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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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Why a Labour split may be in the interests of both sides

Divorce may be the best option, argues Nick Tyrone. 

Despite everything that is currently happening within the Labour Party - the open infighting amongst party officials, the threat of MPs being deselected, an increasingly bitter leadership contest between two people essentially standing on the same policy platform – the idea of a split is being talked down by everyone involved. The Labour Party will “come together” after the leadership election, somehow. The shared notion is that a split would be bad for everyone other than the Tories.

Allow me to play devil’s advocate. What the Corbynistas want is a Labour Party that is doctrinarily pure. However small that parliamentary party might be for the time being is irrelevant. The basic idea is to build up the membership into a mass movement that will then translate into seats in the House of Commons and eventually, government. You go from 500,000 members to a million, to two million, to five million until you have enough to win a general election.

The majority of the parliamentary Labour party meanwhile believe that properly opposing the Tories in government through conventional means, i.e. actually attacking things the Conservatives put forth in parliament, using mass media to gain public trust and then support, is the way forward. Also, that a revitalisation of social democracy is the ideology to go with as opposed to a nebulous form of socialism.

These two ways of looking at and approaching politics not only do not go together, they are diametric opposites. No wonder the infighting is so vicious; there is no middle way between Corbynism and the bulk of the PLP.

I understand that the Labour MPs do not want to give up on their party, but I don’t see how the membership is shifting in their favour any time soon. Most talk around a split understandably comes back to 1981 and the SDP very quickly yet consider this: the most defections the SDP ever achieved were 28. If there was a split now, it would probably involve the vast majority of the PLP, perhaps even 80 per cent of it – a very, very different proposition. There is also clearly a large number of people out there who want a centre-left, socially democratic, socially liberal party – and polls suggest that for whatever reason the Liberal Democrats cannot capitalise on this gap in the market. Some sort of new centre-left party with 150+ MPs and ex-Labour donors to kick it off just might.

Of course, a split could be a total disaster, at least in the short term, and allow the Tories further general election victories over the next decade. But let’s be honest here – given where we are, isn’t that going to happen anyhow? And if a split simply results in what happened in the 1980s recurring, thus eventually leading to a Labour Party capable of winning a general election again, would members of the PLP currently wondering what to do next not consider it worth it just for that?

Nick Tyrone is Chief Executive of Radix, the think tank for the radical centre.