Diane Abbott will live to regret making herself a reckless martyr
By Sam Attwater
Diane Abbott’s name used to move the Heavens in British politics. The first black woman to be elected to the House of Commons – which is still a remarkably pale setting – trailblazed like few others in shaping both Parliament and the nation into the beacon of tolerance, respect, and multiculturalism we like to think they have become. Children learn her name in Black History Month, as do teenagers in A-Level Politics classes up and down the country. Her name is synonymous with the struggle black people, particularly black women, have had to endure when breaking boundaries and making more diverse the institutions and workplaces of this land. The Hackney and Stoke Newington MP was, despite her embarrassing gaffs and awkward politics, an immovable icon of Britain’s embrace of multiculturalism.
But, in recent years, the once-venerated Labour veteran has pitted herself against the current leader, Sir Keir Starmer, and has sought to publicly undermine the Party at every turn. To an obsessive degree, Abbott has made often nasty and absurd attacks on the new leader of her party – at one point suggesting his support of rural communities was inconsistent with his support for LGBT+ rights (the implication being that gay people neither exist nor are accepted outside of his North London constituency).
Abbott has been goading the leadership in an effort to martyr herself for that feverish Corbynite crusade which saw Labour lose two elections. She has also fiercely criticised the Party’s decision to block its former leader, Jeremy Corbyn, from standing as a candidate at the next general election.
Abbott’s entirely self-serving, factionalist, and destructive narratives have raised eyebrows about her support for the Party going forward, but her latest misdemeanour has finally seen her fall on her own sword. But, far from the noble sacrifice she envisioned, Diane Abbott has managed to disgrace herself and her once illustrious career of championing anti-racism.
In a letter written to The Observer newspaper, Abbott compared the racism faced by Jews, Irish people, and Travellers to that of redheads, and that they are “not all their lives subject to racism”. Undoubtedly, such an offensive and ahistorical account of the prejudices faced by those communities should have rung alarm bells when Abbott put pen to paper. Her apology left much to be desired, claiming her now-infamous correspondence was an ill-advised first draft – an excuse the Board of Deputies of British Jews condemned as “entirely unconvincing”.
It is a shame that Abbott’s words, as recklessly hurtful as they are damningly inaccurate, have locked their place in the obituary of a career that will be defined more by what she said than what she did. The downfall of the most-abused female politician in the country will be met with more joy than sorrow by many, for her life as an MP has seen her gaffs gobble up the headlines and turn an already unfriendly and prejudiced print media against her – although proudly declaring Chairman Mao (the Chinese dictator directly responsible for tens of millions of deaths) did more good than harm in 2008 probably did her no favours. Her fabled ascendency from child of Jamaican immigrants to Labour MP has now been tarnished by the ugly ramblings of one shameful letter.
Diane Abbott will live to regret making herself a reckless martyr in Starmer’s holy war against the Labour left. Before her unceremonious fall into political disgrace, she had no political capital to cushion her fall. A seasoned politician like Abbott ought to have known that her admirable legacy as Britain’s first black female MP was too important for too many people to very publicly goad a Labour leadership looking for an excuse to make an example out of her, let alone a news media that is fervent in its strange and neurotic hatred of her. She has vindicated an obvious truth about many in the anti-racism movement. On the left of the Labour Party that there are too many that still believe in the dangerous dogma of a hierarchy of racism where the prejudice faced by some groups is secondary or even tertiary to that faced by others.
Jewish people in particular have known this for many years now. In 2020, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission found the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn had “serious failings” in “addressing antisemitism”, something the former leader shamefully rebuked as “dramatically overstated for political reasons”. This is where Abbott has gone so dreadfully wrong – her faction of the Labour Party has had its reminders, shameful though they needed them, about the dismissal of antisemitism as a true form of prejudice and racism. If the rest of the Party can heed them, why couldn’t she?
In jotting her letter – draft or not – Diane Abbott has added a final, sorry paragraph to her lengthy and exhilarating chapter in British political history. At once its most reviled and its most respected politician, she has condemned herself to a place in British politics few ever return from. She now has no party, no support even from her historic allies, and no political capital to spend. It is a place not just of disgrace, but of irrelevance.
What is more shameful is the reasoning behind it: either Abbott, frustrated the Labour leadership hadn’t bitten the bait from the rod of her social media attacks, thought shock and awe would hasten her martyrdom, or she genuinely believes that anti-Jewish, anti-traveller, and anti-Irish racism is some kind of lesser prejudice not even worthy of the label. In other words, Abbott has either wielded antisemitism to force Starmer’s hand, or she thinks antisemitism is less significant than anti-Black racism.
And that is what makes her political demise so saddening. Her legacy of being the first Black woman to be elected to the Commons was a profound and honourable one, and it should be celebrated. But it cannot be said that Abbott made an innocent blunder, for she knew full well what she was saying – it is merely the lens through which we cannot be sure.
When a career spent fighting racism has been ended by denying racism, it is difficult to see how she can regain the credibility as a politician in her own right. As the saying goes: la révolution dévore ses enfants.