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  • Kate O'Mahony

The Diane Abbott Dilemma: Inside Starmer's Thirst for Power

By Kate O'Mahony

Diane Abbott is a trailblazer in British politics. First elected in 1987 as the Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, she became the UK’s first Black, female MP. She paved a path for women and people of colour, in a Parliament that saw only four ethnic minority members and just 40 women. Her re-election would see her become Mother of the House. A prominent member of the Labour left, she has been subject to both criticism and adoration over the past four decades.

Her latest battle involves suspension from the party over allegations of antisemitism. The subsequent investigation and debate over the future of her place in the party have played out amidst an election campaign set to return Labour to power.

In April 2023, Abbott wrote a letter to the Observer in response to Tomiwa Owolade, claiming that white people experienced prejudice – but not racism, this group of white people included, Irish people, Jewish people, and Travellers. Thoughtless at best, the comments were antisemitic, even if not intentional, with Abbott likening the experience of Jewish people to redheads. The Labour Party withdrew the whip and despite her immediate apology and retraction, the investigation dragged on until May 2024, when she was finally readmitted, only to face further uncertainty about her Labour candidacy.

The lengthy process and lack of a resolution in Abbott’s suspension has drawn rightful criticism, no member of Parliament, especially not one who has served her community and country for 37 years, should be treated in such a way. The decision to suspend the whip was warranted, but the issue lies in the political manipulation of what should be a strict code of conduct that all MPs should be expected to abide by.

Given Labour’s recent history with antisemitism and Abbott’s alignment with the Corbyn wing of the party, it was inevitable that Labour headquarters would leap to suspension, and not make any haste to clear up the matter.   

"It seems that the Labour Party needs to look in the mirror and ask itself: does it still see a party of the people?"

Her treatment comes as Labour has accepted numerous defecting Conservative MPs, most notably Natalie Elphicke, a member of the Tory's hard-right, populist wing. Her alleged attempts to influence legal proceedings and lobby ministers about her husband’s judicial case constitute a clear case for investigation. Yet, the defecting right winger saw nothing of the sort. Even Blairite architect Alastair Campbell criticised the ostracization of veterans like Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott whilst simultaneously embracing ex-Tories like Elphicke. Meanwhile, Starmer ally Neil Coyle saw reinstatement this same May following his suspension concerning racist comments made towards a journalist, making it blatantly clear that the Labour Party uses its disciplinary system for factional manipulation. 

When the general election was called, Abbott’s ongoing suspension rendered her ineligible to stand as a Labour candidate. The communication between the Labour Party and Abbott’s team was vague, but she was readmitted to the party on May 28. It was understood that party officials attempted to negotiate a deal whereby Abbott would refrain from running in exchange for the restoration of the whip, something she wholly resisted. 

I would say that the most accurate timeline that can be gathered is that Starmer's Labour Party did not want Abbott to stand again. However, following the media storm that emerged, criticism from politicians across the spectrum, and with some encouragement from Angela Rayner, Starmer wanted to redirect the campaign's focus back towards party policy, telling the media that Abbott was in fact free to stand. She has since followed this up with an affirmation of her Labour candidacy in Hackney and Stoke Newington.

This issue comes as Starmer navigates a precarious political tightrope, having to prove a decisive departure from Corbynism, whilst avoiding alienating not only the left of the party but the disillusioned left of the general public, who are trending deeper towards political homelessness. 

The silencing of Abbott speaks to a much greater issue within the Labour Party, the centralisation of power within the party under a Starmerite vision. On May 29, Faiza Shaheen, another woman of colour, was removed as a Labour parliamentary candidate for Chingford and Woodford Green via an email citing a series of pro-Palestinian retweets and support for a Green councillor, with her support of Jeremy Corbyn also being mentioned. Shaheen apologised for a tweet about the ‘Israel lobby’ and Jon Stewart, the subject of the tweet, called her suspension “the dumbest thing the UK has done since electing Boris Johnson.”

Another left-wing MP, Lloyd Cameron Russell-Moyle, was suspended for an eight-year-old behavioural complaint, with no conclusion to the investigation before May 30, he was unable to stand. Starmer cannot erase all traces of the Corbyn era, so he has done everything in his power to shape the next Parliament in his image, sacrificing internal party democracy and the traditional freedom of constituency Labour parties. 

Shaheen’s deselection, like that of Diane Abbott and Jeremy Corbyn, stands in opposition to the wishes of their constituency communities. Meanwhile, Starmer allies, Luke Akehurst, director of the ‘We Believe in Israel’ thinktank, and Josh Simons, head of Starmer’s vision thinktank ‘Labour Together’, were both placed into Labour safe seats, without constituency party selection.

Many Labour MPs delayed announcing their decision to not run until the election was called, ensuring that Starmer could parachute his closest advisors into the vacancies without any CLP consultation. By streamlining Labour's so-called broad church, Starmer is not only narrowing the party's diversity but also undermining its democratic foundation.

Why is this important, one may ask? Political parties, particularly in a two-party system, must be democratic and inclusive to fairly represent diverse views and maintain public trust. If Starmer shows no respect for these values when governing his party, what assurance do we have that he will govern the country any differently?

He has treated dedicated left-wing MPs with utter contempt, discarding them in his quest to emulate Tony Blair. Centralising power among allies, while ignoring the wider parliamentary party spells for a troubling premiership. How is the public supposed to trust a party mired in illegitimacy and secrecy? 

MPs and figures from all factions of the party have advocated for Diane Abbott’s continued presence within Labour. Why would Wes Streeting and Yvette Cooper take a stand of support for an exiled MP on the opposite wing? Because they understand that when leaders exhibit ruthless, power-driven behaviour, and flout party norms, no one is safe. It seems that the Labour Party needs to look in the mirror and ask itself: does it still see a party of the people?

Image: Wikimedia Commons



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