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"Divide and rule"? Diane Abbott was right, says Laurie Penny

The privileged will do anything to distract attention from their own power.

The privileged will do anything to distract attention from their own power.

Racism, as the British National Party and its neo-fascist street imitators have been arguing for years, cuts both ways. On 4 January, a black British woman MP hammered out a comment on Twitter which could, taken entirely out of context, be interpreted as a a generalisation about white people. Diane Abbott MP is now Britain's best-known racist -- in a week when the nation's top story has been the prosecution of the murder of a black teenager by a gang of white youths and the subsequent "institutional racism" that was unearthed in the handling of the case by the Metropolitan police.

But hang on, what was it that Abbott actually said? Let's have a little look at the generalisation over which the Hackney MP got a public dressing-down from her own party. Abbott said that "white people" like to play the game of "divide and rule". That's rude, isn't it? Clearly she thinks that ordinary white people like me spend the waking hours between tooth-brushing and the office dividing and ruling. It couldn't possibly be a comment on the structural imposition of power along lines of race and class, particularly not from a veteran anti-racist campaigner, and especially not in a week where institutional racism is in the news. That would just be silly.

Dorian Lynskey's comments on the matter are worth quoting at length. He points out that Abbott, who has a track record of saying the right thing in just the wrong way -- "she should have said 'white people in power' or 'certain white people'" -- was essentially on the money.

[Abbott] clarified that she was referring to 19th century colonialism when, to take just one example, the Belgians colonising modern-day Rwanda strategically favoured the Tutsis over the Hutus and sowed the seeds of attempted genocide a century later. But you don't need to go back that far. The US government's efforts to disrupt the civil rights and Black Power movements are a textbook example of divide-and-rule. It is what dominant powers do. To read her tweet as an indictment of every single white person in the world requires either paranoia or malice. Most of all it means denying that power matters.

The British right has always been allergic to any structural understanding of racial politics, and all week, the commentariat has been coming out in hives. A day before Abbottgate, a Telegraph leader wrung its hands over the profound impact of the Lawrence trial on racial awareness in British public life, complaining that "people" have "found themselves denounced for harmless, if inappropriate, remarks". Elsewhere, former Prospect editor David Goodhart wrote that:

If the Stephen Lawrence case may help to diminish a black grievance culture, it is likely to increase a white working class one . . . this is part of a broader story of how parts of white working class London, especially in the east and the south, felt that they had to accommodate the changes required by post-war immigration...and then had to endure lectures about racism from middle class liberals whose lives had not been changed at all.

The argument that the "white working class" has had anti-racist politics forced on it by "middle class liberals" is an insult to those white working-class people who have spent years, sometimes lifetimes, fighting racism in their communities. In Barking and Dagenham in 2010, thousands of the borough's residents mobilised to stop the British National Party gaining a foothold in Westminster. Goodhart's lazy generalisations play right into the language of the modern far-right: that anti-racism is itself racist, and that any gains for black people must produce equal and opposite losses for white people, in a world in which privilege and prejudice can never be fought, only redistributed.

There's a term for that tactic. The term is "divide and rule".

It's a tactic, as Abbott herself put it, "as old as colonialism" - and it's also a tactic as modern as Twitter. When those with an ideological or personal stake in defending the interests of privilege feel themselves under threat, their first line of defence is often to persuade the underprivileged that it is they who are under attack.

Rick Perry and Mitt Romney defend tax-breaks for the super-rich by telling blue-collar Americans that Democrats and union workers want to cut their paycheques: divide and rule. David Cameron denounces industrial action by encouraging low-paid private sector workers to complain that the pensions public sector workers are striking to protect are higher than theirs: divide and rule. David Willetts tells unemployed men that it's all these selfish women in the workplace who have taken their jobs: divide and rule. Ed Miliband and Liam Byrne, not to mention Ian Duncan Smith, defend the dismantling of the welfare state by persuading the working class that those in receipt of housing benefit are scroungers scamming the system. Divide, dismiss -- and rule.

Everywhere, the right fights public awareness of structural injustice by re-phrasing it as a personal attack by one vulnerable demographic on another. Structural injustice itself cannot be wedged into the story of neoliberalism, which reduces everything to a cloying moral syrup of personal responsibility lectures -- except where the banking sector is involved, of course.

What's missing from the story -- what's always missing -- is power. Defenders of privilege and hierarchy will do anything at all to distract attention from power, and to re-phrase attacks on power as attacks on the powerless. The chorus of faux-outrage over Abbott's tweet isn't just cynical; in a week when structural racism is in the news, it's a classic game of divide and rule.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Coders for Corbyn
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Can emojis win elections?

