Diane Abbott was stitched up today by her political opponents. And too many Labour people who should know better assisted in that process. She should perhaps have been more careful about her use of Twitter – a form of instant communication it’s easy to forget is on the public record. But her tweet was then deliberately taken and then widely judged out of context. The first black woman elected to parliament after 25 years deserves better treatment from her own party. Taken in context, her comment was neither racist nor offensive.
The row began following a Twitter interchange between journalist, Bim Adewunmi, and her local MP. Bim Adewunmi, aka @bimadew, has now described what happened:
In the course of tweeting the events around the trial, conviction and sentencing of Gary Dobson and David Norris for the murder of Stephen Lawrence, I wrote: “I do wish everyone would stop saying ‘the black community’ though.” I expanded in a followup: “Clarifying my ‘black community’ tweet: I hate the generally lazy thinking behind the use of the term. Same for ‘black community leaders’. This led to a reply from my local MP Diane Abbott, in which she said: “I understand the cultural point you are making. But you are playing into a “divide and rule” agenda.”
The ‘black community’ is not homogenous, any more than the white, and doesn’t elect ‘community leaders’ even if journalists and politicians behave as if they did. A fair point. But in the context of the Stephen Lawrence murder, the top story yesterday, there’s much to be said for the ‘black community’ standing together. Another fair point. And it fully provides the basis for saying in a highly abbreviated communication medium:
White people love playing ‘divide & rule’ We should not play their game #tacticasoldascolonialism.
This was a message to a constituent, one of a large number she follows. In an abbreviated medium. “White people” is pretty good shorthand for “people outside the black community” in that context. “#tacticasoldascolonialism” places the comment about white people into the context of 19th century European colonialism.
She could have said “some” white people. It is easy to say she should have done so with hindsight. But her tweets should also have been read and judged in context. We might expect Tory MPs not to do that, like Louise Mensch who even removed some of the context from the ‘offending’ tweet itself:
RT @HackneyAbbott: @bimadew White people love playing “divide & rule” We should not play their game <~~~ you what? #racism
We might have hoped that good honourable people on our own side, like Mark Ferguson, Editor of LabourList, who says he knows “she doesn’t have a racist bone in her body” would avoid using words like “stupid” and “offensive” in tweets that were likely to be retweeted well away from any context. He did what he said Diane should not have done:
Basically Abbott ignored the first rule of Twitter – Everyone can see everything you say
Diane Abbott has proved that Twitter is no use for making a complex argument.
Mark’s more extended comments at LabourList were much more balanced and contextualised. But the Labour Party itself did not help. Its statement in the context of a rising furore was reasonable:
We disagree with Diane’s tweet. It is wrong to make sweeping generalisations about any race, creed, or culture. The Labour Party has always campaigned against such behaviour – and so has Diane Abbott.
What was utterly unacceptable was to also brief journalists that Ed Miliband, ringing her in the middle of a Sky interview, had given her “a severe dressing down“.