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  1. Politics
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14 March 2024updated 20 Mar 2024 9:25am

Will Diane Abbott regain the Labour whip?

Keir Starmer believes that bringing the the MP back into the fold would undermine the party’s independent processes.

By Freddie Hayward

When Keir Starmer became leader he promised to make Labour’s internal investigations professional once more. This is the reason why Starmer says he cannot restore the whip to veteran left-winger Diane Abbott. He holds up his hands and argues he cannot interfere in an independent process. Abbott has been suspended for 11 months after she wrote a letter which suggested that Irish, Jewish and Traveller people did not experience racism. But pressure is building on the Labour leader to change course.

That is because Abbott has been at the centre of politics this week. A Tory party donor, Frank Hester, said that she “should be shot”, unleashing a botched response from the Conservative Party and splits within the party. This has prompted some in Labour, such as former shadow chancellor Ed Balls and former deputy leader Harriet Harman, to call for Abbott to be brought back into the fold. And now, the present deputy leader, Angela Rayner, has joined the chorus. “Personally, I would like to see Diane back but the Labour Party has to follow its procedures,” she said today. Yvette Cooper also said this afternoon that she thought “everybody wants to see [the investigation] speeded up.”

For the moment, though, Starmer will not reverse his position. His reasoning seems to be threefold. First, Abbott’s own comments are separate to remarks made about her. In other words, Hester’s leaked remarks have no bearing on whether Abbott should be suspended from the party. Being the victim of racism doesn’t mean someone can’t be racist. Second, restoring the whip would be seen to be interfering with a supposedly independent process. 

The third reason is that bringing her back could cause political problems for Starmer. Such suspensions – the most symbolic, of course, being Jeremy Corbyn – have become wrapped up with distancing Labour from the unpopular Corbynite brand that Starmer holds partly responsible for the 2019 loss. This is about signalling to voters that he has “changed” the Labour Party.

Even so, it is not entirely clear why the investigation is taking so long. Details about who is conducting the investigation are sketchy. At the same time, Andy McDonald MP – 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” – had the whip restored yesterday following a five-month investigation. Rumours persist that the leadership is refusing to do the same with Abbott to ensure she cannot stand as a Labour candidate in Hackney North and Stoke Newington at the next general election (a potential compromise deal could see her agree not to seek re-election). Such uncertainty will inevitably leave some with the conclusion that her suspension is pure politics. If pressure continues to build, the problem for Starmer will be placating the calls for Abbott’s return while maintaining the perception of independence.

[See also: The battle for Keir Starmer’s soul]

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