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Campaigners slam Sunak over ‘increasingly normalised culture of racism’ after Frank Hester donation row

Diane Abbott MP  (Parliament TV)
Diane Abbott MP (Parliament TV)

Rishi Sunak’s failure to condemn a Tory donor’s reported racist comments about Diane Abbott is part of an “increasingly normalised culture of racism that has been allowed to fester” under the government, campaigners have warned.

The prime minister’s decision to keep Frank Hester’s £10m donation also raises concerns about the British government’s fitness to lead, a coalition of influential figures have said.

In a scathing letter, signatories including equality campaigner Lord Simon Woolley, Operation Black Vote, the Runnymede Trust, the Black Equity Organisation, the Muslim Council Of Britain and Black church groups implore Mr Sunak to demonstrate a commitment to tackling racism.

“The remarks made about Ms Diane Abbott MP are not only abhorrent and frightening, especially considering her status as Britain’s longest-serving Black MP and the personal impact these comments have had on her, but they also reflect a broader issue of racism and sexism that cannot be ignored,” said the document, seen by The Independent.

“The donation of £10m to the Conservative Party by Mr Hester and his company, under these circumstances, becomes a matter of ethical concern and raises questions about the integrity and values that the party wishes to uphold”.

 (Getty / iStock / PA)
(Getty / iStock / PA)

This follows a public outcry over reported racist remarks by Mr Hester, a businessman and Tory donor, who allegedly said in 2019 that Diane Abbott, Britain’s longest-serving Black MP, made him “want to hate all Black women” and that she “should be shot”.

“Moreover, the fact that Mr Hester felt emboldened to express such vile sentiments, to begin with, speaks to an increasingly normalised culture of racism that has been allowed to fester under the current administration,” the group’s letter says.

“This normalisation is further compounded by the government's persistent denial of the reality of systemic racism, which has significant implications for the inclusivity and cohesiveness of our society.”

The letter was sent hours after Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) when the racism row centred on Ms Abbott was raised on Wednesday.

PM Rishi Sunak (AP)
PM Rishi Sunak (AP)

Speaking during PMQs, Prime minister Sunak pointed to his position as Britain’s first Asian prime minister within the most diverse cabinet in goverment’s history as examples of the Conservative Party’s commitment to advancing racial equality.

However, campaigners urge the leader to take “immediate and tangible steps” to address this pervasive racism within government and around the country, including the issuing of a clear statement that the Conservative Party is committed to taking a stand against racism.

“We note that you have celebrated the diversity of your cabinet and government,” the letter reads.

“We would invite you to take this opportunity to champion the cause of anti-racism and to lead by example (...) (and) urge your government to engage in a more meaningful dialogue on systemic racism, acknowledging its existence and working collaboratively with communities and organisations to dismantle these deep-seated inequities.”

Meanwhile, an international alliance of civil society organisations, politicians and activists also condemned Mr Hester’s comments.

Lee Anderson MP (Getty Images)
Lee Anderson MP (Getty Images)

Referencing the recent Islamophobic comments by Lee Anderson, former Conservative Party vice chairman, who has now defected to the extremist Reform Party, the alliance said: “The Conservative Party is itself guilty of fostering and promoting the same extremism it now seeks to condemn,” noting the government’s recent, new definition of extremism that was published last week.

Members of the alliance include retired judge Peter Herbert, Barac UK, Labour MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy, and independent MP Claudia Webbe.

Judge Herbert OBE, who’s also the Chair of the Society of Black Lawyers, told The Independent: “The failure of the Prime Minister to condemn the words of the largest Tory donor was unacceptable.

“Either this is because he was sending out ministers to minimise the seriousness of what had occurred. or alternatively, he was more concerned to protect the perpetrator of this incitement to racial hatred to safeguard the £10 million contribution made by Hester to the Tory party.

“His silence makes him complicit to this appallingly dangerous abuse. If the word “Jewish women” had been substituted for the word “Black women”, imagine the international calls for the Tory party to disown and prosecute Frank Hester. Sunak suggesting this can be ignored is complete hypocrisy from a Prime Minister who has no appreciation of the effects of racism on society.”

A Conservative Party source told The Independent: “The Prime Minister is clear, as the first British-Asian Prime Minister leading one of the most ethnically diverse Cabinets in our history, there is no place for racism in public life.

“The UK has a proud history in tackling racial disparities and this Conservative Prime Minister is living proof of that fact.”