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13 April 2018updated 04 Oct 2023 10:25am

The treatment of Diane Abbott exposes a tendency to belittle female politicians

Corbynsceptics declare that Corbyn has bad politics, while Abbott is more condescendingly found to be bad at politics. 

By Stephen Bush

As far as I am concerned, the Labour leadership’s approach to Syria is wrong – or, at least, if it is right, it is right only by coincidence. The analysis of world affairs that lay behind Diane Abbott’s Today programme interview, in which she refused to say four times that there were any circumstances in which Labour would support military intervention in Syria were, in my view, flawed in several aspects.

That shouldn’t matter to what I’m going to say next but it’s worth getting out of the way first. But the important point is this: the way that politicos – and not just anonymous accounts, but a significant minority of those who report and analyse on British politics – cover Abbott’s statements on foreign policy compared to those of Jeremy Corbyn is freighted with sexism.

Commentators frequently charge that Corbyn has terrible politics: that is to say, his interviews and statements to the House about Russia and Syria are presented as evidence that he has an account of foreign policy that is reflexively anti-West, supportive of the United Kingdom’s enemies and against the interests of the nation as a whole.

But when Abbott gives an interview in which she merely expresses the same politics – this wasn’t an interview in which the shadow home secretary was underbriefed, which has happened, it’s true – she is held to be bad at politics. She is frequently denied the agency that her political interventions are the result of the ideology she holds, rather than her supposed stupidity. The accusation of stupidity is hard to reconcile with her achievement of being selected in the first place, her survival against organised deselection attempts in the 1990s and 2000s, and her part in the creation of Labour’s most effective election gambit: the linking of police cuts with the leadership’s overall anti-austerity narrative.

A similar double standard is applied to Emily Thornberry. While there is much you can fairly dispute philosophically, Thornberry has managed to revive a top-rank career that looked dead in 2014 and survive the effective extinction of her part of the party as a meaningful force. While it is, in my view, unlikely that Jeremy Corbyn will not lead Labour into the next election, should there be a leadership contest before 2022, she starts as the heavy favourite. And she has become so while managing both not to split from the leadership despite not having said anything that runs explicitly against her own politics.

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Jeremy Hunt has done something similar on Brexit – the man is a Europhile who in 2016 wanted the United Kingdom to respond to the vote by dropping into the EEA – but his reinvention is rightly seen as Thornberry’s should be: an astute and effective regeneration game.

This is a problem for two reasons: the first, of course, is simply that sexism is wrong. But the second is that if we discount half the people we tend to miss half the story: from the surprise at Labour’s police cuts attack to the very real possibility that the Labour leadership will move from Islington North to Islington South. We should at least do Abbott and Thornberry the courtesy of covering them with the same level of seriousness – and attributing the same degree of agency – that we do to Corbyn and Hunt.

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