After Theresa May announced an independent review into abuse, MPs have been talking about their experiences. And Britain’s first black female MP, Diane Abbott, gave a powerful speech about the devastating abuse she’s received – and it really doesn’t fit the narrative the Conservative Party is trying to create.
The Prime Minister has tried to characterise the abuse of MPs during the 2017 general election as a party political issue. On 10 July, she pointedly said she was “surprised at any party leader who’s not willing to condemn [abuse]”, ignoring the fact that Corbyn has condemned it time and again:
I completely condemn abuse of MPs of any kind. No abuse is carried out in my name. There is no place for this in society or in our politics.
But the right-wing media lapped up May’s message. The Daily Mail‘s front page on 12 July pointed the finger straight at Corbyn’s supporters:
But the truth is that abuse is commonplace across the political spectrum. In fact, Corbyn’s close ally Diane Abbott has probably endured more abuse than most other MPs put together. And the Conservative Party has encouraged it.
Abuse of Abbott
Speaking during an hour-long debate on 12 July, Abbott detailed the abuse and intimidation she had been subjected to, saying:
I’ve had death threats. I’ve had people tweeting that I should be hung – if, quote, “they can find a tree big enough to take the fat bitch’s weight”. There was an EDL-affiliated Twitter account, #BurnDianeAbbott. I’ve had rape threats, described as a “pathetic, useless, fat, black, piece of sh*t”, “ugly fat black bitch”, and “n****r”.
N****r over and over again.
And one of my members of staff said that, when people ask her what is the most surprising thing about coming to work for me, the most surprising thing for her is how often she has to read the word n****r. And this comes in through emails, through Twitter, through Facebook.
A deliberate Conservative strategy
But abuse of Abbott during the 2017 general election wasn’t just spontaneous. She was deliberately and personally targeted by the Prime Minister and her chief strategist Lynton Crosby throughout the campaign. Speaking just after the election, Abbott toldThe Guardian she had been singled out:
The first time I became aware that I was a target of a national campaign was when people in marginals in the north were WhatsApping me to say there were ad vans talking about me, with a picture of me and Jeremy on… Then there were these targeted Facebook ads. There was one which was a mashup ad which made it sound as if I supported al-Qaida. We did contemplate taking legal action… It was literally fake news… Clearly I was part of Lynton Crosby’s grid.
A negative, nasty campaign
As a 12 July letter from the Labour Party to the Conservatives put it:
The Conservatives ran a negative, nasty campaign, propagating personal attacks, smears and untruths, particularly aimed at one of the most prominent women MPs, and indeed the first black woman MP, Diane Abbott.
Such attacks on politicians, the consequent intimidating and abusive language and threats of violence towards them online, deter many people from entering politics.
Parties and politicians have a responsibility to set an example, by treating others with dignity and respect, including those with whom we strongly disagree. The Conservative Party has instead promoted personal attacks as a core component of its national campaign.
Abuse from all sides
Abbott has rarely spoken out about abuse in the past, despite the fact that everyone from Channel 4‘s Michael Crick to her own party’s Jess Phillips MP have joined in the snide taunts about her. But in a powerful Guardian column published in February 2017, she wrote:
I went into politics to create space for women and other groups who have historically been treated unfairly. Once, the pushback was against the actual arguments for equality and social justice. Now the pushback is the politics of personal destruction. This is doubly effective for opponents of social progress. Not only does it tend to marginalise the female “offender”, but other women look at how those of us in the public space are treated and think twice about speaking up publicly, let alone getting involved in political activity.
Abuse should not be a competition. It is unacceptable and devastating wherever it appears. But the Conservative Party and its corporate media allies have weaponised abuse, and painted it as a party political problem. Indeed, if it is a party political problem, it’s one the Conservative Party bears much responsibility for. And the fact that a mainstream political party is actually encouraging vitriol towards black women MPs is entirely unacceptable in 21st-century Britain – or any time, any place else.
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