Diane Abbott: ‘The person they’re abusing is a figment of their imagination. I’m just someone they’ve turned into a hate figure’

Diane Abbott: ‘The person they’re abusing is a figment of their imagination. I’m just someone they’ve turned into a hate figure’

I’ve watched her career closely. As a Hackney-born resident, she’s been the only MP I’ve ever voted for. There’s always been a disconnect for me, seeing how well-regarded she is in my community and the positive influence her relentless campaigning has had on the lives of ethnic minorities and immigrants locally. Every time she’s been reelected, it’s been a landslide win, like in 2017, when she gained 70.3% of the votes. Yet, in the press and in public life, she’s been belittled, vilified, and bullied. The reason, I feel, is clear but uncomfortable for many to swallow – it’s because she’s Black and a woman. It’s a conversation that’s come to the forefront of Britain’s minds this week, with the Meghan Markle and Prince Harry Oprah interview – which Diane spoke about on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: “They clearly very soon did not welcome a mixed-race woman marrying into the Royal Family.”

As one of the most trolled politicians of the current day (Amnesty International studied the Twitter mentions of 177 women MPs in the six weeks leading up to the 2017 election. Almost half of all abusive tweets, 45%, were aimed at Abbott), Meghan’s experience of severe trolling is something she can surely relate to. In Abbott’s case, the study found that the tweets were racial and gendered in nature. This tirade of abuse, which is out of proportion and not relative to any other politician, it could be argued, has clouded her reputation and good work – it seems people want her to fail, constantly trying to trip her up and undermine her voice.

White male politicians, like Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson, are routinely protected by their privilege when they blunder or make mistakes, a gross double standard; yet Diane is ripped apart for drinking an M&S cocktail can on the tube, for once wearing mismatched shoes, for the now-infamous LBC radio interview in which she could not say how much it would cost to employ 10,000 police officers.

As a public servant, it’s part and parcel to face criticism and be held to a high standard. Of course, no politician should be drinking alcohol on public transport, and she should have known how much Labour’s policy to add 10,000 more police officers would cost; any politician would be pulled up for these things – but it’s the extent to which the mistakes she’s made are used to chastise her that is troubling.

Whereas our Prime Minister [then Boris Johnson] has compared women wearing burqas and niqabs to letterboxes, set an unprecedented record by losing a parliamentary seat in just his first 11 days as PM, and in early October 2020, he got his own lockdown rules wrong. I could go on; there are dozens and dozens of examples. When I sat down to speak with Abbott (via Zoom), I was keen not to fall into the cycle of reporting that portrays her as a caricature. I wanted to know more about her as a person behind the headlines and what her hopes are for the near future.

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