Why has Diane Abbott had Labour whip suspended? Her letter on racism explained - and Keir Starmer response

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The former shadow Home Secretary faced backlash over a letter published in The Observer.

Sir Keir Starmer has condemned MP Diane Abbott’s comments about racism as “antisemitic” and said they will never be accepted in the Labour Party.

Abbott had the whip suspended on Sunday (23 April) after comments she made in a letter written for the Observer, which suggested Jewish, Irish and Traveller people are not subject to racism “all their lives”.

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The MP, who previously served as Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Home Secretary, said that although white people “with points of difference” experience prejudice, they have not suffered the same racism as black people.

Following a backlash on social media, in which many users argued the comments amounted to a dismissal of the Holocaust, Abbott apologised for any “anguish” caused - suggesting “errors arose” in her initial draft letter to the newspaper.

Now, the Labour Party leader has spoken out about the incident, telling reporters at an event in London: “In my view what [Abbott] said was to be condemned, it was antisemitic.”

Starmer continued: “Diane Abbott has suffered a lot of racial abuse over many, many years – that doesn’t take away from the fact that I condemn the words she used and we must never accept the argument that there’s some sort of hierarchy of racism. I will never accept that, the Labour Party will never accept that, and that’s why we acted as swiftly as we did yesterday.”

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Diane Abbott. Picture: PADiane Abbott. Picture: PA
Diane Abbott. Picture: PA | PA

The Holborn and St Pancras MP would not say whether Abbott should stand again for her London constituency of Hackney North and Stoke Newington, stating: “There’s an investigation in place, I’ve got to let that investigation be completed.”

On Sunday (23 April), a Labour spokesperson confirmed that Abbott had had the whip suspended. They said: “The Labour Party completely condemns these comments, which are deeply offensive and wrong. The chief whip has suspended the Labour whip from Diane Abbott pending an investigation.”

What did Diane Abbott say in the letter?

The former shadow Home Secretary wrote to The Observer in response to an article by Tomiwa Owolade entitled: ‘Racism in Britain is not a black and white issue. It’s far more complicated.’

Abbott wrote: “Tomiwa Owolade claims that Irish, Jewish and Traveller people all suffer from “racism”. They undoubtedly experience prejudice. This is similar to racism and the two words are often used as if they are interchangeable.

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“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.”

Has she apologised for the letter?

Following the backlash to the letter, Abbott wrote on Twitter: “I am writing regarding my letter that was recently published in The Observer. I wish to wholly and unreservedly withdraw my written remarks and disassociate myself from them.

“The errors arose in an initial draft being sent. But there is no excuse and I wish to apologise for any anguish caused. Racism takes many forms and it is completely undeniable that Jewish people have suffered its monstrous effects, as have Irish people, Travellers and many others.

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“Once again, I would like to apologise publicly for the remarks and any distress caused as a result of them.”

The Hackney North and Stoke Newington MP had been responding to a comment which suggested that Irish, Jewish and Traveller people all suffer from racism in the UK.

What has the reaction been?

In addition to Starmer’s condemnation of the letter in The Observer, Labour Against Antisemitism also remarked that Abbott’s comments are “simply unacceptable”. Spokeswoman Fiona Sharpe said: “To reduce the racism faced by Jews to mere prejudice when in living memory six million Jews were systematically slaughtered in Europe for their race is grossly offensive.

“In the UK today one in five of all Jews have suffered a racist attack, with more than one in three Gypsy, Roma and Traveller reporting the same. Ms Abbott is either woefully misinformed or deliberately bigoted. Neither should be tolerated.”

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Who is Diane Abbott?

Abbott has been MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington since 1987. She was the first black woman to be elected to Parliament, and served as former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Home Secretary between from 2016 to 2020.

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