Diane Abbott: about politics, not race or gender

Muddying the message

In the end, Sir Keir bottled it and allowed Diane Abbott to stand, writes Eddie Ford. But will he have to pay a political price? Almost certainly, Sunak will exploit his dithering

Will he, can she? In the end, of course - after endless rumours that she would be blocked - Sir Keir bottled it, with Labour’s national executive committee finally announcing that Diane Abbott will be standing in the seat she has held for 37 years ahead of the deadline for nominations on June 7.

Previous to that, there had been the running story of Abbott versus Starmer, with the MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington at one point telling hundreds of supporters on the steps of Hackney town hall that she will use “any means necessary” to stand in the July 4 general election - obviously threatening to stand as an independent like her long-term friend and ally, Jeremy Corbyn, had been forced to do in neighbouring Islington North. Meanwhile, Starmer had been maintaining the fiction that whether she stood as an official Labour candidate or not had nothing to do with him (!), as it was entirely a decision for the ‘independent’ NEC - certainly not the local Labour Party in Hackney North, as it should be. But you were a fool if you believed any of that, as Starmer dominates the national executive and his courtiers will always do the king’s bidding.

Reinforcing the impression that Starmer was playing a game with Abbott by spreading deliberate confusion, when she had the whip restored on May 28, he said she was “free to stand” as a Labour candidate despite spending days saying it was purely a matter for the NEC - but friends of Abbott said she had been fearing a “fait accompli” by elements around the leadership that would prevent her. In a further twist to the tale, before the NEC announcement she had angrily denied reports of being offered a seat in the House of Lords if she agreed to stand down - going on to tweet a link to an article in The Guardian by Starmer biographer Tom Baldwin headlined “Starmer on Abbott: ‘I’ve actually got more respect for Diane than she probably realises’”, with the words: “More lies from Starmer.” She deleted the post shortly afterwards!

In fact, Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, felt compelled to deny the stories that a string of Labour MPs had been offered peerages, so they would quit and make way for Starmer allies. It is worth mentioning that on the same day that Abbott was given the green light, Apsana Begum, despite speculation that she could be blocked, also found herself on the list of party candidates nodded through by the NEC. According to local party sources in her constituency of Poplar and Limehouse in east London, there had been ‘active’ conversations about parachuting in another candidate, but this was rejected because Labour headquarters had been “concerned” about the fallout if they deselected another minority ethnic woman - something that happened to Faiza Shaheen - which sounds plausible enough.

Hackney being a leftwing and highly multicultural constituency, with many voters of Turkish, African or Afro-Caribbean heritage, Abbott seems to get a warm reception everywhere she goes - the first black woman ever elected to parliament and the longest-serving black MP, getting re-elected in every general election since 1987. Of course, you can say the same about Jeremy Corbyn - a genuinely popular figure in Islington North, known for being former Labour leader, champion of numerous international cuauses and for being an extrodinarily hard working MP.


Why were the Starmerites and those around them seemingly so intent on blocking Diane Abbott? Whatever some might say, it was not because she was black or a woman. However, having said that, you could argue that her sex and ethnicity were not irrelevant, when it came to choosing her in the first place. She replaced the sitting Labour MP, Ernie Roberts, another popular figure on the left - former assistant general secretary of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers and chair of the Unemployed Workers Charter, who died in 1994.

Anyhow, by a narrow vote the CLP decided to retire Ernie with honours and instead select Diane - who had served as a press officer for the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone in 1985-86, and was then head of press and public relations at Lambeth Council, before getting elected to Westminster City Council in 1982. She was active in the Labour Party Black Sections movement alongside Bernie Grant, Paul Boateng and Keith Vaz - figures that readers of this paper might well remember - but she lost out to Livingstone in 1985, when it came to the selection battle for Brent East. Given the nature of the constituency in Hackney North and Stoke Newington, and the understandable desire of the CLP to have a woman and a black MP, they did not find it difficult to choose her - and, of course, she won with 48.7% of the vote.

