Diane Abbott at 'Don't Bomb Syria' Protest

How Diane Abbott’s treatment by her party highlights a bigger issue for black Labour supporters

Identity

Image Description: Diane Abbott at the ‘Don’t Bomb Syria’ protest

Diane Abbott’s treatment in the media in recent years has been nothing short of a public persecution. Whether it is in regards to her drinking a ‘tinnie’ on the London Overground last spring or her getting the numbers wrong when discussing Labour’s plans for more police officers – two mistakes which would have only resulted in a slap on the wrist for a white politician – resulted in her being at the receiving end of a culmination of racism and misogyny.

For many people of colour across the country, this sort of abuse isn’t surprising. We know that the British media holds a certain apathy towards any politician that deviates from the white, cis-gendered, heterosexual ‘norm’. What surprised us when reading the leaked Labour report, that came out Sunday evening, was that the main perpetrators of these acts of violence towards her were her own colleagues.

We were left aghast as we read how while Diane Abbott had to excuse herself to the bathroom – crying over death threats she had received that day – her colleagues were laughing about it in their WhatsApp group chat, all too ready to call the press about it. And as a black woman of Caribbean descent, I was sickened by what I read in that report. After reading that report I was left feeling despondent. I felt like the party that I had voted for resolutely, with no hesitation, in the past two elections had let me and its other black voters down.

Everyone in my family votes Labour and for many other Caribbean families across the country, this isn’t unusual. When my great-grandfather first came to the UK in the late 1950s, he was coming into a racist Britain. A country where, in 1964, Conservative MP Peter Griffiths ran, and won, refusing to disown the British Movement slogan ‘If you want a n*gger for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour’, capitalising on the fears of white Britons who thought the country would soon become overflowing with members of the Commonwealth.

I can only imagine how he would have felt upon reading that report, seeing how members of the party have treated one of its most prominent black MPs with so much malice

Due to campaign slogans like this, the Conservative Party was seen as a party that did not care for, nor want, the votes of Black British citizens, and only in recent years has it sought to change that image. Thus, my great-grandfather was left with the only alternative, vote Labour. And why not? He was a black, immigrant coal miner living in South Yorkshire, struggling to make ends meet not only because of his race, but because of his class. Labour was the only party that cared about coal miners’ rights, that wanted to see them get paid a decent wage and for my great-grandfather – who had a growing family he needed to care for – this was enough. So, he voted Labour and continued to do so throughout his lifetime, going so far as to canvas for them in his old age.

I can only imagine how he would have felt upon reading that report, seeing how members of the party have treated one of its most prominent black MPs with so much malice, knowing how much of his life he has dedicated to that party. The relationship Labour has with its black voters is a strange one, it’s a relationship borne of convenience: many black people from my great-grandfather’s, my grandmother’s, even my mother’s generation, grew up working class, leaving them with only one viable option on the ballot. As for Labour, although never explicitly calling itself the party for ethnic minorities, it happily accepted their votes, knowing it was essential for the party’s survival if they wanted to go up against the Conservative Party.

Labour, unlike its opponent who wanted nothing to do with the black vote, managed to monopolise it. They realised the lack of options available to black voters: vote for the party that is forthright about its hatred for black people or vote for the party that fights on behalf of the working class, a class that many black people to this day still identify with. Labour recognised the untapped market that was the black vote; the party realised that if it marketed itself towards black and other ethnic minority communities, it could sustain a loyal votership – because in essence, who else would they vote for?

Because of this, it became an unspoken rule amongst the black community – especially the Caribbean community – to vote Labour, to the point where any black person not voting for Labour is seen as a race traitor. This is best exhibited when looking at the backlash many black Conservative supporters receive online. I and many other members of the black community succumbed to the belief that Labour was absolved from racism because of all that it’s done for disenfranchised communities, for its number of BAME politicians – but after what I read on Sunday, I was completely wrong.

I felt as if my vote had been a waste, that my voice was still unheard.

Last summer, after watching a video on VICE about the increasing numbers of African Americans turning to conservatism as a result of disenfranchisement with the Democratic Party, I warned on my Instagram story how a similar thing could happen in the UK if Labour weren’t quick to address the voter’s apathy towards the party rising in the black community. Although, at the time, I had only voted once in the 2017 elections, I was beginning to feel frustrated: I had voted Labour but saw no changes in my community; despite living a mere five minutes’ walk away from my Labour MP’s office, I didn’t even know – and still don’t – what the man looked like.

I felt as if my vote had been a waste, that my voice was still unheard. To make matters worse, in the runup to the 2017 election, while the Conservative Party was out canvassing on my street, I only received from Labour a leaflet hastily pushed through my letterbox, boasting an arrogance that only a party that took for granted its black votership could have.

I am not writing this article to implore black Labour voters to pack up camp and join the opposition because, ultimately, if we want to see a change in Labour, we need to be the pioneers of that change. I am writing this article as an open letter to Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner to address the issues highlighted in that report and to issue a public apology to Diane Abbott, who after 33 years of dedicated service to the party deserves better than the continuous misogynoir she faces not only from the media, but her own colleagues.

Image Credit: Garry Knight

Liked reading this article? Sign up to our weekly mailing list to receive a summary of our best articles each week – click here to register

Want to contribute? Join our contributors group here or email us – click here for contact details