24 April 2023

Why Diane Abbott should no longer sit as a Labour MP


It may only have been a few lines long, but Diane Abbott’s letter to The Observer managed to pack in a veritable smorgasbord of historical inaccuracy and obscenely offensive rhetoric. The veteran MP has since had the Labour whip removed, and issued a grovelling apology, including the bizarre claim that her letter was the result of an ‘initial draft’. Who among us hasn’t thrown in a bit of casual antisemitism in the ‘note-taking’ stage, after all?

Abbott had written in to respond to a Guardian article from Tomiwa Owolade on why racism ‘isn’t a black and white issue’. Her letter was a remarkable feat of ‘grievance competition’, arguing that Jews, Gypsies, Travellers and Irish people ‘are not all their lives subjected to racism’ in the same way black people are. It was so bad that even the Runnymede Trust – an organisation I’ve had cause to criticise in the past – said Abbott ‘should know better than to pit marginalised groups against one another and trivialise horrific stains on our history’.

It was also blithely ignored the compelling evidence cited in Owolade’s original article. He focused on a two-year research project which showed that Gypsies and Travellers, Jews, and people of white-Irish heritage were all at serious risk of racial assault. Indeed, the latter group were more likely to be assaulted than people of Bangladeshi and Pakistani descent (who tend to be relatively segregated) on this measure of self-reported discrimination.

For me, this doesn’t come as much of a surprise – and the only reason it doesn’t receive the attention it deserves is because of the myth that ‘white-appearing’ people are unable to experience forms of racial discrimination and ethnic prejudice. This has been perpetuated by poisonous white-privilege theories which have been aggressively imported into the UK from across the pond. 

Of course, this is complete nonsense. For example, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) recently found that Pontins holiday parks had established a ‘blacklist’ labelled ‘Undesirable Guests’. Predominantly made up of Irish-sounding surnames, it was designed to refuse bookings attempted by members of the Gypsy and Traveller communities. These are communities blighted by depressingly low levels of educational attainment, high rates of unemployment, and poor health-related outcomes. Despite the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) explicitly stating that state-funded bodies have a duty to advance equality of opportunity and foster good relations between protected groups, a House of Commons Committee report published in April 2019 found ‘a conspicuous lack of due regard for the needs of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities’.

Equally disturbing was the way Abbott managed to trivialise the scourge of antisemitism. For Britain’s Jews – many of whom once considered Labour as their natural political home – it was another reminder of the sinister turn things took under Jeremy Corbyn, for whom Abbott was always an unstinting ally. It’s worth repeating that the EHRC found Labour responsible for three breaches of the Equality Act, with the watchdog concluding that its analysis pointed to ‘a culture within the party which, at best, did not do enough to prevent anti-Semitism and, at worst, could be seen to accept it’.

As I’ve written before on CapX, the Covid-19 pandemic only increased the virulence of antisemitic conspiracy theorising – with hard-left, far-right, and Islamist extremists weaponising the virus to fuel anti-Jewish violence and hatred. One of the most shocking incidents was when ‘pro-Palestinian’ demonstrators drove around north London hurling antisemitic abuse and inciting sexual violence against Jewish women.

And the idea that underpins Abbott’s deranged letter, that Jews are somehow lower down the hierarchy of racial grievance, is impossible to square with a recent study showing Jews are the most likely group to report racially motivated assaults. For a politician so alert to racial prejudice, ignoring that fact requires not so much a blind spot as a blindfold.

Sir Keir Starmer was correct to suspend Diane Abbott and withdraw the party whip from her (pending an investigation). If Labour wishes to restore its reputation for being a truly anti-discrimination party after the damaged caused under Corbyn, he must continue to take a robust stance on antisemitism – which is relatively concentrated in traditionally Labour-voting Black British and British Muslim communities.

The essence of anti-discrimination activism is fighting bigotry on your own doorstep. Part of that is also doing away with pseudo-intellectual ‘white privilege’ theories, which are both woefully simplistic and also overlook very real forms of discrimination experienced by ‘white-seeming’ people on the grounds of their race, ethnicity, and faith.

She may have been a Labour MP for 35 years, but personally I would rather Abbott did not have the whip restored. This was no slip of the tongue or tweet fired off in the heat of the moment; she sat down and wrote a letter, and presumably meant every word. If Starmer wants to be taken seriously on racism, she should no longer be able to sit as a Labour MP.

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Dr Rakib Ehsan is an expert in social cohesion and institutional trust. His new book 'Beyond Grievance: What the Left Gets Wrong About Ethnic Minorities' is published on June 15.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.