In defence of Diane Abbott

On June 8th, Britain goes to the voting booths, and with the polls starting to narrow between the two major parties, the supposedly inevitable Labour wipeout is far from certain. Indeed, some Conservative sources are briefing that plans are even being made for a hung parliament. With an army of 700million 18-24 year olds primed and pumped to definitely get out of the house and definitely vote Labour, this seems like a sensible precaution to take.

A Labour victory would mean many things, not least of all Jeremy Corbyn taking the keys to Downing Street. What I can’t quite get my head around is Emily Thornberry as Foreign Secretary (although I could have easily said the same about Alexander ‘Boris’ Johnson) and – worst of all – Diane Abbott as Home Secretary.

Ms. Abbott has, so far in this campaign, committed a series of excruciating gaffes. These are not isolated incidents, as she has a rich history of cringeworthy interviews in which she invariably comes across as smug, self-serving and completely unbothered about whether she is actually answering a question put to her.

However, she has been much derided for an interview she gave to Andrew Marr this week, derision which I think on the whole is not deserved. The whole clip can be found here and is definitely worth a watch. I want to examine this interview, and show why I think descriptions of a ‘car crash interview’ are well wide of the mark.

Marr opens with a question on why she should be trusted on security, to which she responds (after a brief diversion about Manchester, standard politics which any MP would open with) with some nonsense about having worked in the Home Office as a graduate trainee, apparently giving her the knowledge of “how it works on the inside”. But she then talks about her work with diverse communities and having been a working MP for 30 years, giving her the undoubted experience of seeing how the work of the Home Office affects her community. This is (eventually) a perfectly reasonable response.

He then moves on to chuck an old quote of hers about wanting to abolish MI5, her signature having been found on an early day motion calling for the “abolition of conspiratorial groups, not accountable to the British people”. She responds by saying that she wanted it to be reformed, it has now been reformed, and she would not call for its abolition now. Again, completely reasonable and a straight and clear answer. She even bats away Marr’s insinuation that “the old Diane Abbott has gone” by correctly asserting that it is not her that has changed, but MI5, allowing her to now support it.

The next point is around Abbott having voted “around 30 times against anti-terrorist legislation”. Now, this is one for me that I can’t stand hearing about. I hate it when it is used against Labour MPs, Tory MPs and Lib Dem MPs because it simply isn’t fair. It is also this kind of question and fear of its reprisals that turns perfectly intelligent and thoughtful MPs into self-serving, robotic lobby fodder. Legislation is very carefully crafted, often to try to trick or pressure opponents in a particular way, and so to boil down 30 (what would have been huge and wide ranging) pieces of legislation and use them to imply that Abbott is against anti-terror provisions is frustrating. She may have been wrong to vote against these, but we can’t know without examining each one carefully. Alas, not something that can be done in a 12 minute interview, but I would always urge you to look into these things further (and for complete integrity, do it for the Tories as well when they’re attacked in a similar way).

She makes this point brilliantly when Marr puts his next question, which relates to her having voted against proscribing Al-Qaeda as a terrorist organisation before 9/11. She calmly asks him if he has read the legislation he is referring to (he has). She explains that some on the list were, she thought, freedom fighters and dissidents in their countries, and so could not vote to proscribe them as terrorists. She may be right about this, she may be wrong, but it illustrates perfectly the issue with having one vote to cast on a wide variety of issues in one bill.

To give an extreme example, say you had to vote on a bill that was there to designate Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the Lib Dem Party as terrorists, how would you vote? Does that mean you don’t think ISIS are terrorists? (Tory friends, this may not be a good example for you…)

After he puts it to her that “no list is perfect, but this is a pretty good list”, she hits back by explaining that she couldn’t possibly vote for it whilst she considered some of those groups to be legitimate dissidents and voices of opposition in their countries. Whether you think she was right or wrong to vote the way she did, she correctly points out that, “you have to give people credit for thinking about how they vote”. This is a more important quality in an MP than blindly following their party whips, and I have huge respect for it.

We move into murkier waters regarding support for the IRA. I won’t get into too much detail here because I could write for ages, but suffice to say I am not with her (or Corbyn) on this one – I do consider her to have supported the IRA against the British state, and with a group that brought such horrible violence, I don’t think this is defensible. The nonsense about her concurrent change of hairstyle and views are obviously ridiculous, but she dodges the real question, claiming simply that she “has moved on”. This is slippery and doesn’t look good. The only dark spot in an otherwise solid interview.

