also because they simply cannot afford private healthcare.
Her work on the NHS has also included a vehement case for providing greater mental health services. It’s often said that mental ill health is indiscriminate but this is not strictly true; financial pressures often place a tremendous burden on mental health and combined with disproportionate cuts to poorer areas means that mental health services are a class issue.
In the face of almost constant abuse, where her own colleagues have told her to “fuck off” and tried to silence her, Abbott has never let that sway her work. She’s dogged by unfounded allegations of being racist towards white people and yet her record is never discussed, nor her achievements ever acknowledged.
Let’s not forget that in the 1990s police have been found to have spied upon anti racist groups- and Diane Abbott. It reveals a culture of distrust for anyone campaigning for equality and social justice (particularly if they are people of colour) rather than questioning the racism prevalent in society.
Abbott’s new role then therefore arguably is the perfect selection; she knows well the issues surrounding the police who are still dogged by allegations of abuses of power, particularly concerning people of colour.
Abbott’s record and experience suggests that she is more than capable of fulfilling this role, regardless of whatever political ideology one may hold. She’s a stalwart of the Labour Party and still tirelessly campaigns based on principles, often while many in Labour are content to squabble among themselves. Abbott’s appointment reveals far more about the Labour Party and the British public than it does about her. If you want to judge how fair a society is, look at how it reacts to a qualified woman of colour getting a top job and that will tell you everything you need to know.