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7 March 2019updated 24 Jul 2021 3:03am

The problem with Conservative ministers defending Diane Abbott

Amber Rudd called the shadow home secretary a “coloured woman” while trying to back her on live radio. But there’s another issue here too.

By Anoosh Chakelian

The Work & Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd has apologised for her “clumsy language” when referring to shadow home secretary Diane Abbott as a “coloured woman” during a live interview on BBC Radio 2.

Abbott herself has called the term “outdated, offensive and [a] revealing choice of words”.

But there is also another problem here. As Theresa May and Sajid Javid before her, Rudd was trying to support Abbott by pointing out the torrent of abuse she receives as a black woman in politics:

“It definitely is worse if you’re a woman, and it’s worst of all if you’re a coloured woman. I know that Diane Abbott gets a huge amount of abuse, and I think that’s something we need to continue to call out.”

This echoes the high-profile praise the Labour MP received at Conservative party conference last year. The Prime Minister and Home Secretary both used their official speeches to champion her strength in the face of prejudice.

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Javid spoke about Abbott as a role model and pioneer in UK politics:

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“People like Diane Abbott. Yes, Diane Abbott. We might disagree with the shadow Home Secretary on almost all her policies. But it takes guts and determination to become the first black woman to be elected to the House of Commons. And we should pay tribute to that.”

Similarly, May defended the politician in her leader’s speech:

“It’s not only Conservatives who are facing abuse. The first black woman ever to be elected to the House of Commons receives more racist and misogynist messages today than when she first stood over 30 years ago. You do not have to agree with a word Diane Abbott says to believe passionately in her right to say it, free from threats and abuse.”

Yet these expressions of solidarity jar with the Conservative party’s election campaign in 2017. The party fanned the flames of abuse towards Abbott, by using her as a target on much of their election campaign material last year.

In the final stretch before polling day, an investigation by BuzzFeed News found that a third of recent official emails to party members explicitly mentioned the so-called threat of Abbott becoming home secretary, and negative videos regarding Abbott had been pushed out on the party’s Facebook page.

It also reported that multiple ministers at the time publicly namechecked Abbott as a security risk following recent terror attacks – including Rudd, who told the BBC two days before the vote:

“I wish I had more of an opportunity to make the point about why Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott would be so bad for the security of this country.”

Another analysis by BuzzFeed found that 10 per cent of the most viral right-wing news stories shared during the 2017 general election campaign were attacks on Abbott.

While all political opponents should have the space to make amends and support each other, there is an utter lack of acknowledgement from Conservative ministers that their campaign played a part in this story.