Diane Abbott, Paul Flynn and Labour's queasy tolerance of the intolerable

Some in the party complacently assume historic anti-racist credentials are a permanent inoculation a

It's a little alarming to think that, in the space of a matter of weeks, two seasoned Labour politicians have stood accused of racism.

Backbencher Paul Flynn MP had always seemed like a fairly sensible lefty, until he one day decided to question the suitability of our ambassador to Israel on the grounds of his Jewishness. And, on Wednesday night, Diane Abbott came close to losing her Shadow ministerial post over a tweet which read "White people love playing divide and rule. We should not play their game". A comment which, as many observed, would surely have been a career-ending move for any politician had the word "black" been switched for "white" .

However, in the resulting Twitter-storms over both, we saw some examples of the opposite: the extraordinary logical contortions that people can be prepared to go through to defend an unacceptable view. It was notable, though, that these defenders, on issues which are not essentially-party political, seemed to come exclusively from the left of the Labour Party and the liberal-left media. In contrast, in the country at large, the condemnation, especially of Abbott, was widespread.

We need not go over again why her comment was unacceptable. But most worrying of all was the mindset that it gave us a window into: a thinking which separates "us" (black people) and "them" (white people). Most modern Britons, it may surprise Abbott to know, don't think like that. Now, Labour has obviously learned from Flynn, and this time things were handled considerably better: the apology was swift and Ed Miliband called Abbott immediately, in the middle of a Sky news interview, to give her a dressing-down.

With Flynn, part of the negative story was the shockingly long time - a whole week - that it took to get an apology, and the fact that the leadership seemed rather hands-off (the disciplining was left to the Chief Whip).

We might reasonably conclude that this better handling comes as a result of the outcry from the Jewish community about Flynn; the relative seniority of Abbott; and the fact that Miliband, in this latest case, does not have to deal with the issue of sensitivity to his own Jewish origins.

And yet, we are left unsatisfied: Diane Abbott is still in post when a Shadow minister making generalisations about "black people" clearly would not be. And it is also arguable that even then, had she been in another political party, her colleagues might not have been so understanding. For example, the Tories take any hint of association with racism or fascism very seriously nowadays. Aidan "Nazi stag party" Burley was only at the most junior level of government, but Cameron made a point, not only of sacking him, but commissioning a further investigation. Neither had Burley, despite his offensive behaviour, made any comment which anyone deemed racist.

Yes, there is a common thread which joins Flynn and Abbott: both exemplify the casual tendency on the left of the Labour Party to tolerate the intolerable when it comes to race. And not just what is said: who says it is important. In this case, it seems that we are obliged to treat Diane Abbott differently, as a talented young blogger, Stephen K Bush, has pointed out; as if black people were somehow incapable of racism.

I don't know how many times I have been stopped and searched. But I do know that it is an experience that not one of my university friends has ever undergone and is ever likely to undergo, because they are white, and I am not. But fortunately, it turns out that this means I can say whatever the hell I like about white people apparently, without any fear of reprisal, because I 'can't' be racist, at least according to the vast edifice of Diane Abbott apologia that has been erected on the Internet today.

And, it is worth noting that whilst, in the left-Labour blogosphere, you can indeed find many who defended Abbott, you can also find many like Stephen who feel mounting frustration with that kind of apologia in the party we love.

I believe Diane Abbott is not a racist. And neither is Paul Flynn. But both expressed totally unacceptable views. And it was not as though something slipped out which was misinterpreted in either case; that is a shabby twisting of the facts. MPs live and die - rightly - by the words they speak, and in neither case was there a reasonable alternative reading of those words.

The conclusion to all this is a simple one: that the Abbott affair is not about colonialism, as she risibly claimed; just as the Flynn affair was not about the Palestinian question. They are about the tolerance of the left to attitudes on race that the centre and the centre-right would have no truck with. An extraordinary reversal, from the party that once fought apartheid, and a tragedy.

Rob Marchant is a political commentator and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left.

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Miners against coal: the pit where former Welsh miners are protesting alongside climate change activists

The Merthyr Tydfil miners’ long history of struggle is spurring them on to a whole new form of action.

The retired miners and factory workers at the working men's club in the Welsh town of Merthyr Tydfil are no strangers to hard times. Our second son was born during the 1984 strike and we had nothing for 12 months, one member tells me. The town continues to struggle with unemployment – last year the rate for men was nearly double that of the UK as a whole – over three decades on from the miners’ strike. But these days the atmosphere at the club is more resigned than radical. A singer croons his way through “Only the Lonely”, while talk at the bar is of better times: days when work was plentiful, days when, “you went down the mine a boy and came up a man”.