Jeremy Corbyn has claimed his campaign's use of technology would be the "path to victory" in 2020. But can emojis play a meaningful part? 

When photographic campaign badges were first unleashed in 1860, a Facebook commenter posted on Abraham Lincoln’s wall: “What is this? Today’s youth are doomed” and then, a moment later, “You call this news?”*

It might be tempting to react in a similar way to the fact that Jeremy Corbyn emoji – or rather, Jeremoji – are now a thing. Small digital stickers of the flat-capped Labour leader expressing joy and sadness might seem like the End Of Serious Political Campaigning As We Know It, but are they really that different from the multitude of deft and daft political campaign buttons throughout history?

Well, yes. Because there will be a marrow.

Beyond the marrow, however, Jeremoji aren’t actually that revolutionary. Before Kim Kardashian crashed the App Store with the 9,000 downloads a second of her Kimoji in December 2015, we here at the New Statesman created a much-needed Yvette Cooper emoji. Around the same time, Bernie Sanders supporters released BerniemojiThe slightly-less pleasing to the ear Hillarymoji were also unveiled by Hillary Clinton campaigners two months ago, though none of these apps were officially endorsed by their respective candidates.

“We’re not affiliated, we’re totally independent,” says Gregory Dash from Coders for Corbyn, the group behind Jeremoji, and a wider online volunteer toolkit for Corbyn supporters. “A lot of us have social links with the campaign and we ran ideas past them and got feedback but as an organisation we’re totally independent and all volunteers.”

Dash reveals that a variety of professional and amateur artists contributed to the emoji and that unfortunately, as the marrow design is currently being finalised, it won’t be in the first version of the app. Once the app has been approved by Google Play and the App Store, it should be available to the public in the coming weeks.

“Mainly they’re just fun but we’re also hoping we’ll be able to communicate some of the main message of Jeremy’s campaign,” says Dash.

But are Dash and other developers misguided in their attempts to promote sexagenarian politicians via a communication tool favoured by teens? Hillary Clinton has already been mocked for her attempts to capture the youth vote via memes, and has proven on multiple occasions that trying to be “down with the kids” can backfire. Corbyn’s own digital manifesto was met with scorn by some yesterday.

“To be very honest, the emojis are pretty cringy,” says Max Rutter, a 17-year-old from Oxford. “I know that they are targeted towards teens but politics isn't something most teens talk about on social media, and these emojis could only be used in a political conversation. Corbyn doesn't need emojis to get teens on his side, he just needs to stick to his guns and keep telling it like it is.”

A 2013 London School of Economics study on Youth Participation In Democratic Life supports Max’s assertions. The final report found that although in theory young people wanted politicians to use social media more, in practice it led to more negative perceptions of politicians and “an increased perception of the gap between political elites and the young.” Moreover, teens exposed to a social media campaign were less likely to vote than those who only received political flyers.

Jeremoji, then, may not ultimately capture the youth vote, and nor are they likely to make lifelong Conservatives pause and say, “On second thoughts, yes. This Corbyn chap is the man for me.” So what will they achieve?

“We’re hoping to do some emojis around Corbyn’s ten pledges and allow people to share them that way,” says Dash. The app already contains emojis affiliated with the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign, a society seeking justice for miners after the Battle of Orgreave in June 1984. Dash also hopes to get emojis supporting the No More Blacklisting campaign and Save Our Steel.

“We want to have it so you go to the Orgreave campaign and you click the emoji and it will give you a little bit of information about the campaign as well,” Dash says. “Emojis then become a tool to communicate all these different campaigns that are going on. There are amazing things going on that the wider Labour membership may not know about.”

Coders for Corbyn seek the approval of each of these campaigns before creating the emoji, as they don’t want to seem as if they’re exploiting campaigns to make themselves look better “like Owen Smith did”. But despite their current affiliation with Corbyn, the group plan to rebrand as Coders for Labour after the leadership election.

“I’m not sure there would be the same demand for Owen Smith emojis, but we'd definitely still be producing Labour themed emojis for people to use,” says Dash, when I ask what he’d do if Smith won.

Dash tells me when iOS10 launches in the autumn, emojis will be available at three times their current size, and will be more like stickers. This means they can communicate complicated messages from various campaigns, and may also lose any potential stigma associated with the word “emoji”. In the late 20th century, campaign buttons like Lincoln’s were replaced by cheaper disposable label stickers. It makes sense for these in turn to be replaced by digital stickers. Even if emoji can’t win elections, they may still prove powerful in raising awareness.

The UK’s currently most used emoji is the despairing crying face. Personally, I see no problem with it becoming a marrow.

*May not strictly be true 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.