I want to be an MP for as long as possible, Diane Abbott tells supporters

<span>Abbott was speaking at a rally outside Hackney town hall on Wednesday.</span><span>Photograph: Alishia Abodunde/Getty Images</span>
Abbott was speaking at a rally outside Hackney town hall on Wednesday.Photograph: Alishia Abodunde/Getty Images

Diane Abbott has promised to stay on as an MP for “as long as it is possible”, setting up a clash with Keir Starmer after a deal for her to retire from parliament broke down.

Abbott, the UK’s first female black MP, had been expected to make a “dignified exit” from parliament, after a near 40-year career, in an arrangement in which she was given back the Labour whip after an investigation into comments she made about racism.

The deal appeared to collapse after an unknown Labour source briefed journalists that Abbott would nonetheless be barred from standing again in her Hackney North and Stoke Newington constituency, prompting fury from her allies at her treatment.

Starmer denied on Wednesday that she had been barred. Speaking to supporters outside Hackney town hall in east London, Abbott said she was not going to allow herself to be “intimidated or frightened”.

She continued: “I promise you that, as long as it is possible, I will be the member of parliament for Hackney North and Stoke Newington.” She tweeted earlier on Wednesday that she would be “campaigning for a Labour victory”.

The controversy is the first serious setback in what has been a smooth start to Labour’s campaign to oust the Conservatives, which has featured complaints from the left over internal factionalism.

In what is likely to be seen as another attack on the party’s left, the Brighton Kemptown MP, Lloyd Russell-Moyle, said on Wednesday that he had been suspended by Labour and would not be allowed to stand in the election.

Starmer said no decision had been made about Abbott, who was first elected in 1987. But it has long been assumed that Labour wants the 70-year-old, who was Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow home secretary, to stand down, and is believed to have lined up a potential replacement.

Abbott’s public declaration that she will fight on presents the Labour leadership with a conundrum: allow her to stand again, or forcibly push out a totemic figure in the party who Starmer has described as a “trailblazer”.

Sources said that before the leak about her being barred, Abbott had indicated she was willing to step down and had discussed the choreography of her announcement with the party, as she was nervous that her departure could be characterised as part of a purge of the Labour left.

The Guardian has been told that Abbott received a letter from the Labour chief whip, Alan Campbell, confirming the whip had been restored and reassuring her that she could make what was described as a “dignified exit”.

She was also said to have had a meeting with Starmer’s political director on Wednesday morning, hours before journalists were briefed that she had been barred from standing again. It is understood that she feels the Labour leadership has gone back on the deal.

The anonymous briefing has plunged the reinstatement process into chaos, prompting Abbot to declare herself dismayed, while a series of Labour MPs and others criticised the way she had been treated.

On Wednesday evening Corbyn spoke in support of Abbott as he declared that democracy was not “about shutting down dissent [and] silencing people who disagree”.

Speaking at the launch for his campaign to become the independent MP for Islington North, after he was blocked from being Labour’s candidate, Corbyn said: “Democracy within parties as well as within communities is an important part of our lives. Democracy isn’t just about how you vote every four or five years. It is about your right to speak, your right to know, your right to organise, your right to dissent. It’s not about shutting down dissent, silencing people who disagree.”

He said that democracy in his constituency had been “denied”, adding: “Islington North Labour members were denied any vote to decide who their MP is or who their candidate is. If you shut down the voice of people, that democratic voice, then you’ve got problems. The problems are people don’t like it.”

Asked whether he believed Starmer was trying to purge the left of the Labour party, the former leader said: “It looks like it.”

Late on Wednesday night, Labour imposed several Starmer loyalists to fight the election as candidates in safe seats, a number of whom have been crucial to the leadership’s political project and to internal changes to the party.

They include Josh Simons, the director of the Starmerite thinktank Labour Together, in Makerfield; Luke Akehurst, a Labour national executive committee member who was a key organiser against Corbyn’s leadership, in North Durham; Heather Iqbal, a former adviser to Rachel Reeves, in Dewsbury; and Georgia Gould, the leader of Camden council, who will stand in Queen’s Park and Maida Vale. The political journalist Paul Waugh was selected to fight George Galloway in Rochdale.

Labour also deselected academic Faiza Shaheen in Chingford and Woodford Green. She was one of the few remaining candidates on the left who had been a strong supporter of Corbyn.

Shaheen told Newsnight she was in a “state of shock” at the decision, having fought the seat in 2019, and said she had had to attend a last-minute NEC panel yesterday with her newborn baby.

She apologised for liking tweets about the influence of the Israel lobby, which she admitted could be interpreted as an antisemitic trope, but said she had only watched the Jon Stewart clip in the tweet and not read the caption.

In a statement, Russell-Moyle, who has been an MP since 2017, said a complaint had been made about him that he believed to be “vexatious and politically motivated”, and which he denied, meaning he had been suspended from the party.

“There isn’t enough time to defend myself as these processes within the party take too long, so the party have told me that I will not be eligible to be a candidate at the next election,” he said, adding: “I’m gutted.”

Labour confirmed he had been suspended. A spokesperson said the party “takes all complaints extremely seriously and they are fully investigated in line with our rules and procedures”.

On Abbott’s case, Simon Woolley, the campaigner and co-founder of Operation Black Vote, said Labour had “about 48 hours to get this right”. He told the BBC: “I think they’re in danger of not only disrespecting one of the most popular MPs in modern times, but also if they get this disrespectfully wrong, it’ll also be a slap in the face for Britain’s African and Caribbean communities.”

The Runnymede Trust charity, which campaigns for racial justice, called the treatment of Abbott “abhorrent”. A group of six Labour-affiliated trade unions, including Unite, wrote a joint letter to Starmer demanding she be allowed to stand again, as did a series of MPs from the left of the party.

Abbott was suspended from the party last year after writing a letter to the Observer saying that Jewish people and Travellers suffered prejudice but not racism, comparing their experiences to those of people with red hair.

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