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Moving to the right could ‘blow up in Labour’s face’, warns Diane Abbott

During an openDemocracy debate last week, the former shadow home secretary challenged the idea that the UK’s Labour Party should move to the right to win back lost voters.

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Nandini Archer
20 Jan 2021 - 12:47pm
Diane Abbott at a 2020 rally calling for the House of Lords to back Lord Dubs’ Amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill
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WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto/PA Images. All rights reserved

Labour MP Diane Abbott has warned party members against becoming embroiled in the ‘culture wars’ debate, claiming it will “blow up in the party’s face if it’s not careful”.

Speaking at an openDemocracy debate earlier this month, the former shadow home secretary rejected suggestions that her party needed to move to the right in order to win back the party’s traditional voters, who abandoned Labour at the 2019 general election.

“There’s an idea around in the Labour movement… that in order to win those voters back, we have to move right on issues like policing and security,” Abbott said while discussing the loss of Labour’s ‘working-class’ voters.

“You keep hearing people in the Labour Party, some of them who should know better, talking about the working class… You have to understand that Black people and Brown people are just as much part of that class than anybody else.”

Abbott, who was the first Black woman elected to the UK parliament, urged her party to “stop talking about winning back ‘working-class voters’ as a kind of euphemism for winning back white voters”, adding that such politics represent a “brick wall for the Labour Party”.

“We have to reject this right-wing narrative about race and identity,” she said.

“It has blown up in the face of Americans with that riot by [Donald] Trump supporters in Washington, and it will blow up in the Labour Party’s face if it’s not careful.” 

Abbott’s warning comes after the UK equalities minister, Conservative MP Liz Truss, last month said that the government would stop relying on identity politics and quotas, and instead look to be “led by facts, not fashion”.

Truss argued that the government would focus on class and support white working-class children. It was this pledge, she said, that had helped the party win traditionally Labour-held seats in the election the year before.

Truss echoed previous demands by Black Tory MP Kemi Badenoch, who in 2017 wrote an article in The Telegraph headlined: “The Tories must put an end to divisive identity politics”. The following year Badenoch tweeted, “Politics used to be a contest of ideas – until Labour replaced it with mind-numbing identity politics.”

Abbott labelled the contributions of both Truss and Badenoch as “absurd”.

“I just think it’s absurd when people like Liz Truss and Kemi Badenoch go on about identity politics,” she said.

“Who is more identity-orientated than the Right in this country? Basically, it’s about being white, or pretending you’re white… being male, being privileged. Few people are more engaged with identity politics than the Right.” 

Abbott also advised that the Left should be wary to not promote Black and Brown women without similar social justice politics, adding: “It's not just about having a Brown woman in power, otherwise we just end up with Priti Patel as home secretary and that doesn’t represent an advance for anybody”. 

She stressed that the Labour Party must not continue to assume it has the votes of people of colour, explaining: “I’ve had to deal with a Labour Party that’s wanted to take Black votes for granted for 30 years.

“[But nowadays] younger Black minority ethnic people are saying to the Labour Party, particularly under the new leadership, ‘what have you done for me lately?’”

But Abbott remains hopeful in the strength of Black women’s organising, citing the role of Stacey Abrams, who helped swing the deep southern state of Georgia to the Democrats in both the US’s 2020 presidential elections in November and its Senate run-offs at the start of January.

“Donald Trump, he doesn’t want to accept it,” said Abbott, “but he was voted out of office in the United States and one of the things that made a difference was, the organising of Black women.”

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