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What has Yvette Cooper ever done to deserve Diane Abbott’s job?

In the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s triumph, Yvette Cooper is said to be eyeing up the position of Shadow Home Secretary in the upcoming reshuffle. This comes after resigning from the Shadow Cabinet almost two years ago, as a rebellious sign of discontent with Corbyn’s leadership. In 2016, Diane Abbott was appointed to serve in that role as the first Black politician to do so and has contributed vastly to Labour’s unprecedented comeback during the General Election. As such, we must question Cooper’s disregard of Diane’s achievements, and how this speaks to a culture of erasing, policing and silencing Black women.  

From the onset, Diane’s journey into the House of Commons was anything but traditional; fuelled by powerful Black self-organisation across underrepresented communities in Britain. In order to evolve and absorb the realities of post-colonialism faced by swathes of the population as a result of mass migration in the 50’s, Black Sections emerged as an important vehicle to engender the election of the first Black MPs to British parliament in 1987. It is important to note, that like much of history, it is this self-organisation that precipitated institutional change rather than benevolent structural actors in society. It is therefore indulgent to present Diane Abbott’s ascendance or success as proof of a tolerant post-racial Britain, as this erases the incredibly successful anti-racism mobilising that brokered this historical feat.

There is great debate concerning the representation of Black women in public life, with dominant narratives playing on the politics of respectability that too often silences and polices Black femininity. This reduces the visibility of Black women in professional spaces forcing them to exist outside of what is ‘appropriate’, with Michelle Obama another notable example of this. A Harvard educated lawyer and once First Lady, she walked a tight-rope in order to negotiate her position as a prominent Black woman in a historically racially fraught political arena. Misogynoir explains this multifaceted struggle, but we must consider its history rooted in the construction of Black inferiority. Even perhaps the most culturally visible Black woman – Beyonce – is depicted rarely as intelligent or politically astute. Rather we can see her social currency derived by her undeniable vocal talents and hypersexualised stage presence. The is the age old conundrum of Black womanhood, in which we are respected as spectacles but never truly accepted as powerful political agents.

This is further perpetuated by the undeniable disconnect in mainstream feminist discourse, often falling short of meaningfully engaging with conceptualisations of Black womanhood in everyday experience and popular culture. This becomes particularly evident in politics, with Diane’s presence offending both male and female peers alike. There seems to be little social or cultural allegiance between the empowerment and development of women and that of racial struggle, alienating those that exist in both spheres. Whilst “intersectionality” has grown in usage, the treatment of Abbott by feminists and colleagues such as Jess Phillips proves it isn’t strictly adhered to. It is within this prism that Yvette Cooper can be heralded for speaking out and Diane actively punished- in itself a damning indictment of the extent to which liberation is often reduced to a tokenistic tick-box exercise. It is important to contextualise this breed of feminism that, like much else in the early 20th century, benefited from racism as a process in which to leverage greater autonomy. The ramifications of this is a school of thought that continues to posit acceptable ‘feminism’ as respectable only when White.

We see this duality reproduced in every sensationalised critique of Abbott; with terminology such as ‘joke’, ‘incompetent’ and ‘deranged’ showing very little growth from cultural perceptions of blackness 50 years ago. It is not new or unique, with this continuation of perverse rhetoric surrounding Black womanhood distorting analysis of Abbott’s career. This is not to say that Diane has never made mistakes, as every politician most likely has and should be challenged for. However, there is a palpable difference in the means in which her identity is interrogated at every turn, and used to stir discursive rhetoric around Black progression. Yvette’s mistakes, such as aspects of her voting record or resignation from the front bench, are easily dismissible because unlike Diane she is offered the luxury of rehabilitation, context or a second chance.

Diane’s power resides in her defiance of so many cultural norms, having built an oppositional identity to that of dominant representations of Blackness. Olga Davis saw Black resistance to harmful stereotypes as a “rhetoric of survival”, and as such we must appreciate the importance of so many powerful Black women in dismantling these harmful cultural assumptions. The onslaught of hate Diane invites has striking resemblance to the resistance of prominent and visibly Black political actors before her, and we can only hope that her perseverance and presence in public life will make it easier and better for those after her. It is therefore deeply problematic that Yvette and her supporters see so little worth in Diane’s triumphs that they would have her replaced. That for them, feminist victory rests on the ruthless ambition of one woman to the detriment of the most successful Black female politician in British history.

10 Comments

  1. James Martin says:

    The problem I have with all this article is not so much that Diane has been the victim of racist and misogynist abuse (as she has suffered tones of it), but that the assumption seems to be that we must support her staying on as shadow Home Sec because she is a black woman.

    To me it is of the greatest credit to her that she was one of the small number of PLP members that stood up against the coup and served in a senior position – in fact all those people deserve eternal thanks and praise in my book.

    However, in the labour movement we also need people that perform well, that when they are given jobs they can carry them out well (and that goes right from a local union official case worker up to a general secretary or leader of the Labour Party). And I’m sorry, but Diane has simply not done that in my eyes. I take on board whatever underlying illness she has, but she is a very poor communicator who far too often comes across as condescending and arrogant and whether we like it or not it is that which turns so many people off, not her colour or gender. In fact in a union meeting I was at last week in Manchester she was mentioned during the lunch break by a number of Corbyn supporting Labour colleagues as someone who has done us no favours at all.

