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  1. The Weekend Report
1 June 2024

Diane Abbott can stand, but Keir Starmer’s left purge continues

The Labour leader has spent years ridding his party of potential rebels and he’s not done yet.

By Freddie Hayward

To understand Keir Starmer’s left-wing cull this week, look to his claims that he cares more about winning over voters than the selection of future MPs. He has spent the past two weeks distancing himself from Labour’s hidden, dirtier machinations in which factional warfare plays out. But, in reality, he was in control.

Take his language on Diane Abbott. He has said for months the reason she couldn’t be reinstated was an ongoing independent process into her letter to the Observer claiming Jews, the Irish and Travellers haven’t experienced racism all their lives. But once BBC Newsnight reported on Monday (27 May) that the investigation had finished in December last year, Starmer changed his position. He restored the whip to Abbott and said the delay in her candidate approval was because the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) had not yet decided whether to back her candidacy. Which is not, in any way, an independent process.

“No decision has been taken to bar Diane Abbott,” became Starmer’s new mantra. This was true in only the most literal sense. The Times reported on Tuesday that the NEC would bar Abbott from standing, even if the formal decision would not officially be taken for a week. Starmer’s supporters have a majority on the NEC so ultimately he could force through a decision. This was then proved by his capitulation on 31 May, when he said she was “free to go forward as a Labour candidate” – how could he say so if the NEC had not yet made a formal decision?

The truth is that the pressure to reinstate Abbott as the Labour candidate for Hackney North and Stoke Newington became too great. Four days of press coverage was distracting from the party’s campaign. More importantly, support for Abbott was growing. Angela Rayner, who is in a buccaneering mood after being cleared by the police over her tax affairs, said she saw no reason why Abbott should not stand for Labour, as did the centrist MP Jess Phillips. In an open letter prominent black Britons – including the actors Lenny Henry and David Harewood, the author Yomi Adegoke, and the journalists Afua Hirsh and Gary Younge – warned of a rupture between “Black communities” and Labour. The Aslef, CWU and Unite unions, among others, all came out in support of Abbott.

Remember that Abbott commands more respect, from a more diverse cross-section of society, than Jeremy Corbyn. She is less reviled, less associated with the mishandling of anti-Semitism within Labour, and carries symbolic power as the first black female MP. Those outside her faction have sympathy for her, even though they reject the Corbyn project. Andrew Gimson has written for ConservativeHome, for instance: “Abbott is not always right, but she is a friend of freedom who challenges rather than kowtows to the executive.”

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Another factor was Abbott’s own response. On the steps outside Hackney Town Hall in her constituency on Wednesday (29 May), Abbott said: “They haven’t given a reason for banning me – they just want me excluded from parliament… It’s as if you’re not allowed to be a Labour MP unless you repeat everything the leader says.” She added she would stand again “by any means possible”, a thinly veiled threat to run as an independent. Two senior former shadow cabinet members running as independents (Corbyn launched his campaign that same day) would create a media circus, a distraction from Labour’s national campaign – something the leadership would want to avoid. 

At one point, someone in the crowd shouted: “Bully boys!” Indeed, Abbott’s treatment led some in the party to accuse Starmer of creating a macho culture centred around chief enforcers Morgan McSweeney and Matt Pound. That Starmer has now seemingly gone against his top advisers’ initial counsel suggests he thinks they overreached in this case.

But Abbott’s victory is the exception to the rule. Starmer has spent the past four years rewiring the party. He has ridden it of dissenters and potential rebels, those his team judges to pose a risk to his government’s singular project. With Labour 20 points ahead in the polls this week, the leadership made their move. The expulsion of Corbyn from the parliamentary party in 2020 was merely the precursor to this more thorough purge of the remnants of Corbynism. Alongside Abbott, the Brighton Kemptown MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle has been deselected over historical complaints, while the prominent left-wing candidate Faiza Shaheen was also prevented from standing in Chingford and Woodford Green.

There will still be left-wing MPs in parliament: John McDonnell, Richard Burgon, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Clive Lewis and Zarah Sultana, to name a few. But they are cowed. They have been silent as their comrades have been ejected from the parliamentary party. Their Twitter feeds carry the same political talking points as the rest of Labour. No one has resigned in solidarity. As one Labour MP on the left told me: “[My colleagues] will be aware that they’re all on death row.” Or, as one member of the Socialist Campaign Group summarised advice from McDonnell in February: “Keep your f***ing head down and if you make a mistake you’re on your own.”

The handling of Abbott’s case was an unforced error that cost Starmer a few days of the campaign. But her being allowed to stand should not distract from the broader fact that the left is being subjugated by the leadership. The question is how long that will last.

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