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‘Diane Abbott’s Treatment Raises Big Concerns About Racism and Factionalism in the Labour Party’

Labour figures from across Keir Starmer’s party are furious about her treatment by the leadership

Diane Abbott speaks to supporters in Hackney Downs Park. Photo: Thabo Jaiyesimi/SOPA Images

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At the time of writing it remains unclear exactly what will happen to Diane Abbott. Multiple reports suggest that Labour’s ruling committee will block her from standing again as their candidate in the general election, despite her being their MP in Hackney North for the past 37 years.

However, when asked today whether she had already been barred from standing for the party, Labour’s leader Keir Starmer told the BBC that “no decision” had yet been taken.

This may only turn out to be technically true given that the NEC are not due to formally announce their decision until next week. 

However, barring an unexpected change of heart it looks likely that Abbott will not be the party’s candidate in the upcoming general election in July.

Abbott had reportedly been considering stepping down from parliament anyway, potentially as part of a deal to allow her to be reinstated as a Labour MP prior to the election.

According to ITV News, Starmer had already drafted a “celebratory” statement marking the end of her parliamentary career.

However, if these reports are true, then such a deal appears to have been scuppered by an eleventh hour briefing to the Times newspaper that Abbott’s re-election would be blocked.

Double Standards

The alleged decision to block her from standing came despite other Labour MPs accused of racism being allowed to stand again for the party.

Last year Labour MP Neil Coyle, who is on the right of the party, had the whip restored following suspension for making racist comments towards the journalist Henry Dyer. Coyle was welcomed back into the parliamentary party following an apology.

Another Labour MP, Rupa Huq, also had the whip restored in 2022, after being suspended for comments she made about the Conservative MP Kwasi Kwarteng.

Talking about the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Huq said that he was only “superficially… a black man”, adding that “if you hear him on the Today Programme, you wouldn’t know he is black”.

Huq was reinstated after issuing an apology and is now campaigning again for re-election in her Ealing and Acton seat.

Abbott’s own suspension came after she wrote a letter to the Guardian suggesting that the racism experienced by Jewish and Irish people was less bad than that experienced by those who are visibly non-white.

Abbott quickly apologised for her comments but was suspended by the Labour Party pending an investigation.

For 13 months Labour spokespeople repeatedly denied that this investigation had been concluded, including to this paper. 

However, the BBC reported this week that the probe actually finished last December, at which point it was recommended that she should receive a formal warning and be told to undergo training on antisemitism.

Shortly after the BBC’s report, the Labour whip was restored to Abbott, before reports soon emerged that she had been blocked from standing for the party.


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Unconscious Racism?

Abbott’s treatment has long been a matter of controversy. A report commissioned by Starmer into racism within the party found last year that senior Labour staffers had sent messages to each other suggesting that she “literally makes me sick”, is “truly repulsive” and a “very angry woman”.

Martin Forde, who was commissioned by Starmer to write the report, found that the criticisms of Abbott expressed by Labour staffers were “not simply a harsh response to perceived poor performance – they are 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.”

Forde found that Abbott’s treatment may be indicative of a wider unconscious racism within the party, saying that “we also note that MPs of colour and female MPs were not always treated during the relevant period in the same way as their white/ male counterparts – not just in terms of the abuse they received, but in terms of the level of instinctive respect they were afforded within the Party and within Parliament.”

Many figures within Labour believe just such disrespect is now again being shown towards Abbott.

They point towards the decision by the House of Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle not to allow her to speak in the Chamber while Starmer and Rishi Sunak discussed the Conservative donor Frank Hester’s comments about wanting her to be shot, as being indicative of that broader disrespect.

Asked by Times Radio today about Abbott’s treatment, Martin Forde described Labour’s handling of the issue as “utterly shambolic” and “deeply disturbing”.

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‘Factional Disdain’

Opinions vary inside Labour about why Abbott has been seemingly treated so differently to other Labour MPs. 

Some suggest it is simply racism. Abbott, who was the first black woman MP in Parliament, has long been the target of huge volumes of racist abuse and has been repeatedly singled out for criticism by the party’s political opponents.

Others suggest it is merely factionalism towards an MP who has been very critical of Starmer’s leadership and who is closely aligned to former leader Jeremy Corbyn, who was expelled from the parliamentary Labour Party and now intends to stand as an independent candidate in July. 

Some papers reported today that Abbott’s decision to like a Tweet by Corbyn’s partner about his independent candidacy was part of the decision to block her from standing. However, a report by BBC’s Newsnight on Tuesday suggested that Abbott was being used as a signal that the party had “changed” under Starmer.

The BBC’s Nick Watt said that Starmer’s allies believed she needed to be ousted from the party because “She is, in their view, a reminder of the Jeremy Corbyn era”.

But whatever justification is ultimately made for Abbott’s treatment, the saga raises serious questions about racism and factionalism within the Labour party.

When Keir Starmer first became leader he promised to “unite” the party, after the division seen among its MPs during Corbyn’s time as leader.

However, as Starmer heads towards Downing Street, concerns are increasingly being raised, including by figures in the centre and right of the party, about the apparent lack of tolerance shown to anyone outside of his own particular faction.

Responding to reports of Abbott’s exclusion, Tony Blair’s former Political Secretary John McTernan told Times Radio that her treatment had been “utterly disgraceful”.

“This is nothing more or less than factional disdain” McTernan said, adding that it would not have happened under Blair.

“This is no way for a distinguished political career to end, and whoever’s responsible for this should hang their head in shame”, he said.

With Abbott’s future still in doubt, this is a sentiment that is now widely shared within the party.

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