The MP was right to call out abuse but why did she leave out the Blairites, asks Roger Domeneghetti
ON SATURDAY, Labour’s Yvette Cooper gave a wide-ranging speech to the Fabian Society outlining her four-point plan for Labour’s pathway to power. However, given the media coverage, you could be forgiven for thinking it had nothing to with finding a way to government and everything to do with the abuse of MPs.
Cooper — who set up Reclaim the Internet to challenge offensive behavior, particularly that aimed at women — called for a “kinder, gentler” politics, arguing that: “We are normalising a level of vitriol and violence in our lives” and “escalating hatred and contempt for others.”
Cooper went on to suggest “some of the worst and vilest abuse” has been aimed at Diane Abbott. She’s right on both counts.
But Cooper is no fool. She is a savvy political operator. She must have known how her words would be refracted through the prism of the mainstream media. She must have known that her support of Abbott would be all but ignored and instead the focus would be on the fact that she said she was “sick to death of the vitriol” the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg receives.
Furthermore, when she spoke of Labour’s Liverpool Wavertree MP Luciana Berger testifying in court against the man who racially abused her but failed to mention that he was a far-right extremist, Cooper must have known her words would be conflated with her later statement that: “Sometimes our party members and supporters attack each other.”
The press needed no second invitation, once again casting Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters as an intolerant, misogynistic, anti-semitic mob instead of the decent, ordinary people who just want to live in a fairer society they mostly are.
These are real issues that must be tackled; it would be remiss to suggest otherwise. But it is also remiss to suggest that the abuse only comes from one wing of the Labour Party or that politicians themselves don’t need to show each other a little more respect.
Let’s, for a moment, imagine that a male MP on the so-call “hard left” of the Labour party had, within four months of first being elected, told an experienced female MP from the opposite wing of the party to “fuck off” in front of their parliamentary colleagues. I suspect that there would have been a considerable amount of outrage, and rightly so.
Imagine that, instead of apologising, our imaginary male MP doubled down, claiming that: “People said to me they had always wanted to say that to her, and I don’t know why they don’t, as the opportunity presents itself every other minute.”
Again, rightly there would be outrage. Surely this would not be the “kinder, gentler” politics Cooper believes shows Labour at its best?
Yet this is exactly what Jess Phillips did to Diane Abbott. Not only did Phillips escape censure, but her act of sisterhood was rewarded by her being elected as chair of the women’s Parliamentary Labour Party, beating her predecessor Dawn Butler in the process. Make of that what you will.
Cooper also decried the violent language US President Donald Trump has used against Hillary Clinton. These were not, Cooper argued, “just harmless rants from a sad man in his bedroom. This is the bully pulpit […] echoed and amplified by the Breitbarts, the cheerleaders, the echo chambers.”
Again, she’s absolutely right. But, again, she is noticeably silent on the violent language used by the supposedly “moderate” wing of the Labour Party.
Imagine that Copper had been elected Labour leader in September 2015. And imagine that within three months our imaginary “hard left” male MP had publicly told her: “I won’t knife you in the back, I’ll knife you in the front,” if he didn’t think she was doing her job properly.
Again, rightly, there would be outrage. Yet, again, this is exactly what Phillips said about Corbyn. And she said it just seven months before Jo Cox was stabbed to death.
Am I suggesting that Phillips’s ignoble comments led directly to Jo Cox’s murder? No, of course not. However, this wasn’t a harmless rant from a sad woman in her bedroom; this was violent language used for effect by an elected member of Parliament echoed and amplified by the mainstream media.
In its own small way it added to the “darkness” Cooper identified at the edges of our political discourse.
If Cooper really wants a “kinder, gentler” politics then she can’t give anyone a free pass. After all, when is violent language unacceptable — is it only when a man uses it about a woman but not when a woman uses it about a man?
And when does foul and abusive language become unacceptable; is it only when someone on the supposedly “extreme” wing of the Labour Party directs it at someone on the so-called “moderate” wing, but not vice versa?
Perhaps Cooper thinks the vitriol Phillips aimed at Abbott or the violence of the language she used about Corbyn is acceptable because she wasn’t hiding behind a keyboard but is an elected member of Parliament? I really hope not.
MPs, who lest we forget are public servants, need to set an example. They must demonstrate the respect for each other they wish to receive themselves.
Those that fail to act with such dignity and responsibility must be called out for their behaviour.
Roger Domeneghetti is a lecturer in journalism at Northumbria University, author of From the Back Page to the Front Room: Football’s Journey Through the English Media and the Morning Star’s North East football correspondent. You can find him on twitter on @RogerDom1.