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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“Rise like lions after slumber”: why do Jeremy Corbyn and co keep reciting a 19th century poem?

How a passage from Percy Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy became Labour’s battle cry.

“If I may, I’d like to quote one of my favourite poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley,” Jeremy Corbyn politely suggested to a huge Glastonbury audience. The crowd of nearly 120,000 – more accustomed to the boom of headline acts than elderly men reading out romantic poetry – roared its approval.

“Rise like lions after slumber, in unvanquishable number!” he rumbled. “Shake your chains to earth like dew, which in sleep had fallen on you: ye are many – they are few!”

The Labour leader told the crowd that this was his favourite line. It’s the final stanza of Shelley’s 1819 poem, The Masque of Anarchy, written in response to the Peterloo Massacre earlier that year, when a cavalry charged into a non-violent protest for the vote.

Though it was not published in Shelley’s lifetime – it was first released in 1832 – the poem has become a rallying cry for peaceful resistance. It has been recited at uprisings throughout history, from Tiananmen Square to Tahrir Square.

Corbyn’s turn on the Pyramid Stage was not the first time he’s used it. He recited the stanza during his closing speech on election night in Islington, and the audience began quoting along with him:


It was also used by comedian and celebrity Labour supporter Steve Coogan at a rally in Birmingham:


During Corbyn’s second leadership campaign, his ally Chris Williamson MP told a public meeting that this part of the poem should be “our battle cry” . He delivered on this the following year by reciting the poem to me in his Renault Clio while out on the campaign trail in England’s most marginal constituency (which he ended up winning).

You can hear it echoed in Labour’s campaign slogan: “For the many, not the few”.

Corbyn’s election guru, James Schneider, told the Standard at the time that “it would be a stretch” to say the slogan was taken directly from the poem, but that “Jeremy does know Shelley”. Yet even he took the time to recite the whole stanza down the phone to the journalist who was asking.

Corbyn is famously a fan of the novelist and author Ben Okri. The pair did a literary night at the Royal Festival Hall in London’s Southbank in July last year, in which the Shelley lines came up at the end of the event, as reported by Katy Balls over at the Spectator. Okri announced that he wanted to recite them, telling Corbyn and the audience:

“I want to read five lines of Shelley . . . I think there are some poems that ought to be, like you know those rock concerts, and the musician starts to sing and the whole audience knows the lines? And sings along with them? Well this ought to be one of those, and I’d like to propose that we somehow make it so that anytime someone starts with the word ‘Rise’, you know exactly what the lines are going to be.”

Which, of course, is exactly what Corbyn did at Glastonbury.

“We have this huge, abundant literature on the left and it’s hardly known”

The former left-wing Labour leader Michael Foot loved the poem and recited the lines at demos, and Stop the War – the campaign group Corbyn supports and chaired – took a line from it as the title of its 2014 film about anti-Iraq War action, We Are Many.

So why does the Labour left rally around some lines of poetry written nearly 200 years ago?

“It’s a really appropriate poem,” says Jacqueline Mulhallen, author of Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionary (Pluto, 2015). “Shelley wrote a poem about the fact that these people were protesting about a minority taking the wealth from the majority, and the majority shouldn’t allow it to happen.

“He was writing at the beginning of industrial capitalism, and protested then, and 200 years later, we’ve still got the same situation: food banks, homeless people, Grenfell Tower, more debts – that’s why it has great resonance when Corbyn quotes it.”

“Shelley said there’s loads of us, it’s just a little corrupt crew – well, of course that applies now”

Michael Rosen, the poet and former Children’s Laureate, also describes the poignancy of Shelley’s words in Corbyn’s campaign. “You’ve got a sense of continuity,” he tells me. “Shelley was campaigning for freedom, for free thought, for free love. He was campaigning for a fairer society; it was a time of incredible oppression. He said there’s loads of us, it’s just a little corrupt crew – well, of course that applies now.”

Rosen celebrates the poem’s place in the Labour movement. “When any of us from the left quote people from the past, we’re saying that we have traditions... We’re making a claim on our authenticity,” he says. “Just in the same way as the right and the establishment draw on the pageantry of the Queen, or talk about Parliament or quote Winston Churchill. These are our traditions, which are different. You hardly ever come across it, either in newspapers or history lessons or anything.”

Rosen, a friend of Corbyn’s, believes his speech brings a left-wing tradition alive that is often forgotten. “We have this huge, abundant literature on the left and it’s hardly known. What’s great about Jeremy calling on it is to remind us . . . This stuff sits in old museums and libraries, gathering dust until it’s made active and live again. It’s made active and live particularly when being used in an environment like that [Glastonbury]. He was making the words come alive.”

Read more: 7 things we learned from Jeremy Corbyn on The One Show

The Masque of Anarchy’s final stanza has been recited at high-profile protests throughout history – including at the 20,000 garment workers’ strike in 1909 in New York, the student-led demo in China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, anti-Poll Tax protests, and at Tahrir Square in Egypt during the Arab Spring, according to Mulhallen. The way civilians were treated by the authorities in many of these protests echoes what happened at Peterloo.

So does Corbyn’s penchant for the verse mark a similar radical turning-point in our history? “It’s indicating a change in attitude that people should start thinking about redistributing the wealth again,” says Mulhallen. “People are becoming much more aware.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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