Black Britons fear for Diane Abbott after a millionaire’s call for violence

A top Tory donor said the veteran politician, affectionately called ‘Auntie Di’ by her supporters, should be shot.

British Labour MP Diane Abbott takes part in a demonstration against racism outside Downing Street in London, Britain July 17, 2021. REUTERS/Beresford Hodge
Diane Abbott, 70, has faced racist abuse throughout her political career [File: Beresford Hodge/Reuters]

London, United Kingdom – Natasha Shotunde, a British barrister, was born two years after Diane Abbott was elected as the first Black female member of parliament for Hackney North and Stoke Newington in 1987.

It is a seat the 70-year-old, affectionally called “Auntie Di” in the Black British community, still holds today.

“Whatever strand of the political spectrum you might be in, for a Black woman, a Black girl growing up, seeing someone in such a prominent space, it’s big,” Shotunde told Al Jazeera. “It shows you that it’s possible – you can be in public life and in public roles.”

This past week has been difficult for Shotunde, and many more Black Britons.

On Monday, the Guardian newspaper reported that the biggest donor to the ruling, right-wing Conservative Party had told colleagues in 2019 that Abbott made him “want to hate all Black women”.

Frank Hester, a businessman from the northern English Yorkshire region, also said Abbot “should be shot”, the Guardian revealed.

While shocking, it is not the first time the veteran politician has faced racist abuse.

Shotunde said Abbott’s public experiences with anti-Black racism and sexism were a public “mirror” for the experiences many Black women still face in white-dominated spaces like politics and law.

“For all of us, it feels like a personal attack because [Hester] has attacked Auntie Di,” Shotunde told Al Jazeera. “As a Black woman, it feels like he’s attacked me too.”

According to the Guardian’s investigation, Hester has donated 10 million pounds ($12.75m) to the Tories this past year.

He said five years ago, “It’s like trying not to be racist, but you see Diane Abbott on the TV, and you’re just like, I hate, you just want to hate all Black women because she’s there, and I don’t hate all Black women at all, but I think she should be shot.”

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak condemned the comments as “racist” and “wrong” but stopped short of returning the money to Hester.

The episode comes in a heated election year.

Pollsters predict the Conservatives, in power for more than a decade, have an uphill battle against the main opposition Labour Party, from which Abbott was suspended in 2023 after she suggested Jewish, Irish and Traveller people are not subject to racism “all their lives”.

Abbott has faced documented sexist and racist abuse for decades.

In a report investigating online hate received by UK women in politics prior to the general election in 2017, Amnesty International found Abbott received almost half of all abusive tweets analysed.

Sophia Moreau, a diversity, equity and inclusion expert and the deputy leader of the Women’s Equality Party, said Hester’s comments were an indictment of Sunak’s government.

She accused the premier of “minimisation gymnastics” by referring to Hester’s comments as “alleged”.

“It’s almost as if someone is right in front of you, insisting that there is not a chair blocking the door with absolute confidence, to the extent that others are repeating it and saying the ‘alleged chair’ in front of the door when there is a chair in front of the door,” Moreau said. “We are being gaslit on a national scale and in a way that is unfolding in public discussion.”

In an opinion piece written for the Guardian, Abbott said she was “upset but not surprised” about Hester’s comments because she was “hardened to racist abuse”.

Labour leader Keir Starmer has described Hester’s remarks about Abbott as “abhorrent” and urged the Conservatives to return the millionaire’s money.

But the scourge of racism is not unique to the Conservatives.

In 2022, the Forde Report – an independent investigation commissioned by Starmer into allegations of racism, sexism and bullying in the Labour Party – found senior officials had shared messages about Abbott in their WhatsApp groups, saying Abbott “literally makes me sick” and is “truly repulsive”.

The messages were “expressions of visceral disgust, drawing (consciously or otherwise) on racist tropes, and they bear little resemblance to the criticisms of white male MPs elsewhere in the messages”, the report concluded.

Moreau said Labour is not doing enough to tackle anti-Black racism.

“If they take action now, it would almost be a case of too little too late,” she said. “Is it only because it’s coming from a Conservative Party donor that there would be meaningful action?”

Labour sent an email to its supporters on Wednesday asking for donations for the general election campaign that referenced Hester’s comments, saying the Conservatives will “happily ignore the racism, cover their ears and spend every penny”.

The email was roundly condemned because Abbott no longer sits with the party.

“What we’ve seen over the past week is how threats to your life can be instrumentalised for political gains [as a] political football, which makes it even less attractive for people of colour, for Black women, to want to enter the political sphere,” said Kimberly McIntosh, a writer and Labour councillor.

“I see no reason why I would give up not only my safety but my personal life for higher office when there’s no guarantee that anyone, whether your own political party or the opposition, will give you the support you need,” she added.

Violence against politicians is rare in Britain, but in recent memory, two serving members of the United Kingdom Parliament, both of them white, have been killed.

A far-right sympathiser fatally shot and stabbed Labour’s Jo Cox in 2016. Five years later, a 25-year-old fatally stabbed Conservative politician David Amess in an ISIL (ISIS)-inspired attack.

“That [risk] is heightened if you are a woman, if you are a person of colour, if you’re a woman of colour and if you’re a Black woman,” McIntosh said.

Charlene White, the first Black woman to present the mainstream current affairs show ITV News at Ten, said on social media that racism “defended by the upper echelons of society” risked the safety of Black women with public profiles.

Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch, a top Tory politician who has in the past been criticised for rejecting critical race theory as a “divisive agenda”, extended a hand over party lines to Abbott, saying Hester’s comments “as reported were racist”.

“Abbott and I disagree on a lot. But the idea of linking criticism of her to being a Black woman is appalling,” Badenoch, herself a Black Briton, wrote on X.

Abbott remains a Labour member but sits as an independent MP while an internal investigation of her comments last year continues.

After Hester’s remarks, Labour is facing growing pressure to welcome Abbott back.

Hester said he was “deeply sorry” for his remarks but refused to accept they were racist.

At the time of writing, the Labour Party had not responded to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

Source: Al Jazeera