Next, it is put to her that Amber Rudd “spends 2 hours a day” signing orders for various activities requested by the police – would she do the same as Home Secretary? Her response is, for me, perfect. “If it’s put in front of me and there is sufficient evidence, of course I will.” What more could we ask of her?

On the question of tech companies like WhatsApp that provide communication tools, I couldn’t be more opposed to her. She peddles the same nonsense as her opposite numbers across the house about the companies working with the British government to access messages. She recognises there are ‘issues’ with end to end encryption, but she seems to misunderstand (perhaps deliberately) the nature of the thing…it is either encrypted or it isn’t. If you let the state access it, other people could do as well. I oppose any moves to open these things up, and her use of the Manchester attack to push this point is naked political posturing using a tragedy – something she has had no issue with accusing her opponents of. However, this is her view and it is clear and concise. We are free to disagree, and I do.

The issue of DNA databases is raised, with her apparent opposition to having even guilty people’s DNA on the database put to her. She explains that she has had children in her constituency who have never even been convicted of any crime who have their DNA on there. This seems to be a gross violation and, certainly in that case, I would support her opposition.

The rest of the interview focuses on police numbers (during which she actually knows her figures – a refreshing change) and how she would run the Home Office as a black person (how that is relevant I have no idea, and to her credit she bats it back by saying she would run it as best she could, same as with everything else).

Overall, this was a creditable performance and, despite having disagreements with her on several points, she came across as reasonable, professional and competent. I would have my misgivings about seeing her in the Home Office, but following this, some of those have disappeared.

She has been roundly criticised on social media for this interview, but I cannot see why. Corbyn and Abbott do have serious questions to answer about their past IRA support, but that can’t be the only thing we take into consideration about them, especially given how long ago it was. If we don’t allow people to change and adapt, we only reinforce our own prejudices and push people into corners, and that’s not something we should seek.

She has, in the past, been evasive, slippery and simply ridiculous plenty of times. But those times when she isn’t need to be credited. It is only be doing this that we encourage our elected representatives to do it more often. If this is seen as a car crash interview, why should she ever feel like she should be clear or straightforward with us again? We must give credit where and when it is due. This applies to ALL parties and ALL MPs. If we don’t, all we will get is an army of dreary, whipped Michael Fallons.

And we would deserve it.

Thoughts on Gibraltar and James O’Brien

 

They’re more British than we are

Well…that escalated quickly. One mention of a British territorial rock and it’s all kicked off. Perspective has, as is customary in these modern times, taken a long break and doesn’t look like it will be coming back any time soon.

An early shot has been fired from one of the warmer nations of our soon-to-be-former trading bloc regarding Gibraltar, a tiny but spectacularly beautiful jut of land on the Southern coast of Spain. This lovely corner of the planet is British territory and has been since 1713 when the Treaty of Utrecht was signed, but remains disputed by Spain. Its 30,000 inhabitants feel thoroughly British, reiterating that fact in two referendums on their sovereignty – one in 1967, and another in 2002 when Tony Blair and Jack Straw tried desperately to give it to Spain.

They are a civil, peaceful, multicultural people who have absolutely no desire to be ruled by their Northern neighbours. They fly both the British and EU flags on their official buildings, having voted in enormous numbers to Remain part of the latter. But now they feel themselves being pulled once more into the middle of an unseemly spat.

This will, in time I’m sure, come to be seen as a mistake on the part of the EU. It is hardly a gesture of goodwill and will put an undue strain on the negotiations. They successfully managed to goad Michael Howard into saying something unwise (although trying to imply he was calling for war is a misrepresentation that should make any reasonable person wince – see paragraph 1), but there has been nothing but good grace from the government. Theresa May has not risen to it, nor should she. The question of Gibraltarian sovereignty has nothing to do with our leaving the EU, and it must stay that way.

It does make me lament that the advice I offered in a previous blog was not heeded by Number 10. It’s almost as if they haven’t read it. But imagine the position we could be in now. “We have guaranteed the rights of all of your citizens, and you repay us by questioning the integrity of one of our overseas territories? That’s not very constructive or friendly now, is it?” Moral high ground gained. Alas, it is not to be so.

Feeling British may not mean anything to most on the Left, but it still does to these people and they take it very seriously. We would let them down to our eternal shame.

