Reactions to an alleged assault on Jeremy Corbyn pose serious questions about our handling of political violence and abuse

4th March 2019

In the latest instalment of “our politics is broken,” news that the 69-year old leader of the opposition may have been attacked while visiting a mosque has been met with jeers across parts of social media.

What was originally reported as an alleged egging now seems to have been more like an alleged assault, with several outlets reporting that a 31-year old man struck the Labour leader while holding an egg.

Corbyn was visiting the Finsbury Mosque which, only two years ago, was the scene of a right-wing terrorist attack, plotted by a man who was a devout follower of the far-right, and who had originally planned to target Corbyn himself.

The reaction from many commentators has been one of mild amusement, and particularly when contrasted with some recent events and placed in the context of our current political climate, shows how skewed our treatment of political abuse and violence is against politicians on the left. The way some senior politicians are acting about this incident too, when compared with much more mild incidents against their colleagues, shows just how disingenuous, opportunistic and hypocritical some Conservative politicians can be.

You won’t struggle to find people wishing the alleged attack on Corbyn had been a much more serious one

Rachel Riley, who has carved out a niche in recent months as a particularly vocal critic of the Labour leadership, retweeted a comment made by Owen Jones earlier this year after the leader of the BNP Nick Griffin was egged, which effectively said: “Don’t be a Nazi if you don’t want to get egged”.

Riley’s comment, “good advice,” which followed the news of the alleged assault on Corbyn, came with an egg emoji. The implication, clearly, is that Corbyn is as deserving of this as Nick Griffin. Griffin, let’s not forget, denied the holocaust and led an extreme right-wing party for a number of years. James Cleverly, a deputy chairman of the Tory party who is seemingly on a lifelong crusade to disprove the theory of nominative determinism, replied to Riley’s tweet with a jeering GIF. Go a little further into Twitter’s murkier corners and you won’t struggle to find people wishing the alleged attack on Corbyn had been a much more serious one.

Clearly this incident bears no comparison to the murder of Jo Cox but, when looking at how this incident has played out and the reactions to it, we would do well to remember that in our very recent history a left-wing MP was assassinated by a far-right lunatic, another was the subject of a serious far-right assassination plot and a group led by a right-wing conservative-voter have been harassing journalists and MPs outside parliament with some regularity.

At what point can we agree that there is no justification for pretending that left-wing political violence exists on the same scale as right-wing violence in Britain today?

There’s only so much use in hypotheticals but I do want you to imagine the reaction, not only from these same Conservative politicians who’re laughing and sneering at this attack on Corbyn, but the media too, if a leftwing activist had assaulted the Prime Minister or a high ranking Conservative MP. When Momentum is regularly painted as a rabble of thugs, and supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and Labour generally are forever being labelled extremists and cultists, for little more than political activism, imagine if a member of either of these groups actually did commit an act of violence?

Social media analysis found that Dianne Abbott, Labour’s left-wing shadow home secretary, received almost half of all the abuse aimed at female MPs during the 2017 general election 📸 PaulNUK

The closest frame of reference from recent history we have is when Ian Bone of Class War protested outside the home of Jacob Rees-Mogg last year. Bone had no real links to Labour and only the vaguest connection with the wider left, among whom he is almost universally disliked and discredited. But it didn’t stop politicians and commentators wheeling out the extremely tired “so much for the tolerant left” trope and describing the behaviour as typical of “Corbyn cultists”.

Cleverly tweeted at the time that the behaviour of Bone was “disgusting and unacceptable” before getting in the “so much for ‘kinder, gentler politics'” jibe. His colleague Nadine Dorries said, “This is how the Corbyn cultists behave. What scum bags”, and another Tory, Michael Fabricant, said, “It is scum like this who have taken over @UKLabour… Corbyn should be ashamed of himself.”

Considering the individual who allegedly attacked Corbyn yesterday is also alleged to have been a pro-Brexit campaigner who reportedly said, “When you vote you get what you vote for”, you have to wonder if the blame will be laid at the door of any of the Conservative MPs who lead the Leave campaign.

This isn’t necessarily about the media underreporting the incident, or initially covering it as an egg being thrown, rather than a punch. Particularly on the latter point, media outlets can only go off what was initially reported by the police, who did say Corbyn had been egged. Though some news outlets have been in no rush to amend their stories, plenty have done and have drawn attention to the distinction.

We should take political violence and abuse seriously no matter its source or target

This isn’t just about political point-scoring either, or playing “them and us” games for no reason. It’s about people recognising the reality of the political climate, the risks faced by politicians of all stripes but particularly on the left, and the double standards and hypocrisy applied by politicians who feign horror and disgust at incidents directed at their own but jeer and laugh when it happens to those across the aisle.

The point, ultimately, is a simple one; that we should take political violence and abuse seriously no matter its source or target. But can we all just get real for the sake of people’s safety and treat the threat of right-wing violence as being more likely and more common than from the left.

4th March 2019