Labour treatment of Abbott having impact on voters, senior lawyer says

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A senior lawyer who investigated claims of racism within Labour said the party was “underestimating” the impact its treatment of Diane Abbott and Faiza Shaheen was having on voters.

Martin Forde KC was appointed by Keir Starmer to investigate allegations of sexism, racism and bullying in the Labour party after explosive allegations were made about the party’s handling of antisemitism claims under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.

The 138-page Forde report, published in 2022, accused Labour of operating with a perception of a “hierarchy of racism or of discrimination” and found antisemitism was often used a “factional weapon” by Corbyn’s critics and denied by his supporters.

In an interview with the Guardian, the barrister said there continued to be a perception that complaints against some Labour figures were treated more seriously than others.

“There is still very much a feeling that if you step out of line as a black MP or councillor you get the book thrown at you,” he said. “If you do so as a right-leaning supporter of the current leader, you’ll be treated more leniently.

“Now, I can’t tell you that that quantitatively stacks up but I still feel that even if people have that perception … it’s their prospective voters coming to me, as an individual, saying: ‘I don’t feel I have a political home, I’m disgusted by the way [Abbott] is being treated’”.

Abbott accused the party of carrying out a “cull of leftwingers” after media reports suggested she and others would be barred from standing as a Labour candidate in the general election.

The deputy leader, Angela Rayner, said the veteran MP had not been treated “fairly or appropriately” by colleagues and should be allowed to stand for Labour again. Rayner denied claims that only leftwing candidates had been blocked.

Shaheen, the candidate barred by Labour from standing in the Chingford and Woodford Green constituency, said she intends to challenge the decision, claiming she has faced “a systematic campaign of racism, Islamophobia and bullying”.

Commenting on the treatment of Abbott and Shaheen, Forde said: “It makes, I think, women of colour, both in terms of those that aspire to be politicians and those who are prospective voters, feel they are being taken for granted. I’ve had loads of messages in the last two days from people saying: ‘I have no political home if they are going to treat Diane Abbott like this.’

“What surprises me is if you reel off those names, Rupa Huq, Apsana Begum, Kate Osamor and Diane Abbott, there’s a commonality about them: they are women of colour who say they have longstanding grievances with the party and I’m just concerned that the party is underestimating … the impact of this.”

Abbott, the UK’s first black female MP, was given back the Labour whip on Tuesday after a six-month investigation into her conduct and four months after she completed antisemitism training following her suspension.

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Abbott was suspended last year after writing a letter for the Observer in which she downplayed racism against Irish, Jewish and Traveller people. Rupa Huq was reinstated as a Labour MP last year after she apologised for describing Kwasi Kwarteng as “superficially black” at a Labour party fringe event.

Forde said: “There’s a lack of transparency, there’s a lack of consistency which then allows people, rightly or wrongly, to say this is a biased system, and I just feel the fairer, the more transparent and consistent the system is, the more faith people will have in it.

“I have no reason to think there is any less racism within this political party than any other because I think racism is endemic in the UK … but I think if you are going to position yourself as the party of diversity and inclusion, you need to be in the vanguard of change, as squeaky clean as you can be.”

The shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Darren Jones, denied claims that the party’s decisions on Abbott and Shaheen were made on a factional basis.

“I don’t think that’s true,” he told Times Radio on Thursday. “I mean, there are many colleagues of mine in the parliamentary Labour party who would define themselves as being on the left who are endorsed Labour party candidates standing in their constituency.”


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