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15 August 2016

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 Stephanie Boland

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.

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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.

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