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Protesters show solidarity with Diane Abbott outside the Home Office during the march against racism, Islamophobia and antisemitism on Saturday. Alamy Stock Photo
UK conservatives

How racist comments about Diane Abbott posed an early test for the Tories' new 'extremism' laws

High-ranking members of the governing Conservative party have failed to condemn the comments as racist.

COMMENTS MADE BY major UK Conservative Party donor Frank Hester about Labour MP Diane Abbott sparked a political scandal last week over how Rishi Sunak’s party deals with racism. They also provided a first test for the government’s new definition of extremism. 

Hester, the owner of clinical software company The Phoenix Partnership and the Tories’ biggest donor, said that looking at Diane Abbott made him “want to hate all black women” and that she “should be shot”. 

Abbott is Britain’s first black female MP and the longest serving black member of the UK parliament. She is a member of the Labour Party but is currently an independent after being suspended for comments of her own, in which she said Irish, Jewish, Traveller and Roma people did not experience racism. 

She wrote in a letter submitted to The Guardian that those groups “undoubtedly experience prejudice. This is similar to racism and the two words are often used as if they are interchangeable.”

She compared the prejudice experienced by those groups as something similar to that felt by people with red hair.

Abbott had the whip suspended as Keir Starmer’s Labour party sought to put to bed an ongoing row over antisemitism in the party.

She apologised for the comments, saying they had been part of an earlier draft that was sent out by mistake. 

shadow-home-secretary-diane-abbott-during-a-rally-in-manchester-to-launch-the-partys-2017-general-election-campaign UK MP Diane Abbott Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

There has been rolling political backlash since Hester’s comments emerged on Monday last week, with the Labour Party calling on the Conservatives to return the £10m Hester had donated to the party last year. Tortoise Media reported on Thursday that Hester has donated another yet to be declared £5m that the party is “sitting on”. 

Hester’s comments were made during a meeting at his company in 2019 and came to light last week in a report by The Guardian

screen-grab-taken-from-the-chogm-2022-youtube-channel-of-frank-hester-obe-speaking-at-a-commonwealth-business-forum-event-in-kigali-rwanda-issue-date-tuesday-march-12-2024 Frank Hester, the Tories' largest donor. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

He had been speaking about an executive at another company who he said made him want to hate all women. 

“She’s shit. She’s the shittest person. Honestly I try not to be sexist but when I meet somebody like [the executive], I just …

“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,” he said.

“[The executive] and Diane Abbott need to be shot. She’s stupid … If we can get [the executive] being unprofessional we can get her sacked. It’s not as good as her dying. It would be much better if she died. She’s consuming resource. She’s eating food that other people could eat. You know?”

In a statement posted on X (Twitter), Hester said his comments were “rude” but did not admit they were racist. He also said he abhors racism and that “his criticism had nothing to do with her gender nor colour of skin”.

Abbott wrote a column in The Guardian last Wednesday following the publication of the comments on the previous Monday.

She said that because the Conservatives are lagging so far behind Labour in the polls, “the only card the Tories have left to play is the race card, and they are going to play it ruthlessly”.

She said of Hester’s remarks that she was “upset but not surprised, partly because she is “hardened to racist abuse”, which she said she receives regularly via email. 

She criticised House Speaker Lindsay Hoyle for not calling on her to speak in the House of Commons in the wake of the comments emerging. 

“Over the nearly 40 years that I have been an MP, under any speaker of the House of Commons that I can remember, I would have been called,” she wrote. 

She said that Hoyle claimed there wasn’t enough time.

“But I’m not convinced – and, the truth is, he can call on whoever he likes,” she wrote.

High-ranking members of the governing Conservative party, including Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, have failed to condemn the comments as racist, describing them as “wrong”.

They have also refused to return the money he has donated to the party. 

“It’s trivia, it really is,” business secretary Kemi Badenoch told Nick Ferrari on the LBC radio station.

“We need to get to a place where we stop chasing people around and looking everywhere for the racism,” she said. 

london-uk-08th-nov-2022-kemi-badenoch-international-trade-secretary-arrives-at-a-cabinet-meeting-at-10-downing-street-london-credit-ian-davidsonalamy-live-news UK Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

“Everybody is accusing, and counter-accusing around racism. We need to move away from these things and actually focus on what matters to people.

“This was something that happened five years ago. He wasn’t talking to Diane Abbott, it wasn’t even really about Diane Abbott. He used her in a reference that was completely unacceptable.”

Asked if the Conservatives should continue to accept money from a person who made racist comments, Badenoch said that when people apologise, they should be forgiven. 

New extremism definition put to the test

Levelling Up Minister Michael Gove, who has just introduced a new definition of extremism, was asked if Hester saying Abbott “should be shot” would fit that definition.

He told BBC Radio that it was not for him to say and that a group of civil servants and academic experts would be the ones to decide but that it was unlikely the comments would be referred to them. 

 “I wouldn’t want to conflate those motivated by an extremist ideology with an individual comment, however horrific, which had quite rightly been called out and which has quite rightly led to an apology.”

Gove said he was inclined to practise “Christian forgiveness” in Hester’s case because he made an apology. 

The UK’s new definition of extremism shifts focus away from extremist actions and onto extremist ideologies. Gove also announced a list of groups that would be assessed under the new definition, they included far right and Muslim organisations. 

Extremism is now defined as “the promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance”.

The new criteria have been criticised as a way for the government to deem a group extremist by “ministerial decree”. Jonathan Hall, the government’s independent reviewer of state threats legislation also said there is a lack of safeguards in the absence of an appeal body.

The Conservatives have argued that the change is necessary in response to what they describe as an increased threat of terrorism following the Hamas attacks on Israel on 7 October last year. 

“Don’t let the extremists hijack your marches,” Sunak said in a speech outside 10 Downing Street at the beginning of March. 

Tory MPs have repeatedly criticised peaceful marches in London and across the UK, which they say are platforming extreme Islamist ideology, particularly taking aim at the widely used “From the river to the sea” chant, which calls for the people of Palestine to be free of Israeli oppression from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.  

Some Jewish groups have called the chant antisemitic and claimed it is a call for the genocide of Jewish people in Israel. 

At an anti-racism protest held outside the Home Office in London on Saturday, protesters declared their solidarity with Diane Abbott. 

They carried banners saying “Racism is extremism”. 

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