QUESTION: What is the difference between Natalie Elphicke MP, who defended her sex-offender husband and indulged in hateful rhetoric on refugees, and Diane Abbott MP, who suggested Irish people, Jews and travellers didn’t suffer from racism in the same way as black people? There are multiple correct answers.

The first is that Elphicke is white and privately educated, while Abbott is working-class, black and a grammar schoolgirl. The second is that Elphicke has spent her political life on the right, while Abbott has spent hers on the left.

The third is that Elphicke is unrepentant, while Abbott apologised and underwent an anti-Semitism awareness course. The fourth – and most germane – is that Labour welcomed the defecting Elphicke into its fold, while publicly humiliating Abbott.

You don’t have to agree with Abbott on everything (I don’t); and you certainly don’t have to be a fan of Jeremy Corbyn to find that humiliation viscerally distressing.

“Trailblazing” was the go-to word for Abbott’s defenders last week, but it doesn’t begin to capture what she has endured or what she has achieved.

Here is a woman who has fought discrimination all her life: to go to Cambridge, to join the civil service, to become a reporter with Thames Television, to become the first female black MP, to bring up her son as a single parent.

That discrimination continued throughout her time in Parliament, intensifying with the rise of social media. According to Amnesty International, 45% of all abusive tweets naming female politicians in the run-up to the 2017 election were directed at Abbott.

Has she been gaffe-prone? Yes, of course. But no more than many of her white, male counterparts. And yet, like all black female politicians, she has been held to different standards by both fellow politicians and the media.


Diane Abbott outside the Houses of Parliament in London

Diane Abbott outside the Houses of Parliament in London


Petty mistakes

That clip of her getting confused over the police figures and the stramash over her sipping an M&S mojito on a London train. Such petty mistakes when you compare them to Boris Johnson’s comments on Muslim women being like pillar boxes, for example, or his erroneous claim that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been training journalists in Iran, which put her at risk of more years in prison.

All of this helped fuel a climate in which Tory donor Frank Hester felt it was acceptable to say Abbott made him “want to hate all black women” and she should be shot. The sight of her standing up 46 times to try to contribute to the debate sparked by those comments (and the Speaker Lindsay Hoyle ignoring her) encapsulated everything that is wrong with politics. It was heartbreaking and brought to mind Maya Angelou’s line: “You can trod me in the very dirt, but still, like dust, I’ll rise.”

Hester wasn’t the first person to publicly suggest Abbott invoked feelings of hatred. Back in 2015, newly-elected Labour MP Jess Phillips boasted of having told her to “f*** off” in a heated row over, before telling the Huffington Post: “People said to me they had always wanted to say that to her, and I don’t know why they don’t as the opportunity presents itself every other minute.”

But then – for all its supposed commitment to equality – Labour has always had problems with both women and black people: a “brocialism” mixed with “misogynoir”.


Jess Philips

Jess Philips



HOW else can you explain that, despite a plethora of female “trailblazers”, from Jennie Lee through to Yvette Cooper to Lisa Nandy, it has only ever been led by men? Or that the Forde report into racism in the party found Labour staffers had exchanged insulting WhatsApp messages about Abbott, Dawn Butler and Clive Lewis.

That these MPs are also Corbynites – and that the insults were partly born of factionalism – makes no difference. It’s always the women and ethnic minority MPs (and especially ethnic minority women) who bear the brunt.

So virulent is the dislike of Abbott in the some quarters of the party it should have come as no surprise Starmer might mislead the public over the National Executive Committee’s (NEC) investigation into what she wrote (he implied it was ongoing, when in fact it finished last December), or that the party should try to strike a deal where she would have the whip restored in exchange for agreeing not to stand again.

There has been all sorts of obfuscation over this in the face of a powerful backlash, with Angela Rayner and Anas Sarwar saying she should be allowed to stand and Starmer finally backtracking and announcing she could.

But it’s too late now ever to erase the sight of the 70-year-old woman, who has been MP for Hackney and Stoke Newington for 37 years, and has a majority of 33,000, pledging to fight her own party for the right to represent it.

She wasn’t the only ethnic minority politician Labour tried to break last week. Voters were also treated to a Newsnight interview with Faiza Shaheen shortly after she had been told she was to be deselected as the candidate for Chingford and Woodford Green, the constituency she contested in 2019, reducing Iain Duncan Smith’s majority to 1,262.


Faiza Shaheen was blocked by Labour from running in east London amid questions over social media posts

Faiza Shaheen was blocked by Labour from running in east London amid questions over social media posts



WHERE Abbott is nearing the end of her career, Shaheen – who is British-Pakistani-Fijian – is just starting out but has already faced so much discrimination she has written a book, Know Your Place, about it. Her deselection came after she was questioned about a number of likes on X since 2014.

One was on a post, the second half of which fed into an anti-Semitic trope about the “Israel lobby”. On Newsnight, a visibly distressed Shaheen, who is still breastfeeding her baby, accepted part of it was anti-Semitic and said she did not agree with the sentiment or remember liking it.

She said she had been given just five hours’ notice of the NEC meeting and that the media had been told about her deselection before her. The process reeked of injustice. Shaheen has consulted lawyers to challenge her deselection.

It has been suggested that – despite the furore it provoked – the attempt to shed Abbott and Shaheen was not a miscalculation, but a cynical strategy.

Rachel Cunliffe of the New Statesman wrote that while it might outrage the left, it would reassure those in the centre: “Former Tories, swing voters and, yes, Jews – who the Starmer campaign needs to win over to get the biggest possible majority.”

This cohort, Cunliffe said, could see it as “further evidence that Starmer has radically changed Labour since the Corbyn era.”

This may be true. Starmer did have to cleanse Labour of anti-Semitism. But that he should strip black MPs of their candidacies and their dignity to prove a point is shameless.

To exculpate the party from one sin, he has committed another. Perhaps this will have no bearing on this election, given Labour’s lead (though the fact it is playing out against a backdrop of atrocities in Gaza is certainly affecting some Muslim voters).

But it’s impossible to believe those racist chickens won’t come home to roost once the party is in power. Last year, Martin Forde KC, author of the Forde report, told Al Jazeera Labour had still not fully engaged with claims anti-black racism was not taken as seriously as anti-Semitism.

Deeper loyalties

THE current debacle vindicates those concerns. Furthermore, as Chaminda Jayanetti pointed out on Bloomberg, Labour’s support “might be broad, but it is shallow”. By this, he meant it exists without any great love for Starmer, or any forging of deeper loyalties.

Starmer is fixated on exorcising the ghost of Corbyn. But many people across the UK who have no allegiance to his predecessor will surely feel disgust on a purely human level. What they will see is not the welcome shifting of Labour to the centre ground, but the shafting of two devoted servants.

They will empathise with that. It will make them wonder: if the so-called workers’ party can treat its own with such contempt, can it be trusted with the welfare of the rest of us?