Angela Rayner defies Starmer as she backs Diane Abbott as a Labour general election candidate

Angela Rayner has given Diane Abbott her full backing to run for parliament in the general election in a dramatic intervention.

It comes as Sir Keir Starmer was forced to deny that he is trying to “purge” the left of the party as the row over Ms Abbott and candidate selections threaten to derail his campaign.

The row appears to have left Labour on the brink of open civil war and handed Rishi Sunak and the Tories an unexpected lifeline as they struggle to close the gap of around 20 points in the polls. However, last night it appeared that the chaos had not hurt Labour so far with the Techne UK tracker poll keeping them unchanged on 45 per cent.

In a blunt response to the last 72 hours of chaos around whether Ms Abbott can stand in Hackney North and Stoke Newington, Ms Rayner appeared to take aim at Sir Keir and his inner circle.

Abbott told supporters she intended to remain as MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Getty Images)
Abbott told supporters she intended to remain as MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Getty Images)

Speaking to ITV, Labour’s deputy leader said: “I don’t see any reason why Diane Abbott can’t stand as a Labour MP going forward. I am saying that as the deputy leader of the Labour Party”.

She described Ms Abbott as a trailblazer adding that she is “not happy” about negative briefings to the papers about her from senior Labour sources.

She said: “I don’t think that is how we should conduct ourselves.”

Ms Rayner then doubled down with comments to Sky News, saying: “[Diane Abbott]'s been an inspiration to many people who see that actually she has been a trailblazer. Now people from her background and people who look like her have a place in our politics. And she's been able to demonstrate that. You can see the difference on our benches.”

Asked about Sir Keir’s role in the row, she added: “I’m pretty certain that Keir would see that as a frustration because actually Keir is not focused on what's going on in the Labour Party. He's focused on what he would do as prime minister and how he will change the country for the better.”

Meanwhile, TUC president Matt Wrack warned against double standards being applied.

Mr Wrack, who is the Fire Brigades Union general secretary, said: “Diane Abbott is a powerful, popular advocate for Labour. She and other candidates have been treated in an appalling manner.

“There are clearly double standards in how they have been treated as left-wingers and as women of colour when compared to more centrist MPs. It is only a matter of weeks since hard-right Tory Natalie Elphicke was welcomed with open arms.

“This has all been an embarrassing distraction. The Labour leadership must now act decisively to reinstate the affected candidates and ensure that no one is barred from standing at the last minute with no due process.”

Her intervention comes amid wider questions about the way Sir Keir’s inner circle appear to be parachuting candidates into winnable seats and blocking ones on the left.

The row escalated last night when left-wing Muslim Faiza Shaheen was blocked from standing against former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith in Chingford and Woodford Green.

Today it was revealed that a former staffer for Sir Keir, Uma Kumaran, has been shortlisted for the new Stratford and Bow seat in east London, which has an 32 per cent Muslim population.

It has been noted that apart from Rushanara Ali, who is defending her reformed seat of Bethnal Green and Stepney, Labour currently has no Muslim candidates in east London after months of criticism of Sir Keir over his position on Israel.

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner (PA Wire)
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner (PA Wire)

Sir Keir’s chief election strategist and right-hand man Morgan McSweeney is being blamed for influencing the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) to purge the left and select candidates that the leadership want for key seats.

But speaking at a campaign launch in south Wales, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer insisted he was not purging left-wing candidates and praised Ms Abbott's political record.

Asked if he was blocking left-wingers from standing, he said: "No. I've said repeatedly over the last two years as we've selected our candidates that I want the highest-quality candidates.

"That's been the position for a very long time."

Speaking to broadcasters in Monmouthshire he said: "The situation in relation to Diane Abbott is that no decision has been taken to bar her and you have to remember that she was a trailblazer as an MP, she overcame incredible challenges to achieve what she achieved in her political career.

Keir Starmer was campaigning in Wales, but questions over Labour’s candidate selections dominated (PA)
Keir Starmer was campaigning in Wales, but questions over Labour’s candidate selections dominated (PA)

"She carved out a path for others to come into politics and she did all that whilst also being one of the most abused MPs across all political parties.

"But I've always had the aspiration that we will have the best quality candidates as we go into this election."

He also said that Ms Shaheen had been barred because of a desire to get “high quality” candidates. But left-wing group Momentum posted his messages from ahead of the 2019 election where he described Ms Shaheen as “a fantastic candidate”.

Ms Shaheen, who appeared to be considering legal action against Labour’s NEC, retorted: “Please don’t undermine my credentials Keir Starmer I came from a family with a violent father and spent part of my childhood on benefits. I’m now a visiting professor and teach at LSE. Public services really helped me, and I had to work so hard to get to this point in my life.”

Jeremy Corbyn ally Owen Jones, who has quit Labour in protest over Sir Keir’s leadership, posted: “Keir Starmer previously described Faiza Shaheen as a ‘fantastic candidate’. He now publicly defames her, while standing by candidates who, are among other things, have said racist things and had sexual harassment claims upheld.”

The Labour leader had already had his honesty questioned after friends of Ms Abbott and Tory opponents both pointed out he had claimed last Friday that an investigation into alleged antisemitism on her part was still ongoing. It emerged that the investigation had concluded in December.

Ms Abbott only received the Labour whip back as an MP this week but it was briefed out that she would be “barred” from running as a Labour candidate in the general election.

It had also been suggested that she was planning to retire but at a rally in support of her last night, Ms Abbott declared that she would stand for parliament again.

Unions have along with Ms Rayner backed her plans. As Sir Keir was speaking in Wales she posted on X (formerly Twitter) to say she has been in talks with unions about standing.

She said: “I am very grateful to all the trade unionists who have offered me support. I have met with a number of leading trade unionists, including general secretaries who have offered me their backing to be a Labour candidate at next week's NEC.”

She also revealed the cover for her soon-to-be-published memoir – A Woman Like Me.

Earlier, the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, openly mocked Sir Keir over his inability to deal with his party’s internal issues and suggested it would be a sign of what sort of prime minister he would make.

He said: “How on earth can we expect Keir Starmer to deal with Vladimir Putin when he can’t even deal with Diane Abbott?”

Meanwhile, a Conservative spokesperson said: “Today the Labour Party campaign has descended into complete chaos. Keir Starmer changed major tax policy overnight in response to a press release, and today he's being undermined by his own deputy.

"Starmer's central claim is that he has 'changed' the Labour Party has been exposed as nothing more than a con which is falling apart before the public’s eyes”

However, the Tories have also faced their own questions from within the party about selections.

David Campbell Bannerman, a former MEP who chairs the grassroots Conservative Democratic Organisation, accused the leadership of “operating a chumocracy” as government special advisers were selected for plum seats.