(Bloomberg) -- Keir Starmer’s purge of the left wing of his Labour Party has had a single, laser-focused aim: to make Britain’s opposition electable again after more than a decade in the cold. But an escalating row over the treatment of the UK’s first Black woman MP risks undermining his control of the UK election campaign. 

On the face of it, Starmer’s reforms have restored his party’s fortunes, leading to a string of by-election victories on historic swings from Rishi Sunak’s governing Conservatives and a polling lead around 20 points in recent surveys. That suggests the Labour leader is firmly on his way to enter Downing Street as prime minister after the July 4 general election. 

But the uncertainty surrounding whether Diane Abbott will be allowed to defend the London seat she’s represented since 1987 — the BBC and other outlets reported she’s been blocked from doing so — as well as the last-minute removal of Faiza Shaheen, a left-wing Muslim, as a candidate in north east London — has already dented morale among party activists, including in the center of the party. 

That’s proving an unwelcome distraction for the Labour leadership — which denies barring Abbott — and a first major “wobble” of the campaign. Starmer’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“Labour have gotten themselves into a terrible mess,” Ed Balls, a former minister in the Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown said on his Political Currency podcast. Abbott “has been a pioneering Labour woman MP going back over 40 years. On what basis could they possibly say, ‘but we’ve now decided you can’t stand’ other than because of totally factional reasons?”

Starmer told BBC radio on Friday that “no decision has been taken to bar her from standing,” but refused to say if he would personally like Abbott to be the Labour candidate in Hackney North and Stoke Newington, saying it was a decision for the party’s governing body.  

There’s also a sense for Labour that a dearth of new policy announcements in the campaign so far has left the British media to fill the vacuum with stories about internal party ructions. The Abbott saga featured on the front pages of papers including The Times, The Telegraph and The Guardian on Thursday, as well as leading broadcast bulletins on Wednesday. 

Shaheen, meanwhile, told the BBC she found out about her de-selection — over comments she had ‘liked’ on social media — through the press, having thrown herself into campaigning just weeks after giving birth. 

Shaheen had been hoping win the Chingford and Wood Green seat held by former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, after slashing his margin of victory in half at the last vote in 2019.

One Labour aide said the treatment of Shaheen in particular has made them consider canceling their party membership after the election campaign. Another said they couldn’t bring themselves to watch the former candidate’s BBC interview on Wednesday because it would have also made them want to resign from the party. 

Neither aide sits on the left of the Labour party associated with Abbott and former leader Jeremy Corbyn — who Starmer made clear months ago wouldn’t be allowed to stand again in his seat neighboring Abbott’s. Both aides requested anonymity discussing sensitive matters.

A number of activists have told Labour women’s groups that they will no longer campaign for the party after the treatment of Abbott, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke anonymously about internal party divisions.

Labour ministers and aides have also long complained of Starmer’s male-dominated office. Two described the handling of the selection process as brutal and injecting fear among Labour MPs to not upset the leadership. One said that Morgan McSweeney — Starmer’s campaign manager — is seizing his last month of power to install loyalists into safe parliamentary seats, because his influence will switch to Chief of Staff Sue Gray if Labour enter Number 10. 

The row exposes the cost of Starmer’s efforts to replace more left-wing candidates with his allies. One Labour activist said the strategy is geared toward creating a parliamentary party stacked with loyal Starmerites dedicated to his project after the election. That would allow him to push through legislation more easily if he only wins a small majority in parliament.

But on the flipside, the aggression with which the party is purging long-standing candidates is destabilizing Labour’s core support and causing unease within the shadow cabinet: On Thursday, Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner sought to defuse the row by saying Abbott should be allowed to stand again in the July 4 general election, suggesting a split at the top of the party.

One shadow cabinet adviser said Rayner has chosen to go on the offensive by defending the left of the party that she’s associated with. Bloomberg reported in March that Rayner plans to establish a powerful new department at the core of UK government to shore up her position — a move that has the potential to cause tension with Starmer in government.

Abbott, 70, was readmitted to the Parliamentary Labour Party this week, more than a year after being suspended for writing a letter to the Observer newspaper saying Jewish people do not face the same form of racism as Black people. After she was reinstated, there was speculation Labour wanted an elaborate choreography where Abbott would be welcomed back before announcing her retirement. But if that was the plan, anonymous briefings that she wouldn’t be allowed to stand scuppered it.

“The whole thing has been unedifying,” said Jess Phillips, a Labour centrist. “Diane should be allowed to stand.”

(Adds comment from Starmer in the sixth paragraph.)

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