As we all remember, Abbott was denied the whip over her stupid letter last April to The Observer, where she said that Jews, Romany gypsies and Irish travellers do not suffer lifelong racism - only black people do. She was subsequently issued with a formal warning for conduct “grossly detrimental” to the Labour Party and directed to complete some appalling online anti-Semitism awareness course run by none other than the Jewish Labour Movement - Zionists to a man and woman.

When you hear statements from the likes of Momentum and others on the left ascribing racism as the reason she was targeted, then it shows that these comrades have completely lost their political bearings - failing to understand that ideological (or institutional) anti-racism, has become a weapon deployed against the left, or those perceived to be on the left, especially when it is dressed up as the fight against ‘anti-Semitism’.

We saw this very recently with Faiza Shaheen, who has quit the Labour Party following her deselection as its candidate for Chingford and Woodford Green, blaming a “hierarchy of racism” and claiming Keir Starmer’s party had “a problem with black and brown people”, when the real reason - as she essentially admits - was that she liked a series of tweets from over ten years ago that contained a list of companies to boycott in order to show solidarity with the Palestinians, and one from a US academic who talked about the “Israel lobby” - how terrible! Now she is standing as an independent - good!

Either way, Keir Starmer and his faction were very reluctant to let Diane Abbott continue as an MP. Why? Because she has the wrong sort of politics - someone associated with the left in the popular imagination - Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow home secretary, fellow member of the Socialist Campaign Group, and other such sins. It goes without saying that, if she had not been endorsed by the NEC, the left would have protested vociferously and the CPGB would certainly have supported her as an independent. Not because we have any illusions in her politics, which is hardly that of principled socialism, but simply - as it looks like Labour will win a solid majority - to spoil Sir Keir’s party somewhat on July 4 by having a couple or three unwanted leftwingers elected.

Keir Starmer bottled it not because of pressure from the usual suspects on the left like Momentum and John McDonnell, but from the likes of Angela Rayner, who you normally think of as belonging to the so-called centre - even some on the right raised their voices against the control-freakery. Hence the usual stuff about a bird needing two wings if it is to be successful - the realistic wing and the dreamers (though it was actually the ‘hard left’ Tony Benn who seems to have first come up with that metaphor).


Starmer was also in danger of incurring the opprobrium of well-known black figures, including Lenny Henry, David Harewood, Afua Hirsch, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and Gary Younge. The Abbott affair prompted them to sign a damning open letter calling Labour’s treatment of Abbott “disproportionate, undemocratic and vindictive”, urging the party to “rectify and reverse” the “disrespectful” treatment of the MP from Hackney North.1 The letter further points out that, given Labour’s “recent embrace of others who have championed causes far more objectionable to its core values”, the leadership’s attitude towards Abbott “smacks of a disgraceful double standard” - the Labour leader does not particularly want to alienate that constituency.

On the other hand, Starmer might have to pay a political price for allowing Abbott to stand, though exactly how much and in what way is hard to calculate - but arguably it could be more costly than if he and the NEC had blocked her. You got Rishi Sunak instantly saying that it was Angela Rayner who really runs the Labour Party after her remark last week that she “doesn’t see any reason” why Abbott could not run, now the party whip had been restored, and how the row over Abbott shows that Keir Starmer “constantly changes his mind”.

After all, if you look at Starmer, what is his big selling point - indeed, his only selling point? It is not Tony Blair’s third way or some bold vision of a new ‘socialist’ Britain like Clement Attlee, or the white heat of the technological revolution of a Harold Wilson. No, it can be summed up by one dull word - change. He has changed the Labour Party by moving it firmly to the right, and now he will change Britain.

But, with Diane Abbott standing for Labour again, he runs the risk of muddying the waters. You talked about ‘purging’ anti-Semitism, Sir Keir, but it is still there - nothing has changed, as you did not have the courage to shove her out! Expect to hear that message from Sunak and the Tories again and again.

  1. theguardian.com/politics/article/2024/may/30/leading-black-figures-criticise-labour-diane-abbott.↩︎