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  1. Election 2024
29 May 2024

How ending Diane Abbott’s career could backfire on Keir Starmer

By blocking the veteran MP from standing, has the Labour leadership overreached?

By Freddie Hayward

Diane Abbott has been blocked from standing for Labour at the election, the Times has reported. This is the probable end of Britain’s first female black MP’s 37-year parliamentary career. Abbott was suspended in April last year after she wrote a letter to the Observer suggesting Irish, Jewish and Traveller people did not experience racism. She reportedly had the whip restored this week, which has now been overshadowed by the decision to block her candidacy.

Extracting details from Labour about the investigation has always been difficult. Shadow ministers and aides have swatted away questions by saying they don’t want to interfere in an independent investigation. Even as investigations into other MPs such as Andy McDonald – who was suspended for saying, “We will not rest until we have justice, until all people, Israelis and Palestinians, between the river and the sea, can live in peaceful liberty” – concluded, Labour said that in Abbott’s case the process was ongoing.

Abbott’s investigation lasted more than a year. Or so we thought. BBC Newsnight reported yesterday that the investigation wrapped up in December 2023, inviting questions over why a decision on her future wasn’t taken earlier, and how the Labour leadership could plausibly say the disciplinary process was not finished.

What’s going on here? The “changed Labour Party” has become a core slogan of this campaign. Keir Starmer has defined his political project against Jeremy Corbyn – which is why he is so keen to say that Corbyn will never again be a Labour MP. When asked about Abbott on Sky News this morning, Wes Streeting reminded viewers about the loss in 2019. The thinking is that voters dislike Corbyn, therefore the party should distance itself from the Corbynites as much as possible. When I asked one Labour official about Corbyn’s decision to stand as an independent, they said it was “proof, if anyone needed it, that Keir Starmer has changed the Labour Party”.

That might work for the campaign. It could be more difficult in government. When reports came out in March that the Tory donor Frank Hester had said Abbott “should be shot”, sympathy for Abbott and anger against her treatment rose among some Labour MPs. The former shadow chancellor Ed Balls and former acting leader Harriet Harman called for the whip to be restored.

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We do not know what the next parliament will look like. Therefore, we cannot make confident predictions about Labour’s discipline in government. Nonetheless, the handling of this episode will have burned through some goodwill among those shadow ministers who had to defend the party’s line and those MPs dismayed by Abbott’s treatment.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

[See also: Will Labour raise taxes?]

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