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Diane Abbott racism rows highlight baffling ways of British politics

Labour leader Keir Starmer will understand the maxim that justice delayed is justice denied

People gather last week in London in solidarity with MP Diane Abbott, who has been a target of racism throughout her political career in Britain and is currently suspended by her party for comments deemed to have been offensive. Photograph: Alishia Abodunde/Getty Images

As well as being St Patrick’s Day, Sunday was the day before Labour’s Sadiq Khan was due to officially launch his campaign for an unprecedented third term as London’s directly elected mayor. He seemed determined not to step on a landmine as he stopped to chat in Trafalgar Square after helping to lead a parade of green through the city’s West End.

The potential landmine came in the form of a question about Diane Abbott, an MP and stalwart of Labour’s left wing. She was suspended by her party leader Keir Starmer last April after she wrote a letter to the Observer newspaper suggesting that Irish people, Travellers and Jews had not experienced racism “all their lives” in the same way as she and other black people had.

A political storm ensued. Abbott apologised within hours for apparently downplaying the bigotry suffered by Irish people and others, but it wasn’t enough to save her from Starmer’s wrath.

I asked Khan on Sunday whether Starmer should now restore the whip to Abbott, an implacable critic of the Labour leader. She is, after all, and alongside Khan, among the most vilified Labour politicians in Britain and the victim of a relentless torrent of racism herself. Just 10 days ago, comments emerged from a top Tory donor who suggested she made him want to “hate all black women”.

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I also asked Khan why a party investigation into Abbott’s comments was yet to conclude despite her Observer letter being just eight sentences long. So far, it has taken an average of three days to examine each word of it. Starmer is a lawyer. No matter how convenient it may be for him that an arch critic is kept isolated, he will understand the maxim that justice delayed is justice denied.

Yet on Sunday, as London loudly celebrated its Irish links in the background, Khan did what any sensible politician who was 20 hours away from launching an election campaign alongside Starmer would have done when hit with loaded questions that implicitly criticised his party leader: he artfully dodged them.

Khan said Abbott was a “pioneer” as an antiracism campaigner, a personal mentor to him and a “role model” for many people in Britain. He said he abhorred what he called the “racist” comments about her from Tory donor Frank Hester.

Diane Abbott remains suspended from the Labour Party. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

But he also said the investigation into her comments downplaying bigotry suffered by Irish, Jews and Travellers was a separate matter. He said the panel investigating Abbott must be allowed to proceed “without people like me putting pressure on them”.

He suggested he had his “private views” when asked whether Abbott’s comments had been blown out of all proportion, but reiterated his stance on the investigation, which happens to chime with Starmer’s. In other words: “I’m staying out of it.”

Abbott, meanwhile, has maintained the investigation into her is “fraudulent” and designed to deny her “natural justice”. If it hasn’t ended by the time the general election kicks off later this year, Abbott won’t be allowed to stand as a Labour candidate. She believes that is the whole point of it.

On St Patrick’s Day in 2022, exactly two years before Khan sidestepped the opportunity to publicly back her at a gathering of London’s Irish community, Abbott stood up to give a speech in the House of Commons. She was dressed in a green cardigan over a green polo neck adorned with a thick green beaded necklace.

Abbott, who has spoken out repeatedly over the years against anti-Irish bigotry, told the Commons that her family rented the basement of their west London home to an Irish family when she was a baby. At the time, she said, racist gangs such as the White Defence League used to come to the doors of houses in the area to terrorise local black residents.

The family in Abbott’s basement included an Irishman she referred to affectionately as her “Uncle Jimmy”, who apparently adored her. “My mother used to give me breakfast and then she would take me down to Uncle Jimmy’s, and he would give me another breakfast.”

One day, the racist gangs came knocking at the Abbott house. “They’re not going to get our Diane,” Uncle Jimmy apparently declared. Abbott said he went upstairs to confront the gang. “When the racists saw a white man there, they assumed he owned the house and went away ... I will always be grateful to my Uncle Jimmy,” she said.

Almost 70 years later, Abbott remains suspended from the Labour Party for withdrawn comments that were deemed offensive to Irish people, as well as Jews and Travellers. British politics trundles on as ever in its own inimitable and sometimes baffling way.

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