Diane Abbott, who was elected as the UK’s first black female MP in 1987, is now sitting as an independent after having the Labour whip suspended. The disciplinary action follows a letter published in the Observer on 23 April in which she suggested Jewish people do not face racism, but instead suffer prejudice similar to “redheads”.
The Hackney North and Stoke Newington MP, who served as Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow home secretary, was responding to an article in the previous week’s Observer by Tomiwa Owolade, which argued that, in Abbott’s words, “Irish, Jewish and Traveller people all suffer from ‘racism’”. Tomiwa, a regular NS contributor, has since written a piece for the New Statesman on why people have objected so strongly to Abbott’s argument.
The MP tweeted an apology, adding that she wished to withdraw the remarks and dissociate herself from them. In the tweet, she also claimed what was published in the paper was a draft and not the finished article. She has nevertheless been suspended from her party pending an investigation by the Labour chief whip, Alan Campbell.
Views on how Abbott should be dealt with are split and do not necessarily follow party lines. There are many who point to her support for Corbyn when Labour was plagued by anti-Semitism and do not want her to stand for the party at the next election. Others warn against a hasty decision. John McTernan, who was political secretary to Tony Blair, for example, believes Abbott should be forgiven and her apology accepted. There is another school of thought that argues Abbott, a vocal critic of Keir Starmer, has been attempting to coax the party into taking action against her for some time.
The party will need to be seen to act fairly and independently of any such views. Supporters of Abbott have pointed to how Rupa Huq, who was suspended after saying at a Labour conference fringe event that the then Tory chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, was “superficially” black, had the whip restored after apologising and completing anti-racism training.
On BBC Radio 4 on Monday 24 April, the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Pat McFadden, said Abbott had been “subjected to the most appalling racism in her career”, but when asked if that meant she should be treated more leniently than others, said: “I don’t think the chief whip will take that view.”
Overall, the mood among Labour MPs is one of anger but also dismay. Starmer has dedicated his leadership to ridding the party of anti-Semitism, and just days before the local elections on 4 May, the issue has once again hit the headlines.
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[See also: Why has Labour’s poll lead shrunk?]