Voices: Rayner’s Abbott comments highlight a key problem for Starmer

It was not Diane Abbott who persuaded the Labour leader to back down but Angela Rayner (Reuters)
It was not Diane Abbott who persuaded the Labour leader to back down but Angela Rayner (Reuters)

Who holds power in the Labour Party? Some of Diane Abbott’s supporters thought that she had won a thrilling victory on Friday when Keir Starmer hoisted the white flag and said that she could stand as a Labour MP after all.

“If you come for the queen, you had better not miss,” crowed Abbott’s admirers on Twitter/X. But they have got the wrong queen. It was not Abbott who defeated the Labour leader but Angela Rayner, the “red queen” of Conservative propaganda.

The deputy Labour leader struck with instinctive timing and deadly accuracy on Thursday, giving three interviews, to ITV, Sky and The Guardian, in which she delivered the same message, and insisting that they all be broadcast and published at the same time. “I don’t see any reason why Diane Abbott can’t stand as a Labour MP,” she said, and added, in case anyone didn’t get the message: “I am saying that as the deputy leader of the Labour Party.”

In other words, she has her power base independent of the leader, a direct mandate from party members. But more than that, she sensed where the centre of gravity in the party was and realised that Starmer’s enforcers had overreached themselves.

Someone in Starmer’s office had reneged on the deal struck with Abbott, who had been suspended as a Labour MP for a year for appearing to suggest that antisemitism is not racism. The deal was that she would have her name cleared but would stand down as an MP of her own volition. Honour satisfied on both sides of the dispute – until someone speaking for Starmer told journalists that there was no way that she would be allowed to stand as the official Labour candidate.

The Labour Party is sentimental about fairness, and a new balloon of outrage went up, eclipsing all the little balloons released over the suspension of other Starmer-sceptic candidates and the imposition of leader’s office favourites in safe Labour seats. Abbott is a trailblazer, the first Black woman MP and a principled fighter against racism (with exceptions). Most mainstream Labour people think she deserves to be treated with respect.

Starmer held the line. “No decision” had been made, he said. Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) would decide on Tuesday. But suddenly, the leader couldn’t be completely sure that he would have a majority on the NEC. Rayner’s strike had emboldened Alan Campbell, Labour’s chief whip, and Sue Gray, Starmer’s chief of staff, to express their concerns, according to The Times.

On Friday, Starmer caved in. All pretence of an “independent” procedure was cast aside, and the Labour leader said Abbott was “free to go forward”. His people confirmed to journalists that this meant that she would indeed be the Labour candidate in Hackney North and Stoke Newington.

Like a flash of lightning, the retreat reveals a great deal of what we need to know about the Starmer operation. The leader’s own views remain hidden but we know that one reason Labour is doing so well is that he has contracted himself to the Blairites around him, principally Morgan McSweeney, his campaign manager.

That means there is a tension between Starmer’s past beliefs and the factionalism of his agents. Patrick Maguire, who is writing a book on Labour’s path to power, wrote this week that Starmer “had about as much time for Blairite ultras as he did the more bombastic Corbynites” and was “sincere” in seeking unity when he became leader.

But he also chose to delegate party management to precisely those Blairite ultras and “he has never questioned their methods, however controversial, on the biggest calls”.

This is reflected in Starmer’s problem of inauthenticity. In an interview today he tried to sound Blairite about wealth creation, when the Peter Mandelson quotation about being “intensely relaxed” about people making money was put to him: “I’m not just relaxed, I’m relaxed as well as being doggedly determined.” He gave the game away by adding: “It’s not me thinking how we should position the party.” We think he protests too much.

His defeat by Rayner has also exposed the uncertainty of his decision-making, and how he can be pushed around by those who are better judges of the forces in play. For months he couldn’t decide what to do about the £28bn-a-year green borrowing plan, long after Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, had killed it by making it subject to her fiscal rule on debt.

The Conservatives spotted the significance of Rayner’s win immediately, putting out a social media ad of the deputy Labour leader messaging Abbott: “Don’t worry Diane, I’ll sort it.”

It was effective because it was true. Maguire revealed that Rayner had indeed been on the phone to Abbott – and also to Faiza Shaheen, the suspended candidate in Chingford who is threatening to sue the party over her treatment.

But the split at the top of the party won’t have much effect on the election campaign. The Tories hope that Rayner’s unpopularity with a section of the electorate will damage Starmer, but most of the people she is unpopular with would never vote Labour anyway. And the Tories’ campaign to try to label Rayner a tax dodger has blown up in their faces, leaving her strengthened.

However, Rayner’s victory over Starmer will be hugely significant in a Labour government. There had been macho talk among the Blairite “boys” in Starmer’s office of denying her the levelling up and housing department if Labour won the election, and shunting her into a powerless “office of the deputy prime minister”. That is now unlikely to happen.

The “red queen” will wield real power, by virtue of her skilful mobilisation of networks in the wider party, allying herself not just with mainstream opinion among Labour MPs, but with Anas Sarwar, the leader in Scotland, Sadiq Khan in London and Andy Burnham in Manchester – and possibly even with Sue Gray at the heart of No 10.

Rayner likes to compare herself to John Prescott, Tony Blair’s deputy and working-class ballast. That is quite wrong. Prescott was always loyal. Rayner is more like Gordon Brown: constantly harassing the leader, organising against him, positioning himself just to the left of him, and trying to get his job.