Steven Edginton is the Chief Digital Strategist at Leave Means Leave.
Diane Abbott had a shocker on BBC Question Time last week – so she’s slapped the corporation with a formal complaint. The Shadow Home Secretary claims that the most plausible explanation for the way the audience reacted to her woeful performance is the colour of her skin. So she is crying racism – accusing the programme of “legitimising mistreatment, bias and abuse.” And I’m calling her out.
I was with Abbott throughout the evening in question, and I did not see or hear a single thing to support her knee-jerk allegations. What I did observe was an extremely haughty, discourteous individual who behaved as if she were superior to everybody else. Her attitude towards me personally was shocking – and appears to offer an insight into the deep-seated prejudices of the current Labour leadership.
On air, on what was only Fiona Bruce’s second appearance as Question Time’s new presenter, Abbott floundered about, struggling to defend her party’s increasingly bewildering position on Brexit. That’s understandable. Off air, she was offhand to the point of rudeness, failing to extend even the most basic of courtesies to others involved in the show. It was embarrassing to watch.
From the moment Jeremy Corbyn’s old ally boarded the 16.47 train from London St Pancras to Derby, she seemed to be in a funk. I was travelling with Isabel Oakeshott, the political journalist and commentator, who has been supporting me in my career since I was 17.
The last few years have been a great journey in politics, and after various short-term jobs, including at the Taxpayers’ Alliance, I am about to join the cross-party Brexit campaign group Leave Means Leave as their Chief Digital Strategist.
I first contacted Isabel three years ago when I was 16, and still at state school, asking if I could interview her for my YouTube channel, Politics UK. Soon after, she offered to mentor me, and I have since accompanied her to Question Time on four or five occasions. She is always nervous before the show, and likes my help. I enjoy going because I get to meet some of the most interesting characters in politics, who always have fascinating stories to tell.
It’s also an opportunity to find new interviewees from across the political divide for my channel. I am careful not to get in anyone’s way – almost everyone is anxious before the show – but the atmosphere among fellow panellists en route to the venue and in the Green Room is always friendly, and if there is a good moment to introduce myself to some of the politicians and researchers, I take it.
Alastair Campbell, Lord Winston, Armando Iannucci, Emily Thornberry, the Apprentice’s Claude Littner and the many others I have spoken to before and after the show have all treated me with warmth and courtesy. Six weeks after I met him in a makeshift Green Room in Putney, Tony Blair’s former spin doctor and I met at Kings Cross, where he generously gave me half an hour of his time to talk about Brexit for my YouTube channel. What a contrast with Abbott, who struggled even to muster an ill-tempered “hello.”
My opportunity to introduce myself to the Shadow Home Secretary came sooner than I anticipated last Thursday, when Isabel and I found ourselves sitting almost next to her on the train taking us to the show in Derby. As we boarded, she and Isabel exchanged basic pleasantries, before settling down to their preparations.
When Isabel stepped out of the carriage to make a telephone call, I took the chance to say hello to Abbott. “I’m Steven Edginton, I work for Isabel,” I said tentatively.
“I know you work for Isabel,” she sniffed disdainfully – and stuffed on her headphones. She clearly wanted nothing to do with me.
Doubtless she was preoccupied: certainly, she was making plenty of notes. But this went beyond being busy and distracted. Abbott was openly hostile and continued to be so for the rest of the journey. She went out of her way to ignore me, physically turning her back on me on the platform as we alighted, and avoiding all small talk.
When I asked her whether her job was stressful at the moment with all the political chaos, she scoffed back, saying: “I get paid to do it.” The only explanation I could come up with was that, based on the way I look and sound, and my association with Isabel, she mistakenly assumed I was just another privileged Tory public school boy, to whom she did not need to bother giving the time of day. It set the tone for her attitude to others throughout the evening, from her aggressive “talk to the hand” gesture at Isabel which viewers would have seen in the first few minutes of the show to her haughty demeanour to other panellist and their staff.
Abbott’s complaint to the BBC begins with claims that the audience were “whipped up” against her before the show was recorded. Based on what seems to be nothing more than hearsay from a couple of Corybnistas in the audience, she whines that during rehearsals, someone mentioned her youthful romance with Corbyn 40 years ago. Well knock me down with a feather. How very dare they!
Maybe they did; maybe they didn’t – but neither Abbott nor her researcher can possibly know, because they were not there. They were a long way from the auditorium at that point, in the Green Room, with all the other panellists. Any impropriety, by Fiona Bruce or anyone else, is vehemently denied by the very professional BBC Question Time team, which in any case cannot be expected to gag the audience.
During the show itself, Bruce was tough but polite and entirely even handed. Neither Isabel nor Rory Stewart, the Prisons Minister, escaped mockery and heckling from the audience. They smiled and sucked it up, as par for the course on that particular show.
Abbott has some fine qualities: she has dedicated half a lifetime to public service; she is brave, and has to put up with piles of abuse. She is a talented communicator, which is why she is in such demand from broadcasters. She is an old hand at Question Time, and knows what it involves. This is called being held to account by ordinary voters – and if you put yourself forward for the experience on live TV, sometimes you get a roughing up.
Those who falsely cry “racism” to cover up failure or inadequacy discredit themselves and do a terrible disservice to the cause. Abbott, of all people, should know this. Perhaps she should consider her own prejudices – and what instant class-based judgements she makes of someone like me.
Anyone can have an off day. Screwing up in the intense gladiatorial arena of a prime time television show after one of the most extraordinary weeks in British politics is quite understandable. Blaming everyone but yourself is lame, but perhaps not an unnatural reaction to feelings of public humiliation. What is unforgivable is crying racism, when there is nothing whatsoever to support such a claim.
It wouldn’t have mattered whether Abbott’s skin was black, white or the colours of the rainbow: she would have been mocked for trying and failing to defend the indefensible. She knew it; the audience knew it; and they reacted with the derision that her party’s cynical, incoherent and opportunistic Brexit policy merits. If that’s racism, then I’m a jellybean.