    As to Yvette Cooper taking on the shadow Home Sec role while I have reservations about the masses of new Corbynistas that have suddenly come out in the PLP, I do think that she would be a good fit for the role, add some much needed weight of experience to the front bench team and be an assured media performer (which sadly Diane is not). I would even be happy seeing Chuka back in one of the business positions as room could be found (but not Bomber Benn and certain others at the heart of the attempted coup last summer), but the bottom line here is that without diluting the current manifesto I want to win the next election whenever it comes, and if we stand a better chance of doing that with Yvette in that key position rather than Diane (and I think we do) then it has to happen.

    1. JohnP says:

      For goodness sakes, James Martin ! Can I sell you a priceless map to a treasure island ? That you seriously think that an utterly unrepentant neoliberal Progress backed creature like Yvette Cooper, with a past toxic record in , amongst a welter of other crimes, started up the unforgiveable ATOS disability assessment outrage, and voting to abstain in the Welfare Bill vote in 2015, could have any useful role in the Shadow Cabinet, just shows you have nil appreciation of the new tactic of “making Jeremy a prisoner of the Labour Right” that the cynical “offer to serve in (top) Shadow Cabinet jobs” , actually represents.

      Your grasp of the political manoeuvring now going on in the PLP is tragically limited and utterly naïve . Assembling a Shadow Cabinet that will assist our Left agenda, not deliberately sabotaging it , requires more political finesse than assembling a fantasy football team . Both Yvette Cooper and Chuka were actively preparing to launch a treacherous new leadership bid to destroy Corbyn and “Corbynism” once and for all, had the Election result been the disaster for Labour they hoped and fully expected . But you want to invite these assassins into the Shadow Cabinet – to sabotage and publically undermine every Leftward move Jeremy makes ? Tragic !

      1. James Martin says:

        Yes John, I do want them back where they can again be accountable to conference, the NEC and the wider membership in terms of policy, unlike when they are back-benchers. If you thunk that the PLP is awash with lefties that can be called up to the front bench you are mistaken, there have been no deselections and I suspect that many of the new intake are not on the left either (with exceptions) so we have to work with what we have.

        We also need to win the next election, not by sacrificing principles but by getting more votes for the moderately left programme we currently have – if Yvette signs up to support it then I have no problem. I have been an unrepentant Bennite Labour Party member for decades (and as a result normally find myself to the left of Momentum of many issues, not least labour movement democracy), and I know what the right win are and what they do having fought them for most of my life, but at the same time the Labour Party has never been a pure socialist party, it is a broad social democratic family and if formally hostile members of that family are willing to now support a Corbyn-led government then I, and I suspect many other Party members, have no problem at all with it, but if you want purity I’m sure the various useless sects outside the Party (Left Unity and all the rest) can offer it to you.

        1. John P Reid says:

          This is all true, didn’t know Diane wanted I, or Yvette for that matter, but Cooper has talent

  2. Robin Edwards says:

    Abbott was rightly sidelined. Not for her incompetence that was just an excuse but because her incessant chatter about open borders and free movement was endangering Labour’s campaign up north where Corbyn’s Brexit position was otherwise playing well. But to replace her with Soft or Non Brexit New Labour austerity merchant Yvette Cooper would be utterly ridiculous.

  3. Karl Stewart says:

    Yvette Cooper was Shadow Home Secretary from 2011 until 2015.

    Since 2015 she has chaired the Home Affairs Select Committee.

    Shadow Home Secretary is not “Diane Abbot’s job”. She took on the home affairs brief temporarily after Andy Burnham stepped down to stand for Mayor of Manchester and she was relieved of the position a few days before the election.

    This article is frankly bordering on racism.

  4. C MacMackin says:

    I’m in a complex position responding to this article. While it is undoubtedly true that Diane Abbott has experienced immense amounts of racism and sexism, I find it hard to believe that this is why Yvette Cooper is after her job. I also don’t particularly want Cooper back in the shadow cabinet. She gave up her right to automatically be on the front bench when she resigned from it two years ago. The same goes for Chuka Umunna, who I remember saying some rather right-wing things in his previous business brief, and all of the rest who resigned.

    I’m not the biggest Abbott fan. She has a tendency to offer platitudes instead of reasoned discourse, although she is no worse than many other politicians in that regard (ahem…Boris). Unfortunately, she doesn’t seem to be very good at handling the media–which is strange given that she was the Campaign Group member with by far the most experience in doing that. That said, she has a history of defending civil liberties and of pointing out racist behaviour of the police and home office. I think those are extremely valuable qualities to have in a home secretary. There are topics where she has invested the time and energy to make detailed and thoughtful arguments and in those instances she is quite impressive. All things considered, I don’t particularly object to Abbott being moved to a new position, but nor do I particularly object to her staying where she is. I do object to Cooper just assuming that she can have that job again.

    1. Jeffrey Davies says:

      Is this the way to treat Diane’s hmm she has stood with corbyn while tjhis greedie person and the rest of them ain’t going to do corbyn any good I maybe brain dead but giving this woman her seat on the front benches will bring sorrow. I wonder whot her local party wants of her deselection has to keep them one better get used to the backstabbing. Jeff3

      1. John P Reid says:

        Yes good point about the deselecting that may still happen a couple of years from now

  5. Bazza says:

    We should stand by those who stood by JC although I always found Dianne to be better at International Development and I felt her heart was there but it was heartwarming to read that she was re-elected with a 35,000 majority in her constituency.
    I just hope we have time to select left wing democratic socialist Labour candidates this time before another General Election may be called to better reflect the new left wing democratic socialist mass membership.
    Solidarity!

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