There has been plenty of spluttering about ’empire’ and ‘colonialism’ going on about all of this, most of it not making any sense. This is a self governing, democratic people – but you want us to give them to Spain? A country they have no desire to join or be a part of?

But surely, comes the reply, you can’t just own a bit of someone else’s country? “For the Spanish, Gibraltar is an affront to their sense of national identity and their sense of sovereignty – it’s a bit like having a part of Dover owned by Spain” says Jack Straw. Oh, is that right?

It would appear that Spain doesn’t exactly take this principle seriously, and certainly not consistently. Because what is just across the Strait of Gibraltar?

Gibraltar

That little jut of African land, of a very similar size to Gibraltar, is called Ceuta. Ceuta is Spanish territory at the Northern tip of Morocco. Its citizens are Spanish and do not want to be governed by Morocco. Morocco very much wants it back, but Spain asserts its sovereignty. They would never dare hold a referendum to prove it, because that would simply strengthen the case of Gibraltarians to remain British. But the hypocrisy is there for all to see, a mere 30 miles away.

Both of these places are tolerant, multicultural places, patriotic and fiercely loyal to their mother countries – much more, it must be said, than many in those countries are.

The EU would be making a serious error to make this a part of the negotiations. It is imperative that cool heads prevail and this nonsense is dropped very soon.

 

There must be someone else for the job

I’ve been watching Newsnight for as long as I can remember. It could certainly be said that it’s not been the same since Paxman left, but it still provides a very high quality daily news show that, for me, remains unparalleled.

But I have my doubts about one of its hosts. You see, the BBC is supposed to remain neutral. Which means its news and current affairs shows must be balanced. Which means its hosts should be beyond reproach in terms of their integrity. So how on earth do they justify having in the chair one of LBC’s most outspoken talk show hosts, James O’Brien?

The BBC is often accused of bias, often unfairly in my view. I happen to think that it has a left wing tendency, and this seems to be backed up by statements from previous DGs and insiders, but it does at least attempt to be balanced as much as possible. I also am basing that on nothing more than my own perception at this point, I have no numbers or anything to base it on, it’s just an impression I get.

So why, when accusations of bias are flying around, would you make such a partisan selection for host of the flagship news programme?

He hardly keeps his views quiet on his LBC show, and his so called ‘epic rants’ are constantly shared by my left wing friends (which is 99% of my friends), which would surely make him a hero of the left? He will regularly rail against Brexit, against the Tories, against Jeremy Corbyn. He is far from neutral on any of these topics, so how can we expect him to provide balance if these topics come up? How can he not naturally favour Ed Miliband over Douglas Carswell in a debate about Brexit? How can he not naturally side with a Labour MP over a Tory MP? How can we trust him to fairly deal with a confrontation between John McDonnell and Chuka Umuna?

He hates Brexit, hates the Tories and hates Jeremy Corbyn being Labour leader. You may too. But surely you couldn’t want him to pretend to be neutral?

I wonder what would happen if another LBC host were to be made the next host of Newsnight. Maybe Katie Hopkins? Nigel Farage? Julia Hartley-Brewer? No, I didn’t think so. His equivalent from the Right of politics would never be allowed anywhere near Newsnight.

I was particularly struck by one exchange he had, where he was interviewing a woman called Asra Nomani for a piece about Donald Trump. It was supposed to be two women, but the other guest unfortunately had technical problems and so he was left to talk to this person for whom it was evident he had nothing but loathing. The whole exchange can be found here.

The first sign is the introduction – with his opening line of “Anne Gearan from the Washington Post and Asra Nomani who has written for outlets such as Breitbart and The Hill

He almost spits the word ‘Breitbart’, with a vicious emphasis on the T sounds (something missing from the words ‘Washington’ and ‘Post’, both with equally hard T sounds, in case you think I’m being oversensitive).

Then, Ms Nomani has to spend her first exchange with Mr. O’Brien explaining that she does not, in fact, write for Breitbart, and never has. She also explains that she spent 15 years writing for the Wall Street Journal. She does these things with immensely good grace and politeness, not recoiling at all from his accusatory introduction. This was in a piece about fake news.

This has stuck in my head ever since and I feel a deep sense of unease whenever I think about it. The rest of the clip is worth watching as she gently answers his questions and takes all of his interruptions gracefully and without attempting to speak over him. I am not convinced he should be presenting this programme and I will not watch it when he does. I am happy to listen to him on his LBC show, but the Newsnight chair is not the place for him.