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Starmer denies Diane Abbott barred from standing for Labour at election

Keir Starmer has denied that Diane Abbott has been banned from standing as a Labour MP at the next election, as the saga over the potential end to her 40-year career in the party risked descending into chaos.

The Labour leader’s comments directly contradicted newspaper briefings that the Hackney North and Stoke Newington MP, who was suspended from the party in April 2023 for comments she made about racism, was being barred from standing again.

Abbott, the first black woman to be elected to the British parliament, then issued a statement on Wednesday morning saying she had been handed back the Labour whip after a months-long investigation into her conduct, but would not be allowed to stand as a Labour candidate.

The decision by Labour, and in particular the way it was leaked, seemingly to prevent Abbott from having the choice of stepping down on her own terms, prompted a significant backlash, with the Runnymede Trust charity, which campaigns for racial justice, calling her treatment “abhorrent”.

However, when Starmer was asked about Abbott during a visit to a medical training college on Wednesday, he said it was “not true” she had been barred.

“No decision has been taken to bar Diane Abbott,” he said. “The process that we were going through ended with the restoration of the whip the other day, so she’s a member of the parliamentary Labour party and no decision has been taken barring her.”

Asked who the candidate in Hackney South and Stoke Newington would be, Starmer said that had not yet been decided.

“It’s ultimately a decision for the national executive committee on all candidates. There will be a decision in due course, but they haven’t taken that decision, though. Stories this morning were wrong, factually inaccurate. She has not been banned or barred from standing.”

According to the BBC, Abbott said: “Although the whip has been restored, I am banned [from] standing as a Labour candidate.”

Separately, Abbott said on X she was “dismayed” that reports overnight suggested she was being barred as a candidate, reflecting a chaotic 24 hours in which her political future hung in the balance.

She appeared to suggest she would not stand as an independent candidate to challenge Labour, tweeting: “Naturally I am delighted to have the Labour whip restored and to be a member of the PLP. Thank you to all those who supported me along the way. I will be campaigning for a Labour victory.”

Abbott did not respond to a request to comment further.

Her allies had previously said she had not been informed of a reported decision to ban her from standing as a Labour candidate. Reports on Wednesday suggested she had wanted to announce her own retirement but was caught off guard by a story in the Times saying she would be barred from standing for Labour.

The way the apparent decision was leaked prompted condemnation, with a group of six trade unions, including Unite, writing a joint letter to Starmer demanding she be allowed to stand in the seat she has represented since 1987.

Martin Forde, the barrister who led a report into allegations of racism in Labour, told Times Radio he believed the situation was “utterly shambolic” and that the lack of transparency was “deeply disturbing”.

Abbott was suspended from the party last year after writing a letter to the Observer that appeared to play down racism against Jewish people. In it she argued that minority ethnic groups such as Jewish people and Gypsy, Romany and Traveller people faced similar levels of prejudice to people with red hair.

Abbott apologised for her remarks, was placed under investigation and lost the Labour whip.

Starmer raised some hope among Abbott’s allies when he defended her this year after the Guardian revealed she had been the subject of racist remarks by the Conservatives’ biggest donor, Frank Hester.

The Labour leader praised Abbott at the time as a “trailblazer”, adding: “She has probably faced more abuse than any other politician over the years on a sustained basis.”

Abbott’s friends were dismayed that she did not get the whip back in the subsequent weeks.

Starmer said this week that the investigation into her conduct was continuing. But it emerged on Tuesday it had concluded in December, with Abbott being told to complete an online antisemitism training course in February.