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Diane Abbott - time to restore the whip

The trailblazing MP was attacked by the Tories and silenced by the Speaker - but her own party has been keeping her in the cold for 11 long months, over hurtful remarks she has retracted long ago.  

March 15 2024, 09.42am

There is much to argue against the government’s new definition of extremism, but if it were to be taken at face value and applied, Michael Gove wouldn’t need to go far to find offenders to censure; he would find plenty in his own party. 

The comments made by the Conservative Party’s biggest donor about Diane Abbott were extreme by any definition you care to think of. Frank Hester, who has given £10 million to the Tories in the past year, said looking at Abbott “makes you want to hate all Black women,” adding that Britain’s longest-serving Black MP “should be shot”. 

The comments themselves were disgusting, dehumanising, and overtly racist. The way the political system handled them was hardly better. 

Under Gove’s newly updated definition, extremism “can lead to the radicalisation of individuals” and “incite hatred”. But where Hester’s comments are concerned, Tory ministers have been falling over themselves to excuse, explain and forgive. Gove himself went on Sky News - on the same day he announced his updated definition of extremism - to preach “Christian forgiveness” in light of the fact that Hester has “shown full contrition”. 

But, did he show full contrition? While the Tory donor said he was "deeply sorry" for the remarks, he also insisted they were "nothing to do with her gender nor colour of skin". An apology without any acknowledgment of the harm that has been inflicted is not a full apology. 

The 70-year-old politician stood up to speak 46 times and was repeatedly ignored by the Speaker, while the race row - with her at the centre - raged around her.

Downing Street, for its part, said the comments were “unacceptable” but stopped short of describing them as racist or sexist. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak did - eventually - concede that the comments about Abbott were indeed racist, but this admission only came about after senior Black Tories spoke out, with equalities minister Kemi Bedenoch using the ‘r’ word in a statement on Twitter. 

And although the abhorrent comments were - eventually - condemned - there have, as yet, been no concrete consequences. Frank Hester is still a donor, and the Conservatives have made no commitment to return any of his money.  

Perversely, the only person sanctioned appears to be Diane Abbott herself - who was prevented from speaking in the Commons this week. The 70-year-old politician stood up to speak 46 times and was repeatedly ignored by the Speaker, while the race row - with her at the centre - raged around her. If that isn’t the most perfect example of the relentless disempowerment of Black women in prominent, public-facing positions, we don’t know what is. 

After Keir Starmer spoke out in her defence in the Commons and to the media, Abbott has publicly asked for a restoration of the Labour whip - suspended pending an investigation into a letter to the Observer, where she wrongly asserted Jewish people did not experience racism. The letter was hurtful, muddled and misjudged, and she was right to apologise for it (“Christian forgiveness”, anyone?). But, assuming Labour’s 11-month inquiry into the letter finds that there was nothing more to it, we have to concur with calls from Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner - and with former chancellor Ed Balls, hardly a Corbynite: it would be both the right thing and the right time to welcome a much-maligned, trailblazing MP back to the party.

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