Voices: By dishonouring Diane Abbott, Starmer has dishonoured himself – and Labour

Keir Starmer and his team have treated Diane Abbott appallingly, made enemies needlessly, and created much quiet resentment (PA)
Keir Starmer and his team have treated Diane Abbott appallingly, made enemies needlessly, and created much quiet resentment (PA)

It was Diane Abbott’s misfortune to have served in parliament and been prominent enough for long enough to have fallen victim to a Labour leadership determined to show just how much they have “changed Labour”, and how tough they are.

And so Abbott – a pioneer, and one of the most famous politicians in the land – has been deprived of her chance to run for one last term as a Labour MP. She has been deprived of that with a lack of grace and in a welter of confusion that makes the party and its leader look not so much ruthlessly efficient, but as bullying incompetents.

Keir Starmer and his allies couldn’t even finish off this distinguished but harmless relic from the past without making a total mess of things. Blood on the walls, then – and not in a good way.

One wonders just how paranoid and insecure the right of the party must be to behave in this way. None of this makes any sense. The questions will not go away. The investigation into her strange letter to a newspaper implying a hierarchy of racism was completed five months ago – this fact, discovered by BBC’s Newsnight, has not been challenged.

Then Abbott was left in limbo while, presumably, the leadership dithered about whether she could get the whip back and then go on to stand as an official Labour candidate again. Unlike Jeremy Corbyn, who was unrepentant and defiant to the last about his misdemeanours, Abbott was contrite and went on a course about antisemitism. She hasn’t spoken out about how events unfolded even now.

Having been kept waiting, she was then presented with an impossible, illogical choice: if you accept the Labour whip, you still can’t stand as a Labour candidate; but if you refuse the whip, you also can’t stand as a Labour candidate. Allowing her to complete the last few hours of her four-decade-long parliamentary career as an official Labour MP was designed to be an “elegant” way of allowing her to go with dignity. It has turned into anything but.

Starmer and his advisers may think that he is showing toughness as a leader in treating this icon of the left shabbily. He has said he will not tolerate antisemitism – well here’s another example. He wants the Labour Party to be changed and to look changed, and she’s no longer part of the scene. He has removed her as someone the Tories can point to as an embarrassment.

No longer will the shadow cabinet of today be reminded of her mix up about police numbers when she was shadow home secretary under Corbyn. It is Starmer as Ozymandias, king of kings: “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”

Starmer and his allies may calculate that Abbott will disappear without a trace after the election, and the whole affair will be forgotten in the excitement of their super-landslide. Maybe. But it actually does make Starmer and his wing of the party look weak.

Abbott was tolerated by successive leaders – including Tony Blair, who couldn’t be bothered to find a reason to expel her (she was, after all, far less toxic than George Galloway, whom he did kick out). She ran for the leadership after the defeat in 2010, and Ed Miliband found space for her on the front bench, in charge of public health (a portfolio that was more important than it seemed at the time, it must be said).

And of course, she thrived in the Corbyn era, during which time she received more racist and misogynistic abuse than the rest of parliament combined. She would have been, gaffes aside, quite a good home secretary, because her instincts were correct and she knew what she wanted from her civil servants. But the Tory press vilified her – so that was that.

The point is that while Blair, Brown and Miliband looked on her with some indulgence, Starmer, having lived through the Corbyn debacle, wants rid of the lot of them. He wants to say, as he did this week, that he has changed the party “forever”.

But of, course he hasn’t. The left is still there – Dawn Butler, Zarah Sultana, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Abbott – who rightly command much respect both in the party and outside it. Starmer and his team have treated Abbott appallingly, made enemies needlessly, and created much quiet resentment.

Whether Abbott runs as an independent and becomes an MP again or not, Starmer doesn’t look quite the symbol of decency, strength and integrity he would like to think of himself. By dishonouring Abbott, he has dishonoured himself. He has made a mistake – and one day, he may live to regret it.