Labour cannot afford to alienate its core voters with the ongoing factional war - Jayne Dowle

Whatever your view of Diane Abbott, the veteran left-wing Labour MP for Hackney North in London, the controversy she’s causing should send a loud warning bell to Sir Keir Starmer.

The drama – the UK’s first female black MP is apparently being dissuaded from standing for re-election in the seat she has represented for 37 years - might largely be playing out in offices, corridors and private WhatsApp groups in London, but it resonates in our own region.

What perhaps the capital-based Labour high command does not appreciate – or chooses to ignore – is that not every Labour party member, or supporter, happily subscribes to Starmer’s freshly-scrubbed face of moderate Labour politics.

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You don’t have to dig deep in many of our former mining communities, for instance, to find bitterness and dissent at the state of the current Labour party, especially from trade unionists still reeling from being ‘sold out’ by Tony Blair’s New Labour in the 1990s.

Diane Abbott speaking at a protest in 2021. PIC: Ian West/PA WireDiane Abbott speaking at a protest in 2021. PIC: Ian West/PA Wire
Diane Abbott speaking at a protest in 2021. PIC: Ian West/PA Wire

Starmer may play up his humble beginnings, his toolmaker father, his mother a nurse, but that doesn’t impress much in these ‘left behind’ towns and villages, believe me.

Get into conversation in any working men’s club and you’ll find plenty who believe that the former lawyer and Director of Public Prosecutions is a Tory in all but name, despite the fact he shares his own forename with the legendary Labour Party founder Sir Keir Hardie, who started work at the age of 10 in Lanarkshire’s Victorian coal mines.

Vitriol runs as deep as coal seams; when Dan Jarvis was chosen as the Labour by-election candidate in 2011, plenty in Barnsley Central decried him as a ‘scab’ because he was born in Nottingham.

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There’s more recent bitterness, because ultra-left wing leader Jeremy Corbyn was booted out so unceremoniously in 2020, with Starmer as replacement. It’s a side of the Labour movement that rarely grabs national headlines, because so few people bother to ask. But it’s there, it’s not going away, and however hard Starmer tries to smooth things over, he can’t afford to ignore it.

However, most disaffected left-wingers will still vote Labour, I’d say, because to do otherwise would be heresy, and to abstain a betrayal of the freedoms their forebears fought for. However, many will do so with their fingers crossed and a sense of foreboding that the next Labour government will not speak for them, or take their concerns about the future of their communities and families into account.

Even Starmer’s own deputy, Ashton-under-Lyne’s Angela Rayner, freshly emboldened after being exonerated of wrongdoing over a ‘second home’ by the police and HMRC, has told her boss what she thinks. Abbott has not been treated “fairly or appropriately” by some Labour colleagues, Rayner says, and should be allowed to stand again for the party at the election if she wishes to do so.

It’s murky. It would seem that Abbott, who is 70, and Starmer, had a deal which would see her retiring from parliament at the next – so this – General Election. However, along the way any such agreement appears to have broken down. And now, perhaps with the cussedness for which she is renowned, Abbott has promised to stay on as an MP for “as long as it is possible”. She accused the party of carrying out a “cull of leftwingers” after she and others were blocked or dissuaded from standing.

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Lloyd Russell-Moyle in Brighton Kempton in East Sussex and Faiza Shaheen in Chingford and Woodford Green, Essex, both leftists removed from standing at the last moment, are not backwards at coming forwards when it comes to talking about their anger and disappointment. A more confident leader than Starmer might perhaps be more accommodating to a broader church, especially if he felt certain of a decent Labour majority.

Despite a recording-breaking lead in the opinion polls and the achievement of dragging Labour back from the near-catastrophic brink the party teetered on after the reign of Corbyn and endemic allegations of anti-semitism, Starmer’s hardline approach to dissent is causing chaos.

You can appreciate his dilemma. Preparing for what would appear to be inevitable government, Starmer is keen to go into Number 10 with a united party – which means clamping down on dissent.

And it’s well-known that Ms Abbott possesses a long-practised knack for getting into hot water.

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Tomorrow Labour’s national executive is scheduled to meet to finally endorse party candidates. The matter of Ms Abbott will come to a head and then whatever the outcome, the electioneering juggernaut will thunder onwards to polling day on July 4. The fall-out from the furore, however, will hover in the air, clouding the prospect of a Labour victory.

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