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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.

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What does the working-class boxing community think of the Labour party?

Traditional boxing gyms are often the only refuge and means of empowerment left in communities. How do they feel in these places about each of the leadership candidates?

After Brexit sucker-punched the political establishment, many have been looking for a counter shot. For some in the Labour party (I could say in the blue corner, but I won’t throw any low blows), the idea has been to elect Owen Smith. They feel that Jeremy Corbyn, in the far left corner (sorry), is not a proposition traditional working-class Labour voters can support.

Leeds is a tricky southpaw of a city, substantial affluent patches alongside some of the most deprived areas in the country. The majority of the council is Labour, as are its MPs. The latter range from the likes of Smith supporter Rachel Reeves to Corbyn-supporting Richard Burgon. Yet it is also a city that only just voted to remain in the EU, and has three Ukip MEPs compared with its two from Labour.

I often say one of the few places you’ll find all of the city's myriad social groups in one place is in the city’s high-quality boxing gyms, be they Irish traveller, black British, Asian or white working class. I have spent a large amount of time in them as a practitioner, trainer and journalist. Boxing gyms are almost always in a city’s less glamorous location and Leeds is no different, located at various points within the "circle of deprivation" around the city centre. These gyms are often the only refuge and means of empowerment left in communities long ago stripped of communal centers, libraries or efficient transport links to the wider area.

I know a large number of people who voted leave – not because they are racists, bigots, idiots, or any other accusation levelled at them. But simply because they feel abandoned and ignored by the status quo.

People in boxing are self-made, be it due to dedication to training around working a day job, volunteering time to train the next generation or setting up there own community gym. They are the kind of individuals Corbyn or Smith need to inspire when the leadership election is over. 

In its current guise however, the party as a whole is a disorganised mess, which offers little incentive to support it. I truly don’t believe, from conversations I’ve had, that people care about Blarites, Trots or any of the numerous other examples of incessant petty name-calling. The suggestion from die-hard supporters of either leadership candidate that one could suddenly sweep the board and regain or retain votes simply isn’t realistic. Boxers, and by extension, working people, are not ignorant or stupid. But few know or care who either candidate even is – not very dissimilar to Corbyn not knowing who Ant & Dec are.

Dave Allen, a title contender heavyweight from South Yorkshire, another area with pockets of deprivation and a huge tradition of voting Labour, expressed a common opinion. A Labour supporter, his main wish is that the winner is someone who is actually honest with voters, and provides factual information from which to make opinions. “I would to think that Labour, moving forward, will do all they can to support working-class people by giving them an opportunity to voice their opinions and concerns and that these are listened to and acted upon,” he says.

My personal opinion is that Corbyn at least offers an alternative to people who have long lost interest in career politicians, and an ideology upon which campaigners can hang their hat when in the community. Smith is the kind of identikit politician who people I speak to believe is parachuted into areas, unleashes some soundbites like a quick one-two punch and then bounces out of range, unaccountable. At least Corbyn has a substantial supporter base within his own party, who can try and campaign on his behalf within these communities and try and turn that tide of apathy.

Complacency is a boxer's biggest enemy – it really can only take one shot. As a Labour supporter and voter, I hope many in the party don’t succumb to being knocked out for the count.

James Oddy is a freelance sports writer, boxer and trainer. He tweets @Oddy1J.