Getty
Show Hide image

Why can’t Jeremy Corbyn talk about abuse without making it about himself?

As female Labour MPs and staff are targeted, their leader repeatedly responds by complaining about his own experience.

By now, it is no secret that something is rotten in the state of the Labour party. Anyone who follows politics is familiar with the litany of abuse suffered by women MPs: the brick through Angela Eagle’s constituency office, the 96 pages of testimony submitted by Jess Phillips, the daily death and rape threats online.

In July, more than 40 female Labour MPs signed a letter calling on Jeremy Corbyn to do more about what they called “an extremely worrying trend of escalating abuse and hostility”.

What a shame, then, to see Corbyn’s latest pronouncement on the subject. Asked about abuse in an interview with the Observer over the weekend, the Labour leader replied:

I know that I have received more abuse than I ever use to. But then maybe I’m better known these days. But I receive more abuse than anybody else. The best way of dealing with abuse is: ignore it.”

This is an outrageous, insulting comment when you have female MPs in your party having to get the locks changed on their family home. “Ignore it” is something you hear from a parent whose children are arguing in the supermarket. It is not an appropriate response from the leader of a political party whose female members are being repeatedly subjected to abuse ranging from homophobic insults to death threats.

True, Corbyn added that racist and misogynist abuse is “utterly, totally, completely wrong”, and that some MPs say they can’t ignore it. But prefaced with the above, his condemnation means little. It certainly did not come – as it should have – with reassurance that his office is taking every possible action to stop Labour MPs feeling threatened.

A kind interpretation is that Corbyn feels overwhelmed, as many in the party do, by the hostility now pervasive in Labour. It may be that in appealing for calm, and remaining calm himself, Corbyn hopes to dispel some of the tension that members report feeling at CLP meetings, rallies and online.

But the longer this goes on, the less able I am to accept this.

Corbyn frequently answers questions about abuse in his party by talking about himself. Issuing a statement about the threats received by Eagle, Corbyn said they were “extremely concerning”, adding:

As someone who has also received death threats this week and previously, I am calling on all Labour party members and supporters to act with calm and treat each other with respect and dignity, even where there is disagreement.

Of course, Corbyn does suffer abuse. But the inability to respond to that suffered by his MPs without giving more airtime to his own troubles is far too resonant of a situation women find themselves in all the time: being told that they must be mindful of everyone else, rather than having the specifics of their situation addressed.

His response to the letter from women MPs, for instance, said that “all abuse” will be condemned in the era of “kinder, gentler politics”. It did not include the word “women”. Speaking at a rally in Salford shortly after, ally Richard Burgon MP stressed that he would not have members “smeared” as misogynists:

I am not, and others are not, going to stand by and see every single one of you portrayed as the striking miners were, as thugs, brick-throwers, bullies and misogynists.

Ignore it, is the audible subtext for women politicians. Be balanced. Remember to always consider other people's feelings. This isn’t just about you!

When men do this, it makes them look blithe – worse, it makes them look naive.

We know what happens to a woman who ignores a threat and then gets hurt: a chorus of voices, not infrequently the same ones that told her she shouldn’t listen to the weird losers who are sending her mock-ups of her dead body, asking why she didn’t go to the police.

It is always going to be impossible to respond to abuse in exactly the right way. Abuse is designed to make you feel confused, panicked and weak, and even the strongest person is going to be unsure if they’re doing the best thing to ensure their safety. The correct response from Corbyn would be one mindful of that fact.

It is unacceptable for his non-interventionist stance to extend to how he handles misogyny in his party. Inaction in this context is action that favours the abuser.

And frankly, I would expect Corbyn, of all people, to know that quote about good men doing nothing.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed Richard Burgon's quote to Jeremy Corbyn.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland

Show Hide image

Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear