On 8 June, I was scheduled to do a live interview for an Irish broadcaster. I researched the presenter and saw that he had taken a swipe at Labour shadow home secretary Diane Abbott on Twitter. We did that thing that we Irish do, dancing around each other, gauging how much personal information you can extract without divulging anything yourself. He ran through potential questions. JC and the IRA? “Fire away”, I said, “happy to put that one to bed”, and so on.
Then came the conspiratorial, off the record “chat” about Diane Abbott’s “competence”. The adjectives became increasingly loaded in an attempt, I felt, to provoke a reaction. I reminded him that Diane had made an announcement about ill health and that it would be in poor taste for anyone to pursue personal attacks against her, especially now.
He wasn’t deterred. So, bored with the verbal riverdance routine and suffering from campaign-induced sleep deprivation, I leaned in: “If you attack Diane Abbott live on air, I’ll call you out – live on air”. Hatchet job averted.
Last week, Amnesty International published a report analysing the accounts of 177 women MPs active on Twitter between January and June this year, and found that they received a total of 25,688 abusive tweets in that period. The study showed that Diane Abbott received almost half of all abusive tweets in the run up to the election. Excluding Diane Abbott, black and Asian women MPs in Westminster received 35% more abusive tweets than white women MPs.
Throughout the general election campaign, I despaired at the way in which the Tories, and elements of the media, ruthlessly targeted Diane Abbott. It was the electoral campaign equivalent of fox hunting. A pack of rabid hounds unleashed on a lone target, egged on by a baying crowd of identically clad, antiquated blokes watching from their steeds as their prey is mercilessly pulverised. It was unedifying, unethical and unacceptable.
In July, Abbott spoke about the deluge of racist and sexist abuse she regularly receives. To a shocked audience, she revealed the corrosive, demoralising impact of being called the N-word on a daily basis.
The day before Abbott’s devastating revelations, Conservative MP Anne-Marie Morris was suspended for using this word in public. When Tory councillor Alan Pearmain shared a tweet portraying Abbott as an ape wearing lipstick who should be in a zoo, he, like Morris, was merely suspended.
In May, Tory councillor Nick Harrington was suspended after tweeting that Ireland should “keep their f****** gypsies”. He had previously depicted athlete Christine Ohuruogu as a black scarecrow. He eventually resigned, but he wasn’t sacked. Racism is not career limiting, if you’re a Tory.
In 2006, Boris Johnson failed to intervene when a local Tory councillor in his constituency refused to remove golliwogs from his shop window, despite numerous complaints. His lacklustre response wasn’t surprising given his previous description of black people as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”. Not that any of his “blunders” have dented his career trajectory. Despite possessing none of the core skills required to represent Britain as Foreign Secretary (diplomacy, self-restraint…), he was awarded the top job anyway. Merit, it seems, doesn’t apply if the candidate is a white, Oxbridge educated male.
The racism directed at Diane Abbott backfired on the Tories though. It incentivised Momentum into mobilising BAME members to get the black vote out. Several seats with a high BAME population switched from the Tories to Labour. In fact, Labour achieved an incredible 11.5 per cent increase in its vote share in the 75 most ethnically diverse seats and Diane Abbott received an increased majority of over 35,000.
Racism runs through Tory Party DNA like a virus, contaminating the well from which we all must drink. But as an electoral tactic it seems its days are thankfully numbered.
Tess Finch-Lees is a human rights journalist and campaigner who served as a press officer for Momentum during the 2017 general election campaign