When the deep pits closed in the 1980s, Merthyr became a dumping ground – quite literally. Not only is the nearby landfill one of Europe's biggest, the valley is now home to the largest opencast (open-pit) mining operation in the UK. Its towering spoil tips throw a Mordor-esque shadow over the community below, coating homes and lungs alike in dust. 

Even former miners lament the small number of poorly-regulated jobs the Ffos-Y-Fran pit currently provides. Opencast is lorry driving, not mining, is a sentiment I hear repeated across the town, from taxi rank to chip shop.

Just as the town's fortunes rose with coal, so they have plummeted as the industry has declined. Last year coal generation fell to its lowest level since the 1950s and the need to decarbonise looks set to reduce demand further. The effects of last December's Paris climate agreement – and its aim to limit warming below 2C  are already being felt: the Aberthaw power station is a key destination for Welsh coal, but recently announced plans to reduce its output.

The club's secretary can only think of one member who still works in the mine. Others I encounter chase shifts at the local meat-packing factory, or have to travel for over an hour outside the town. Support for jobs unsurprisingly usually trumps support for climate change deals: “If it brings in work, we don’t have a problem with it,” is the general consensus inside the club. If someone tells you they're against the mine, they're probably from England, not Wales, says a resident of the nearby village of Fochriw. 

The people of Merthyr, however, are also no strangers to fighting perceived injustice. In the early nineteenth century, Merthyr's thriving ironworks made it the largest town in Wales. But when depression hit in 1831, low wages and sudden dismissals drove many to despair. By the start of June that year, thousands gathered to march against the iron masters and coal barons. And for the very first time, the red flag of revolution was raised on British soil.

185 years later, while club members sipped their drinks, others are writing Merthyr's history afresh. Up on the hills above the town  beyond the litter-strewn fields and the “Danger: No trespass” signs  around 300 campaigners from across the UK gathered to call for an end to coal.

Led by the climate activist group Reclaim the Power, many of the camp’s young attendees work for Westminster MPs and NGOs. A litter-pick was followed by the rapid erection of communal kitchens and sustainable loos. There were safe spaces, legal training, and warnings not to disturb the nearby nesting birds.

On Tuesday morning, the activists occupied and (temporarily) shut down operations at the mine – tying themselves to machinery and lying across access roads in an attempt to symbolise the red line that carbon emissions must not cross. Their action is the first in a fortnight of global anti-fossil fuel protests  from plans for train heists in Albany, to protesting in kayaks in Vancouver. And while global reach counts for little without local support, the climate campaigners at Ffos-Y-Fran are not alone.

Since 2007, members of the United Valleys Action Group (UVAG), a group of local residents and ex-miners, have fought the mine's planned expansion into the nextdoor valley. On Tuesday, many joined with the activists to blockade the entrance to the mine's headquarters. One member, 56-year-old Phil Duggan, has worked in the pits from the age of 16. And while he is “no tree-hugger”, he is tired of accepting jobs at any cost.

I don't want my children to suffer the ill health I have,” he says. “To some extent we [ex-miners] have been able to claim compensation. But the way things are going now you're not going to be able to claim anything. The deregulation of employment is making people desperate  we're going back to an era that our fore-fathers unionised to put right.”

In a strange twist of fate, it’s these Merthyr miners history of struggle – their long fight to protect their livelihoods and communities  which now spurs them to action against new mines.


Phil Duggan entered the pits aged 16. Photos: India Bourke

Wayne Thomas at the National Union of Mineworkers says he recognises that, unless carbon capture technology can develop apace, the Paris agreement looks set to speed up coal's decline. But he also believes that British coal has an important role in responsibly managing the transition to renewables – a role that includes reducing foreign imports, cleaning up the dirty acts of private mining companies, and putting control back in the hands of local communities. If you're going to phase out an industry, you've got to put something in place to limit the damage.

For evidence, he need point no further than the co-operatively run mine at Tower colliery, where an independently-managed fund ensures that, when the time comes, the opencast site will be carefully regenerated. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the privately-owned operation at Ffos-Y-Fran for certain.

Last year, the Welsh Assembly voted in favour of a moratorium on opencast mining but the government has yet to act. This may change depending on how the balance of power falls after Thursday's elections. Assembly candidates from both the Green party and Liberal Democrats voiced their support for the UVAG campaigners at a meeting in one of the villages effected by the new pit proposals.

Utlimately, the decline of some of Welsh coal's main customers  the steel works at Port Talbot and the power station at Aberthaw  is likely do more to undermine UK coal than the red lines campaigners draw. But, along the way, new alliances between climate idealists and unions could breathe new life into both movements. In the words of Merthyr Tydfil’s ancient motto: “Nid cadarn ond brodyrdde”  Only brotherhood is strong.


Chris and Alyson, founders of United Valleys Action Group.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.