Diane Abbott is a giant figure in the modern Labour party. As the first black woman ever to be elected to the House of Commons, and the longest serving black MP, she is an inspiration to black and brown communities – especially women – across the country. Abbott also wrote a crass and offensive letter to the Observer, in which she unfortunately, and utterly unsuccessfully, sought to distinguish racism from prejudice – in the process deeply offending the Jewish, Irish, and Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller (GRT) communities. For a life-long campaigner against racism, this was an especially egregious error.
It was not only the reactions on social media that were swift. The Labour party suspended her from the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) – so she now sits as an independent MP – and started an investigation into the behaviour. Almost simultaneously, Abbott herself apologised effusively, saying:
‘I wish to wholly and unreservedly withdraw my 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. Once again, I would likely to apologise publicly for the remarks and any distress caused as a result of them.’
The letter was a challenge for the Labour party, which under Keir Starmer’s leadership has promised to tear out anti-semitism by the roots – and they have acted under the party’s disciplinary processes. But it is also a challenge to all of us who take part in public political debate: why do we find it so hard to accept an apology? And we do.