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By Ben Guerin
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Labour Leadership Disappointed By “Unwelcome Distraction” Of Diane Abbott Row

Keir Starmer speaks at the launch of Labour's six steps for change in Wales on the General Election campaign trail in May 2024 (Credit: PA Images / Alamy)

4 min read

The Labour leadership is disappointed by the way that the row over longtime MP Diane Abbott’s candidacy has become an “unwelcome distraction”, PoliticsHome understands.

After having the Labour whip withdrawn last year due to alleging that Irish people, Jewish people and Travellers do not experience racism "all their lives”, in comments for which she apologised, Abbott had the whip restored earlier this week.

But it was reported by The Times the same day that Abbott was being barred from standing for re-election. On Thursday, Labour leader Keir Starmer denied that the decision had been made to stop Abbott from being a Labour candidate, and deputy leader Angela Rayner went further. “I don’t see any reason why she can’t stand,” she said on Thursday.

Starmer declared on Friday that Diane Abbott is "free to go forward as a Labour candidate".

Left-wing activist group Momentum responded by claiming a "huge victory". A spokesperson said: "You come at the queen, you better not miss. Diane Abbott has been bullied and abused her whole career. Starmer tried to force her out. She held firm – and won."

A Conservative Party spokesperson said: "Angela Rayner is pushing Keir Starmer around. Under pressure, he's showing he's a weak leader who's losing control of the Labour Party."

Labour sources say there had been a plan agreed that would see the leadership restore the whip and Abbott subsequently announce her retirement – but the briefing to The Times disrupted the arrangement.

A source close to the leadership said the row over Abbott was the result of “tragic miscommunication” and “macho” briefing, and it has become an “unwelcome distraction” during the election campaign.

"Nobody wants this – a load of internal focus – we want to get on with speeches in factories about employment rights," they added.

Adding to the confusion, shadow cabinet member Peter Kyle hinted on Friday morning that Abbott would indeed be barred. “Diane Abbott was a trailblazer… This election, though, is about the future and the NEC will be making sure that our party is fit for the future,” he told the BBC.

The row over Abbott was fuelled further by the deselection on Wednesday of Faiza Shaheen, a left-wing candidate in Chingford and Woodford Green. She said she would be discussing “next steps” with her legal team.

Leadership-favoured Shama Tatler, a Brent councillor who had expressed an interest in the Queen’s Park and Maida Vale constituency, was swiftly chosen by Labour's national executive committee on Thursday to contest the seat. 

Shaheen reacted to the news by tweeting: “Really?! Wow a Brent councillor with no history here at all. They would rather lose than have a left pro Palestine candidate. This is offensive to my community”.

There was also disquiet over the suspension of LLoyd Russell-Moyle, who was the incumbent candidate for Brighton Kemptown, following a complaint that was investigated by the party last weekend. He is no longer eligible to stand as a Labour candidate as there is not enough time to conclude the full investigation process before the candidate nominations deadline next week.

It was widely assumed the move against Russell-Moyle, who is on the party’s left, was a factionally motivated attack. However, the complaint against him is believed to have come from the left – specifically, someone who was removed from the Labour Party for antisemitism.

Russell-Moyle has described the complaint, which is about his behaviour eight years ago, as “vexatious and politically motivated”.

A Labour Party spokesperson said: "The Labour Party takes all complaints extremely seriously and they are fully investigated in line with our rules and procedures, and any appropriate disciplinary action is taken."

Chris Ward, a close friend of Starmer who worked as his aide for six years, has been chosen as Labour’s candidate for Brighton Kemptown.  

Other Labour selections announced on Thursday include trade unionists – Unison's Mark Ferguson and Usdaw's Michael Wheeler, who are also NEC members, plus Community union's Kate Dearden – and NEC member Gurinder Singh Josan. 

Former Starmer staffer Uma Kumaran was also made a candidate. All were chosen directly by NEC panels under emergency selection procedures.

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