Today, it is clear that attempts may be made to stop Diane Abbott from standing again as the MP for Hackney and Stoke Newington. John Mann, a peer and former right wing Labour MP, is an ‘advisor’ to the Tory government on antisemitism and he has already called on her to step down. Doubtless there will be an official Labour Party investigation, and the Starmer leadership could overturn the local party’s 2022 confirmation of Diane’s candidature and impose their own candidate.
Tories will pile in, spurred on by their mass media, which has participated for decades in scarcely veiled racist attacks on Diane. All records show that she has received more racist and sexist abuse than any other MP. This government will parade as the defender of all communities facing racism, but at the same time it is ignoring international law and attacking migrants and asylum seekers as part of its stop the boats policy. They condemn the letter’s blindness to racism against travellers, gipsies, and Roma while passing a law that will allow their homes to be destroyed.
The Labour leadership will also wade into the torrent of condemnation of the Hackney MP, but Starmer has failed to take up the criticisms made by Forde in his report about the hierarchy of response to different types of racism within the Labour Party. A right wing MP, Siobhan McDonagh, was dealt with much more lightly when she answered yes to a question on Radio 4: If you are anti-capitalist, you are also antisemitic.
Diane Abbott is not racist or antisemitic. Her whole political life has been taken up with the anti-racist struggle in all its forms. She has been incredibly resilient in maintaining her calm when faced with a continuous assault in the mainstream mass media and online. If you say you live in Hackney, in social situations outside of the left bubble, it is astonishing how vehemently and viciously people attack her.
Diane Abbott’s letter, 23 April 2023:
Racism is black and white
Tomiwa Owolade claims that Irish, Jewish and Traveller people all suffer from “racism” (“Racism in Britain is not a black and white issue. It’s far more complicated”, Comment). They undoubtedly experience prejudice. This is similar to racism and the two words are often used as if they are interchangeable.
It is true that many types of white people with points of difference, such as redheads, can experience this prejudice. But they are not all their lives subject to racism. In pre-civil rights America, Irish people, Jewish people and Travellers were not required to sit at the back of the bus. In apartheid South Africa, these groups were allowed to vote. And at the height of slavery, there were no white-seeming people manacled on the slave ships.
House of Commons, London SW1
Nevertheless, it is important that the left be honest when people mess up. The letter is quite wrong and very sloppy in the way it poses the differences between racism against black people and prejudice against Jews, Irish, travellers, Roma, or Gypsies. It reproduces the very hierarchy of racism that Forde highlights in his critical comments on the way racism is dealt with in the Labour Party. The reference to redheads in the letter digs the hole Diane is in even deeper—the Holocaust and redheads are lumped in the same category of prejudice as opposed to the racism that black people experience all their lives.
To her credit, Diane has rapidly apologised and recognised the totally wrongheaded content of the letter. I am not sure how much her argument that it was just a draft that was not checked actually works as an excuse. She is not some new, raw MP who might be liable for such an error.
Faced with the onslaught against Diane, some on the left have in fact focused on this drafting aspect and are far too defensive of the content and logic of the letter. Some on social media have even argued that there is a lot of truth in how she distinguished between different forms of racism. This only reinforces the perception that the left is open to such approaches that emphasise how the social or class positions of the Jewish community compared to those of black people somehow dilute antisemitism in our society. If you go down this route, it just opens up the left to the idea that we are relaxed about offending the Jewish community. Let’s be clear: if you are Jewish, Irish, or a member of the GRT community, you would be downright offended and angry about the letter.
It might well be an interesting discussion to look at the historical comparison of racism against different communities. But this has to be done more rigorously and sensitively and is better laid out in a serious article than crudely summarised in a short letter. Given the whole debacle of Corbyn and the antisemitism question, this discussion is as important as ever.
An even worse response than being overly defensive or soft on the letter is to fall behind the Labour leadership’s response. Jon Lansman, the former founder of Momentum, has supported the suspension and an investigation (reported on the Mirror site). Even spokespeople at Novara Media have echoed such sentiments. Obviously, it is legitimate for the official Labour leadership to respond; Diane is a national figure. But it could have accepted her immediate apology and withdrawal of the statement in good grace, accepting her long-term record as an anti-racist and pioneering black woman MP.
We should call for the suspension to be lifted and for Diane Abbot to continue as the democratically selected candidate for her constituency. Forde’s report recommendations should be implemented, and frank, serious debate on racism in all its forms should be promoted and sustained by the left inside and outside the Labour Party.
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