Jawad Iqbal Jawad Iqbal

Labour can’t avoid questions about Diane Abbott forever

Diane Abbott (Credit: Getty images)

The Labour leadership has only itself to blame for becoming embroiled in a bitter and divisive row over the future of Dianne Abbott, the MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington. She was suspended from the party in April last year after writing a letter to the Observer that appeared to play down racism against Jewish people. The party is now facing growing questions about how the disciplinary process around Abbott unfolded.

Abbott apologised for her remarks, but was placed under a months-long investigation and lost the Labour whip. She finally confirmed this morning that she would not be allowed to stand again as a Labour candidate, even though the party whip has now been restored to her following the investigation. The veteran MP, the first black woman to be elected to parliament, says she is ‘very dismayed’ by the developments but added that she will be ‘campaigning for a Labour victory’. Clear as mud then.

The investigation into Abbott for her alleged anti-Semitic remarks has been lengthy but less than transparent

Confusion about Abbott’s treatment reigns elsewhere, too. The shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, told a radio interviewer that he is ‘not particularly’ comfortable with what has happened to her. He stressed that he had not been personally involved in the process and had ‘no responsibility’ for it. He suggested that questions about what precisely had happened would be better directed at those involved. Asked in another interview whether he wanted Abbott to remain as a Labour MP, and whether she should be allowed to stand, Streeting would only say that this was a decision for the party’s national executive committee and ‘not my decision’.

Does Streeting support Abbott or not? If he does, why not make clear that he disagrees with the action taken against her? He is a senior member of the shadow cabinet, yet appears to be content with passing the buck.

Just as curious and troubling are the remarks about Abbott made by Keir Starmer, the Labour leader. This afternoon, Starmer claimed it was ‘not true’ that Abbott had been banned from standing. And just a few days ago he said that the investigation into Abbott was ongoing. But it has since emerged that it had concluded in December, with Abbott being told to complete an online anti-Semitism training course in February.

This is problematic for the Labour leader. Why would he say that the party’s process had yet to conclude, when in fact it was already over? It is a question to which, so far, no answer has been forthcoming. It has prompted the Conservative party chairman, Richard Holden, to write to Starmer, asking whether senior Labour MPs had been given ‘deliberately false lines’ about what to say on Abbott. Rishi Sunak has also piled in, calling on Starmer to be ‘transparent’ about Abbott’s position: ‘The Labour party has been telling everybody this investigation into Dianne Abbott is ongoing, it now appears it concluded months ago. So really it is a question for them to clear this all up, what happened when, be transparent about it.’

Why does the fate of one veteran left-winger matter so much? The Abbott debacle raises important and troubling questions for the Labour leadership. The investigation into the MP for her alleged anti-Semitic remarks has been lengthy but less than transparent. Her comments were made more than a year ago. The investigation concluded late last year but no decision appears to have been taken until now, when the announcement of a snap election seems to have forced the Labour hierarchy to rule on her status. It makes little sense to restore the whip to Abbott yet stop her from standing at the election.

The murkiness of this decision-making serves as an uncomfortable reminder of the fractious battles that often consume Labour, and prompt fresh questions about how much the party has really changed. Martin Forde KC, the barrister who conducted a major review into widespread allegations of sexism, racism and bullying within the party, was scathing this morning about the treatment of Abbott, describing it as ‘utterly shambolic’ and conducted with an ‘astonishing’ lack of transparency. Forde’s comments are pertinent. His original review concluded that Labour had problems with its culture and structures, and his latest intervention would appear to suggest that the party hasn’t made as much progress as it claims. That should worry Keir Starmer.