by Ben Cobley
“White people love playing ‘divide & rule’ We should not play their game”, these words, tweeted by Diane Abbott, ignited a storm of accusations and denials of racism and opened a window into the complexities of identity politics.
While it is doubtful that many white people were properly offended by the tweet, it does expose Abbott’s assumption that black and white people should be divided, and that they have different (and opposing) interests.
The “divide and rule” agenda that Abbott talked about in fact applies more to her in this instance. She was clearly trying to draw a racial drawbridge between black and white people.
This is the sort of political philosophy that George W. Bush espoused when he said, “You are either with us or against us”; one group’s identity is defined opposite to the other – and if you do not share the dictates of your own group’s “leaders”, then you are letting your side down. Bim Adewunmi herself made a strong argument about this.
As it is highly unlikely Diane Abbott is a racist, how did she get into such a tangle?
Part of the answer surely lies in the way that certain curious, arcane attitudes are still widespread in liberal-left circles.
Abbott herself responded to the tweeting controversy by saying that she was talking about the politics of colonialism. But she clearly was not discussing history in her tweet, and that is where the colonialist worldview belongs – and where the anti-colonialist mentality will have to find a home sooner or later. It is hopelessly outdated in a country where the evidence of integration is all around us, not least in the many children and young adults of mixed race.
The unthinking identity politics of the liberal-left maintains and extends this anti-colonialist narrative though, by simplistically inverting the racist, sexist and ruling class ideologies of past times.
So it is that dark skin is favoured over light, female over male, while the possession of assets and money is deemed as something to be ashamed of.
This attitude is woven into Labour Party practices and procedures, especially when it comes to candidate selection.
The Blairite blogger Rob Marchant explains it as follows:
“If you are from an ethnic minority, you are a special case and can leapfrog some part of the process. A woman? Special case. Disabled, or from a manual or clerical background? Special case, at least in theory. On a union’s national parliamentary list? Special case. Backed by a local affiliate? Special case.”
He adds, “Everyone becomes a special case; the only truly special cases are those which are not special. It is democracy à la Monty Python.”
All-women shortlists (AWS) are perhaps the most blatant and contentious example of special cases within the party. We can see the results of them every time we tune in to Parliament, with women now making up 31 per cent of Labour MPs.
This gladdens the heart; but what a crude and blunt instrument AWS have been.
In his diary volume of New Labour’s latter years, Decline & Fall, Chris Mullin laments how all three of the parliamentary seats in Sunderland where he lives were given AWS; in the event Sunderland Central (his former seat) attracted only five applicants; only four applications were received for Houghton and Sunderland South. This meant that no local Sunderland man had any chance of representing his local area.
Mullin also relates Dennis Skinner telling him that he would have stepped down from his safe Bolsover seat in 2005 if Harriet Harman had not been determined to impose an AWS there, something that he said would have excluded the local favourite.
One selection process in which I have been involved had an AWS imposed on it, and was almost farcical. The AWS was imposed after the deadline for applications closed, so local women who would not normally think of standing (and who are meant to be encouraged by the process) had no idea they might have a decent chance of representing their local area.
In the end, of the women shortlisted, only two came to hustings, and only one of these was credible. So it was effectively a shortlist of one.
Thus, in practice, all-women shortlists as imposed by Labour have all the hallmarks of an insider’s charter: protected or restricted access, central control, and a lack of any open democratic process. They play into a culture of stitch-ups.
The pain that many women feel from being in what is perceived to be “a man’s world” can be strong. But if we go with the logic of AWS, the lack of ethnic minority MPs is perhaps a more pressing problem – just 28 of 650 MPs are from ethnic backgrounds at the moment.
So should we be considering ethnically restricted shortlists in the same manner? If we apply the same criteria as AWS, certainly yes.
Or should we rethink these sorts of practices and the whole culture of favouritism.
Are our selection processes there to correct imperfections in society? That should be the purpose of our politics – and we will not achieve our aims by continuing to apply divisive criteria in our preferment processes (alienating good people in the process). Institutionalising separate identities as we do is a road to nowhere and nothingness.
Instead, we would do well to model ourselves on what we wish society to be – respectful of all people, regardless of religion, gender, creed, colour or sexuality.
If Labour is about anything, it is about striving for a promised land. Showing through our own practices how a promised land might work is a way to win trust. Crude prejudice, albeit in the pursuit of noble aims, is not.
Ben Cobley is a journalist and writer, based in South London