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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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Will Corbynites be in charge of the Labour Party forever?

What yesterday's important rule changes say about Jeremy Corbyn and his senior team.

Corbynism forever? That's the general verdict on the consequence of Jeremy Corbyn's big victory on Labour's ruling executive yesterday, as the NEC passed proposals to reform the party's structures. The big ticket items: an expansion of the number of trade union and membership places on the NEC, and a reduction in the number of parliamentary signatures required for candidates for the party leadership, from 15 per cent to 10 per cent of the PLP. (That's 28 MPs and MEPs or 26 MPs if the next leadership election takes place if/when Brexit has happened and there are no MEPs.)

"Forever" is an awfully long time, and you don't have to remember that far back to a time when one member, one vote was meant to ensure that the likes of David Miliband would be elected leader forever. "Forever" turned out to mean "not at all". Labour has an amusing tradition of its constitutional quirks not quite working out the way its architects hope, and it may well happen the same way this time.

The far more interesting story is what these rule changes say about Jeremy Corbyn and his senior team. They're getting better at games of "you scratch my back, I scratch yours" with the trade unions. The leadership also backed the Jewish Labour Movement's motion giving the party tougher powers to kick anti-Semites out and released a statement about it, too. As well as being the right thing to do, there's a crude electoral argument here – if Labour can repair its relationship with the community, its dominance in the capital and elsewhere will only increase.

All in all, the Labour leader is taking the challenge of winning more seriously and his team are increasingly streetwise. His internal opponents, well, they seem to be going in the opposite direction.

You don't have to agree with it to see that there is a good principled case to be made against weakening the right of MPs to help select the party's leader. Making it might even help Labour's Corbynsceptics, as one of their biggest problems is that Labour members see them as unprincipled. Yet instead of making it, they're criticising the move as "a power grab", and one that divides Labour when they should be uniting against the Tories. Bluntly, Corbyn grabbed power once in September 2015 and again in September 2016 and consolidated it in June 2017.  And the problem is, it's only divisive because Corbynsceptics are opposing it.

(Also, let's face it, if June 2017 had ended in a Labour rout, you better believe that whichever Corbynsceptic MP emerged as leader would be changing the hell out of the Labour party rulebook right about now rather than focusing on beating the Tories.)

Although there are significant exceptions – Bridget Phillipson's recent longread for the New Statesman is one – it's all too rare to hear a senior Corbynsceptic argue from principle rather than expediency. And until that changes, Corbynites will, indeed, remain in charge of Labour forever.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.