Labour's handling of Diane Abbott seals Starmer's black betrayal

Labour's handling of Diane Abbott seals Starmer's black betrayal
By shunning Diane Abbott, Keir Starmer's Labour has doubled down on its anti-black purge, ostracising minority voices in the process, writes Richard Sudan.
6 min read
31 May, 2024
If Labour can do this to Diane Abbott in opposition, what might they do in power, asks Richard Sudan [photo credit: Getty Images]

No matter how many black votes Keir Starmer manages to salvage in this summer's general election, they won't be an endorsement of his candidacy but a rejection of the Tory government and the crisis in its wake.  

Many disillusioned black voters, however, will likely sit this one out. Starmer's Labour has seriously eroded trust among black and minority communities in the UK, and the damage may be beyond repair.

Earlier this year I wrote in The Voice — the UK's only black national newspaper, that "Keir Starmer doesn't care about black people". Sadly, Labour's actions this week have only confirmed this suspicion. For many black people in the UK, the party they'd been loyal to for decades is no longer for them.

"Labour may win a first term, but they may have now lost the support they need for a second"

We've finally reached the end of our tether. Our patience has reached an end. The relationship has fractured. The idea that black people are permanently wedded to Labour has run its course.

And the Labour Party's handling of Diane Abbott MP — the UK's first black MP and sitting Member of Parliament for 37 years — might be the final nail in the coffin.

Keir Starmer's left-wing purge continues

The reaction, outrage, and protests at Labour's treatment of Keir Starmer is the clearest measure of this increasingly messy betrayal. The prolonged and opaque process surrounding the Hackney North and Stoke Newington MP's suspension — and the contradictory statements from Labour as to Abbott's fate — is a crisis of Labour's own making. 

The revelation that the investigation — which kept Abbott suspended for over a year — actually concluded months ago is beyond shocking. It's been a bombshell for our communities. We've been lied to and thoroughly disrespected, yet again.

Whatever mistake Diane Abbott has made she's paid and apologised for. Ill-judged comments do not warrant how Labour has treated the black British stateswoman. Suspending her for over a year is completely disproportionate and without precedent. 

It really seems that the delay in releasing the findings of the investigation is a snide ploy and blunt strategic manoeuvre to limit Diane Abbott's influence. Abbott herself criticised the investigation process as fraudulent pointing out the factionalism within Labour that targets black and non-white members disproportionately.

This will have taken a toll on her — she's already received more abuse than any other MP. Juxtapose Abbott's treatment with other MPs, white men, who've been swiftly readmitted to the party having made serious antisemitic comments and done far worse.

Darren Rowell is Labour's parliamentary candidate in Barking despite having made horrendous anti-black comments. Labour frontbencher Steve Reed implied that a Jewish Tory party was a "puppet master". Both cases, predictably, received little press attention.

After Diane Abbott, will the black vote shun Labour?

Hypocrisy, the treatment of Diane Abbott, and the Forde report — which showed that the Labour Party had normalised a culture of anti-black racism within the party — will all be issues in the back of our minds on July 4.

The backlash against Labour’s handling of Abbott’s case, in particular, is profound, and I believe will be a decisive factor in the outcome of the election. Labour may win a first term, but they may have now lost the support they need for a second.

Black and Muslim communities, of which there exists an intersection, will not forgive Keir Starmer for his actions towards Abbott and Gaza. 

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But it's not just the treatment of Diane Abbott which is deeply concerning, it's who she is and what she represents to the UK black community. We see the attack on her as an attack on us. Her treatment shows us what we can expect from Labour should they be elected into government; a litmus test of how they view us as the black community and black voters. If Labour can do this to Abbott in opposition, what might they do in power?

Labour's handling of Abbott's suspension is, simply put, a spectacular failure to read the room. It shows sublime ignorance and breathtaking indifference. Diane Abbott represents progress and advocacy within the black community. Her career is characterised by relentless campaigning against racism and inequality, living, enduring, and overcoming obstacles familiar to many of us. 

The prolonged suspension and the opaque handling of her case raise serious questions, and possibly damning answers, about Labour’s commitment to racial equality, fair treatment, and judgement.

The calls for Diane Abbott to remain a Labour candidate are not just about one individual’s career, or about the right of constituents to choose their member of parliament, but about addressing a broader issue of justice and representation.

I’d need a thesis to name all of the great parliamentary candidates, and potential candidates who’ve been blocked or sidelined by Labour and the same goes for councillors too. It’s a shameful cynical attack on democracy and is rolling back progress by decades.

Two years ago I thought Starmer was a mediocre technocrat and an out-of-touch centrist regarding his stance on race equality. But it’s more than that. His primary concern is power, not principle, and this makes him dangerous.  He’s certainly changed the Labour Party as he liked to remind us – he’s purged it of all of the individuals and ideas which made it popular several years ago and saw membership rise significantly.

What has happened to Diane Abbott is horrendous, but if she isn’t safe then no one is. Several other black MPs have told me recently that they seriously fear deselection. Purge is the common phrase used to describe his control of Labour and it’s entirely appropriate.

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Last year, in a Q&A with the Guardian, Starmer said the trait he most deplores is disrespect. His treatment of Diane Abbott however, suggests it should be at the top of his CV.

You don’t have to agree with Abbott on every issue to acknowledge and condemn the injustice in her treatment. As an MP her positions have often sparked debate. She’s a politician and not beyond criticism. But her consistent championing of social justice, anti-racism, and equality for decades has been steadfast and at the least means she should be permitted to stand and remain as the representative of her constituents if they so choose.

Anything less is an affront to democracy and a direct insult to black communties.

As the general election approaches, how Labour navigates this issue will be crucial. It is not only about Abbott’s future but also about the party’s relationship with its Black supporters and its broader commitment to fairness and equality.

Richard Sudan is a journalist and writer specialising in anti-racism and has reported on various human rights issues from around the world. His writing has been published by The Guardian, Independent, The Voice and many others.

Follow him on Twitter: @richardsudan

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.