It’s not often I find myself agreeing with Jeremy Corbyn but he was right this week in his remarks about Diane Abbott, whom he called a trailblazer and “an inspiration”.

Agreed. Whatever you think of her politics, as a black woman in public life Abbott’s powers of endurance are truly inspiring.

It takes a great deal of courage to put one foot in front of the other, day after day, year after year, through jeering crowds, the missiles flying, your principal crime being that you have had the audacity to enter politics in the first place. That the jeering crowds are largely virtual makes no difference: the hateful sentiment is no less real. Keir Starmer thinks Abbott probably receives more sustained abuse than any other politician, which is almost certainly true.

In comments from 2019, reported this week, Tory party megadonor Frank Hester suggested that looking at Diane Abbott made you “want to hate all black women” and that Abbott “should be shot”. Hester claims, ludicrously, that the remarks had nothing to do with Abbott’s race or gender.

Downing Street’s response has been lamentable, with government figures using words like “inappropriate” and “intemperate” to describe Hester’s comments, before Rishi Sunak finally conceded late on Tuesday they were racist – though even yesterday morning, junior minister Kevin Hollinrake was trying to hold the risible line that “there are different ways” you could interpret the remarks.


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Sunak is refusing to hand back Hester’s money as he says the donor has apologised, even though Hester has only said sorry for comments that were “rude”, not racist or misogynist – or indeed dangerous.

The hijacking of the Conservative Party by the hard right is a tragedy with worrying implications for British politics and society. Rishi Sunak’s mealy-mouthed responses to Lee Anderson and Frank Hester look awfully like he’s pandering to the casually racist vote.

But while that may be the wider political story, let’s not miss the central point here, which is the dehumanisation of politicians in public discourse, particularly women, black and minority ethnic people.

It’s worth remembering that a third of Holyrood MSPs have received death threats, with women nearly twice as likely to get them as men. Twenty nine per cent of women MSPs have also been threatened with sexual violence; no men have.

Diane Abbott has become a symbol, hated by some, honoured by others, but if we regard her as a symbol, we fail to see her as the woman, the mother, the working person, the human being, that she is.

How does do all this feel to Abbott? “Frightening”, she says – obviously. She is a single woman who travels around her constituency by bus or on foot. Two MPs have been murdered in their constituencies in the last decade.

Diane Abbott was the first black woman elected to parliament and is a lifelong anti-racism campaigner.

She is also controversial. Recently, she had the Labour whip removed for saying that Jewish, Irish and Traveller people were not subject to racism “all their lives”, for which she was accused of antisemitism (she apologised, but remains outside the Labour group).

Other controversies include her signing of a letter in 2022 heavily criticising Nato and the UK’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (though she and 10 other MPs later withdrew their signatures) and, in 2008, a claim that Mao Zedong did “more good than harm”. Like all politicians, she should be held to account for her words and actions.

The Herald: Tory party donor Frank HesterTory party donor Frank Hester (Image: free)

But it’s not her views, in the main, that have made her the most vilified MP in parliament.

I interviewed her a few years ago for Holyrood magazine. We talked about the time in 2017 that as shadow Home Secretary she fluffed an interview on police funding and was subjected to a torrent of death threats, with her staff having to read the n-word over and over on email and social media. (When the Treasury chief secretary Laura Trott was shown up in a BBC interview last month for not knowing her numbers on UK debt, she received much less criticism than Abbott had, even though she is a serving cabinet minister.)

Amnesty International did a study of Twitter mentions of 177 women MPs in the six weeks leading up to the 2017 election. They found that almost half the abusive tweets – 45 per cent – were aimed at Abbott and were usually racial and gendered in nature.

It can be tempting to imagine that someone who keeps going through this level of threat and abuse must be different in some way from us – emotionally tougher. It’s a comforting assumption, but it’s wrong.

Abbott challenged the idea that she is unusually resilient when I put it to her. “I don’t have a thick skin,” she said. “I find it very painful, but I’m committed to doing my job so I keep on keeping on.”

She has considered standing down and credits her friends, particularly her female friends, as helping her stay the course. Colleagues too. Once, after thinking seriously about throwing in the towel, she spoke to former Labour MP Keith Vaz.

“He said something I’ve never forgotten,” she recalled. “He said, ‘No, you can’t stand down, Diane, you have forgotten what it took for us to get here’.

“It’s the sense that you carry… people’s hopes with you, that helps keep you moving forward.”

That is quite a burden.

The obvious worry right now is that Downing Street’s slowness to call out racism will embolden the abusers.

For the Conservatives to hand back Hester’s cash would help bring about a reset – a grand (costly) gesture that would establish beyond doubt that racism and misogyny will not be tolerated. The Scottish Conservatives, to their credit, are calling for the UK party to “carefully review” Hester’s donations.

But it’s not all that’s required. Everyone with a social media account needs to remember their humanity. You shouldn’t need rhino hide and a 24-hour security detail just to be an MP. We’ll have reached equality when black and women politicians no longer have to show inspirational powers of endurance just to do their jobs.