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Diane Abbott is no anti-racist hero

Identitarian activists are using her skin colour to try to absolve her from criticism.

Inaya Folarin Iman

Inaya Folarin Iman
Columnist

Topics Politics UK

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There can be no doubt that Diane Abbott has had a long and fascinating political career. She was, after all, the UK’s first black female MP. Over almost four decades, the MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington became a prominent figure on the left of the Labour Party. She once stood for the party leadership (coming last), became a major fixture on our TV screens on the BBC’s This Week and even rose to the ranks of shadow home secretary under Jeremy Corbyn.

Throughout that time, she has frequently been at the centre of controversy. Just look at her hypocrisy over private schools – condemning the likes of Tony Blair for having his children privately educated, while sending her own son to the fee-paying City of London school. Then, there have been her seemingly endless number-related gaffes.

Most recently, she wrote a letter to the Observer in April 2023 to argue that the racism experienced by Jewish people wasn’t actually racism at all. Rather, she claimed, it is just ‘prejudice’, comparable to that faced by redheads. In the letter, she listed several egregious examples of anti-black racism from the 20th century to support her argument, such as segregation in the US and Apartheid in South Africa. Yet she conveniently left out one of the most evil and sickening examples of racism in human history: the Holocaust.

This deeply troubling oversight led to her suspension from the Labour Party. This week, after more than a year, she had the Labour whip restored, though there is still speculation over whether she will be allowed to stand as a Labour candidate in the upcoming General Election.

Reasonable people can disagree as to what should happen next to Abbott. But what has been disturbing about this saga is the extent to which so many self-styled ‘anti-racists’ have sought to downplay the seriousness of her remarks. Over the past few days, they have insisted that she is a ‘race pioneer’ and an anti-racist ‘trailblazer’, who has only ever done good. The Runnymede Trust, an anti-racist charity, even expressed its ‘utmost solidarity’ with the Hackney MP. But surely, casually forgetting about the Holocaust and downplaying anti-Semitism should be enough to raise doubts about someone’s anti-racist credentials?

Besides, it is not just last year’s Observer letter that undermines Abbott’s supposedly spotless record of anti-racism. Back in 1996, Abbott was hauled over the coals when she wrote in her local paper, the Hackney Gazette, to complain about 20 Finnish nurses being recruited to her constituency’s hospital. These ‘blonde, blue-eyed girls from Finland’, she said, do not ‘understand British culture and institutions’. She went on to question whether these ‘Finnish girls, who may never have met a black person before, let alone touched one, [are] best-suited to nurse in multicultural Hackney’. She flat-out suggested that these nurses were unfit to work in the NHS, and unsuited to care for her constituents, because of their race and nationality. Ironically, she later said: ‘The issue is not one of colour – the issue is that people should not be recruited from overseas in an area of mass unemployment.’ If these comments were made by anyone else today, and referred to black or Asian nurses rather than white nurses, no doubt the same anti-racist campaigners currently defending Abbott would be the first to kick up a fuss.

Somehow, self-styled anti-racists are trying to claim that it is Abbott who is the real victim of racism in all this. They say she has been hung out to dry by Labour because she is a black woman. But they conveniently forget that suspending MPs over allegations of anti-Semitism, or questionable comments about Israel, is now standard practice for everyone in the Labour Party. Earlier this year, Kate Osamor, another black female Labour MP, was suspended after she used Holocaust Memorial Day to compare the Nazis’ genocide of Jews with the Israel’s war against Hamas. Eventually, she had the whip restored after an investigation.

Certainly, Abbott seems to have been treated more harshly than Osamor. She was kept in the dark until just this week about her status in the party. On that front, she was in a similar boat to former leader Jeremy Corbyn, a white man, was also suspended from Labour for minimising anti-Semitism. He was expelled last week for planning to run as an independent. While Starmer might credibly be accused of factionalism against the left, there does not seem to be any racial bias at work here. The claims that Abbott is a victim of racism seem designed to deflect attention away from her own failings and to shut down a vital debate about anti-Semitism in Labour.

Some are now loudly warning that Abbott’s suspension will discourage black voters from backing Starmer at the election. Author and commentator Nels Abbey claims that: ‘Black people have been Labour’s most loyal voting bloc, this treatment of Diane Abbott will certainly end that.’

This is absurd. At a time when people’s pay packets are shrinking, housing is out of reach for many and the NHS is in disarray, it is beyond patronising to suggest that black Britons will be basing their vote on whether Diane Abbott is allowed to stand. If she were the sole reason for black people to vote Labour, then I’d say the relationship with the party was already pretty weak to begin with. It is this condescending view of black voters, shared by many on the American left, that is leading to record numbers of ethnic-minority people voting for Donald Trump in the US. There is good reason to believe that some black voters could switch party allegiances in Britain, too.

Those who call themselves ‘anti-racists’ should know better than to reduce black people to the colour of their skin. Regardless of whether you think Diane Abbott should be able to stand for Labour or not, her race is irrelevant to the scandal she embroiled herself in. It was her appalling comments about anti-Semitism that led to her suspension from the party, not the fact that she is black. Her supporters need to stop treating her race as a get-out clause from any and all criticism. The true anti-racist position is always to combat bigotry and ignorance, no matter whose mouth it comes from.

Inaya Folarin Iman is a spiked columnist and founder of the Equiano Project.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics UK

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