Labour staffers are under fire for abuse of power, following the leak of an explosive report into anti-Semitism within the party. The investigation was damning in its description of the activities of some senior officials, including an incident in February 2017 involving Diane Abbott.
Abbott, who was Shadow Home Secretary at the time, has been a consistent target of racist attacks during her time as an MP. The BAME politician had been crying in the toilets of the LEON restaurant in Victoria Street, Westminster, following alleged online abuse from a Conservative councillor on Twitter.
Patrick Heneghan, Executive Director of the Labour Party at the time, informed a Whatsapp group chat of what had happened. Fiona Stanton, the Senior Regional Director replied, “Shall we tell Michael Crick?”. It was at this point that Heneghan told Stanton that he “already had”. Heneghan went on to become the Acting Chief Executive for the People’s Vote campaign, a role he was forced to step down from in 2019 pending an inquiry into allegations that he had “acted inappropriately” towards three female staff members.
Michael Crick, who was Channel 4’s Political Correspondent at the time, has since refuted the allegation via his Twitter account, stating that he was not informed of Abbott “crying in the loo”. The incident came not long after fellow Labour BAME MP Dawn Butler had accused party officials of not taking reports seriously of racially motivated abuse directed at Members of Parliament from ethnic minorities. The report covers this as well, stating that Whatsapp messages suggested that party staff considered Butler’s racism allegations to be untrue.
Informing the press of an intensely private moment for Diane Abbott is somewhat a secondary issue here. After all, Crick’s denial of having been told of her location raises the question of whether Heneghan did relay the information to him after all. What remains the primary issue here is the lack of seriousness with which party officials treated an extremely serious affair. This lack of care for Abbott’s welfare was reflected by a comment made prior to the incident, in which she was described by staffers as making them “feel sick”.
Allegations made by the leaked report have brought to the forefront serious issues about endemic racism within party structures. Questions will be raised as to whether racist abuse can be sufficiently investigated within Labour, considering the fact that the responsibility for probing such claims lies with unelected officials, who in this case were willing to weaponise such an incident due to finding their personal views at odds with the party leadership. Diane Abbott faces enough harassment from adversaries on the right as it is, and it is damning that she faces the same treatment from those within a party that she has fought for for more than three decades.
Political views have clearly impaired the judgement of these staffers, having previously described “anyone left of [Gordon] Brown to be a Trot [sic]”. Having served in a senior capacity under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, it appears obvious that Abbott would fit into this category. Electing a party leader who redefines the traditional view of a Labour figurehead is clearly possible, after all Corbyn was elected twice with thumping majorities on each occasion. Nonetheless, the Labour left has a difficult task ahead: reshaping the non-electoral side of the party machine. With many officials having gained their senior roles under previous leaderships, must party democratisation be on the table to ensure that members’ voices prevail over those of a few party elites?
Regardless of what this means for democratisation of the Labour Party, the attitude of these staffers towards Diane Abbott was utterly unacceptable. Labour must have no place within their structures for those unwillingly to take racism seriously. Hopefully, the new leadership of Keir Starmer will take sufficient action based upon the events of February 2017, amongst the plethora of other issues raised by the leaked report. If not, can BAME people truly consider the Labour Party to be fighting for them?