Back in the heady days of the famed Labour Party Black Sections rebellion in the 1980s, Diane Abbott was one of their most outspoken leaders.
They were African Asian and Caribbean activists who caused big trouble for the Neil Kinnock Labour leadership with the demand for an officially recognised caucus that would get greater Black representation in the snowy white party that took its loyal votes for granted. A charismatic and clever young Black woman, Abbott’s burning personal ambition to help end the British parliament being all-white like South Africa’s at the time was unquestionable.
The Black Sections made history when she and its other prominent campaigners Paul Boateng, Bernie Grant and Keith Vaz got elected MPs in 1987 – Abbott becoming Britain’s first Black woman MP. In her biography, she acknowledges the lobbying role fellow Black Sections leader Marc Wadsworth played in her getting selected as the prospective parliamentary candidate for Hackney North and Stoke Newington. Some influential white left-wingers in the constituency, who were allies of his, hadn’t wanted to support her because they claimed, as she lived in Paddington, a distance away, and was educated at Britain’s top Cambridge University and moved in those circles, she was a “middle-class carpetbagger”. But Wadsworth managed to persuade them otherwise.
As the media savvy journalist among the Black Sections leadership, Wadsworth used to help write Labour Conference and other speeches of the Black Sections' representatives, including Abbott’s. But once, in an unscripted moment speaking at the podium, she blurted out: “Some opponents of Black Sections are straightforward racists. We have been told, lobbying [at Labour Party Conference] this week, ‘we don’t want you in this party’. White MPs have told us that.”
The conference chair angrily ticked off Abbott for saying that and said he didn't believe her.
Abbott was mobbed by a scrum of media, as she left the platform, with journalists demanding she “name them, name them”. Wadsworth rushed to the front of the hall to thrown protective arms around Abbott and shepherded her away.
There were other gaffes Wadsworth tried to defend her over when nobody else would, including when he went on Sky News after she got into hot water as a Labour frontbencher in 2012 after saying "white people love playing divide and rule". But Wadsworth wasn’t close enough to Abbott anymore to stop her last week firing off a badly phrased letter to the Observer on a definition of racism, which resulted in her being suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party. Like her ex-partner Jeremy Corbyn, whom, more than any other MP, she’s politically defended, Abbott, the famous veteran anti-racist campaigner now sits as an independent attached to no party.
Labour leader Keir Starmer has made sure Corbyn’s 40 years in parliament will come to an end at the next general election because he won’t be a Labour candidate. Some commentators say, as part of Starmer’s ruthless clamping down on Corbyn-supporting left-wing candidates for council and parliamentary seats, he’ll now do the same to Abbott.
But, as ill-judged as Abbott’s letter was, the disciplinary action against her, like it was against Wadsworth when he was expelled from the Labour in 2018, is point-scoring factionalism. Sadly, Abbott didn’t publicly defend Wadsworth in his hour of need, though, he was apparently told privately she said he’d done nothing wrong.
Starmer is determined to axe left-wingers he feels threaten his chances of being seen as a moderate politician who won’t threaten the status quo as Prime Minister – a sort of Tory-lite PM.
Abbott has suffered more racial abuse, especially online, than any other MP. Even Starmer has had to accept that fact. But he condemned the words she used when she said Jewish people, Gypsies, Roma and Travellers and Irish people, who are white, don’t face racism, which is based on the colour of a person’s skin.
After a huge backlash, Abbott, in a humiliating climbdown, “wholly and unreservedly” withdrew and “disassociated” herself from her remarks. And she apologised for “any anguish caused”.
International campaigning organisation Caribbean Labour Solidarity (CLS) issued a statement to said it “stands in solidarity” with Abbott following her suspension from the Labour Party. CLS said Abbott has "a record second to none in publicly opposing racism, anti-semitism and xenophobia”.
Tony Blair’s former political secretary John McTernan, not a natural ally of Abbott’s, wrote about the media storm in the right-wing Spectator magazine: “But the truth is that the drumbeat behind the criticism has been one that has been far too familiar for Abbott – it has been a white, male relief that at last they can say out loud what they always thought of her.”
Martin Forde, the senior lawyer who did an officially commissioned report for Labour, that Starmer put off publishing for a long time, significantly called out the party leadership for still not fully engaging with claims that anti-black racism was not taken as seriously by them as antisemitism. Left-wing anti-Zionist Jewish Labour members, a disproportionate number of whom have been expelled, say antisemitism was “weaponised” by the anti-Corbyn faction to get rid of the left-wing former leader’s supporters.
Professor Kehinde Andrew, who runs Britain’s only university Black Studies department, tweeted: You know we are in dangerous times when @HackneyAbbott is suspended from @LabourParty for so-called ‘racism’. The letter was badly worded but the sentiment was correct. There is a difference between prejudice, xenophobia and racism #PsychosisofWhiteness.”
*Marc Wadsworth was a founder member of the Labour Party Black Sections in 1983 and chaired it for two terms.