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2 July 2021

Diane Abbott: “I wouldn’t do to Keir what the right of the party did to Jeremy”

In an interview with the New Statesman, the former shadow home secretary says she has “not been calling for a challenge to Keir Starmer” and that Labour’s victory in Batley and Spen was a “nice surprise”.

By Ailbhe Rea

Diane Abbott has called for Labour to “come together as a party” in the wake of the Batley and Spen by-election result, describing the party’s narrow victory as “a very nice surprise”.

In an interview with the New Statesman, the former shadow home secretary and prominent Jeremy Corbyn ally said that she and her Socialist Campaign Group colleagues were pleased to see Labour win the contest, despite expectations that the left of the party could use a by-election defeat to call for Keir Starmer’s resignation. 

[Hear more on the New Statesman podcast]

“I haven’t said that,” Abbott responded when it was put to her that she had suggested the Labour leader should step down if the party was defeated. (She said in May it would “surely be curtains” for Starmer if he lost in Batley and Spen.) 

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“I have not been calling for a challenge to Keir Starmer,” she said. “And this result is not a defeat for progressives in the Labour Party. The people talking about the kind of ‘who’s up, who’s down’, Keir’s future, have been largely Westminster journalists.” 

She added: “Keir is the leader of the Labour Party at the moment. I wouldn’t do to Keir what the right of the party did to Jeremy. He’s the leader of the Labour Party.” 

Abbott, who has been the MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington since 1987, distanced herself from comments by the Guardian journalist Owen Jones, who said Starmer would “have to resign” in the event of defeat. “Owen Jones is a journalist,” Abbott said this morning. “He has his own views. He says what he thinks. But I think it’s a little unfair of you to kind of conflate me with Owen Jones. I can’t remember the last time I spoke to him.

“I just don’t know why you think that I was hoping for a loss,” the former shadow home secretary added. “What possible benefit is that, not just for me, but the people I represent: represent, obviously, particularly in Hackney, but represent more broadly within the Labour movement? What possible benefit is it for us to lose a crucial by-election?” 

The Socialist Campaign Group, which includes Abbott and the former shadow chancellor John McDonnell, is understood to have met on Wednesday night (30 June) to discuss whether a leadership challenge would be viable in the wake of a defeat, and concluded it would not be. The group has 34 members, including Jeremy Corbyn and Claudia Webbe, both of whom do not currently hold the Labour whip, falling short of the 40 nominations required to trigger a leadership challenge.

“What we need to do is come together as a party, and continue to build our policy message, building on the best of the 2019 election manifesto,” Abbott told the New Statesman.

She also distanced herself from the “dirty campaign” fought by the “unscrupulous” former Labour MP George Galloway, and said she “can’t speak for left journalists” who faced criticism from parts of the Labour movement for their coverage of his campaign. “If you want them to explain themselves, you have to talk to them,” she said. 

Asked if she had a message for younger people who were disillusioned by the current Labour leadership, she added: “First of all, don’t leave the party. Nothing changes if you leave. You have to be in it to win it. And there are so many big campaigns to fight. People need to be engaged with that, because the wider society needs us to be fighting.”

“You’ve got to remember that I was a Labour Party member, and even a Labour Party MP, in times when the left wasn’t in a good position in the party. And you just have to get your head down, work on the issues that matter, and get through it.”

[see also: Labour’s victory in Batley and Spen shows the party is learning how to fight back]