All politicians expect criticism. But has the treatment of Diane Abbott crossed a line?

Is the Conservative and media mockery of Jeremy Corbyn's close ally motivated by racism and sexism - or part of the rough and tumble of politics?

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

“For god’s sake, Diane, this has such cut-through!” groaned a Labour aide to me a few weeks ago. While out campaigning in a marginal seat, they had heard the shadow home secretary Diane Abbott mess up an LBC interview about Labour’s policy to increase the number of police officers. And so had voters.

“Diane’s interview came up on the doorstep a lot,” my source despaired.

The interview – in which Abbott got herself into a protracted tangle over numbers – had resonance. It played into everything negative we hear about the Labour party: unreliable on tackling crime, untrustworthy with money, and – at present – incompetent in its top tiers.

But there was another reason this interview flew so far beyond any of the many media blunders cabinet ministers have made during this campaign. And that reason was Diane Abbott.

She is “shareable”, according to someone who has seen the stats she generates on tabloid websites. Readers and viewers love to see her mess up, and so reporters and presenters love to write unflattering stories about her and run interviews that catch her out. Supporters believe this is partly what drove a classic “gotcha” Sky News interview by Dermot Murnaghan a few weeks after the LBC one, in which Abbott was embarrassingly hazy on details of a London terror report.

Again, she was roundly mocked.

According to those who have worked alongside her, Abbott is targeted more than most politicians by “unscrupulous journalists” who don’t check the facts with her. “They don’t give her the respect she’s owed,” I hear from one source. “It becomes normal. There’s a complacency when it comes to Diane – people find it really funny, it’s out of proportion, not relative to other politicians.”

There is simple press cynicism at play here, but also “overt or dogwhistle racist coverage” underpinning the media’s obsession with lampooning Abbott, as one insider close to Jeremy Corbyn’s inner circle puts it. “Everything Diane does is amplified a hundred times more than anyone else because of that. No one should forget that.”

We look at Boris Johnson flounder at a press conference, and we laugh because he looks like a fool. We watch Theresa May squirm during an interview about her manifesto unravelling, and we laugh because she is being caught out.

The difference is – when we see Diane Abbott make a mistake, we laugh because that’s what we expect. We rarely see a black woman in a very senior political role, and so we do not afford her the default trust, the assumed expertise, we attach to white, mainly male, politicians. She is not protected by the aura of respect which can protect even the most incompetent politicians – Iain Duncan Smith, anyone?

She is also – as a rare black woman in politics – easily recognisable and memorable. “There is no one else who looks like her on television,” an ally of Abbott notes. “No one else has been in her position.”

This is the uncomfortable reality for those who have ever sniggered at or shared a video of one of Abbott’s bad interviews. Yes, they’re poor performances, but something else is also at work. 

There’s a satisfaction in it, an obsession with it, and a bullying tone to it, which just doesn’t echo the way we mock other politicians. Home Secretary Amber Rudd is so technologically illiterate that she can urge us to use the “necessary hashtags” when she means hashing, and warn against “going into the cloud” a few days after a deadly terrorist attack – and no one calls her lazy or stupid. The difference between her and her opposite number Abbott? Not much, other than Rudd is actually doing the job of home secretary. And she’s white.

The Tories know about Abbott’s reputation, and are using it to their advantage. They are focusing their campaigning on Abbott, and as BuzzFeed noted, their adverts mention her even when she is not relevant to the subject being discussed; lumping her in as a potential Brexit negotiator with Corbyn, “warning” voters that, in government, she would be in charge of counter-terrorism, running unflattering pictures of her. One advert bracketed her alone with the party leaders Tim Farron, Nicola Sturgeon and Jeremy Corbyn. In recent weeks, both Rudd and Johnson have mentioned her name in interviews, apropos of nothing.

“It’s deliberate,” says an insider on Labour’s campaign. “It’s unfair in many ways; it’s all looped into the terrible coverage of her, which has a racist tone.”

“It’s definitely a purposeful attack on Diane and I think we’ve fallen for it, by not defending her,” adds a colleague.

Long lampooned as a “diversity hire”, Abbott has worked hard to reach her current position in the parliamentary party. She receives a flood of abuse online every day – which she barely spoke about until an article in February – and has to firefight endless negative media stories. The pressure is huge, and largely unfair.

Now she has taken a backseat in Labour’s election campaign due to illness – prompting an often cruel response. The London Evening Standard, edited by former Tory chancellor George Osborne, has run this cartoon:

What such responses overlook is that Abbott is clearly driven and intelligent – the only black British student at Cambridge in the whole university, the first black woman elected to Parliament, and one of the few members of Labour’s shadow cabinet to have had a government job. Stephen has covered her full extraordinary back story here.

She is clearly dedicated, too – she is one of the very few Labour politicians willing to do media on behalf of the leadership. In the last two years, she has popped up everywhere, from late in the evening on Newsnight to the crack of dawn on the Today programme, to all the sofas on a Sunday morning. She willingly takes the high-pressure slots, and does a solid job – and is only really noticed on the few occasions it goes wrong.

“She really doesn’t need to go on Andrew Neil on Sunday morning,” as one ally tells me. “But she does because she cares.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.