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John McDonnell and Diane Abbott pull out of Stop the War rally | Labour

Labour backbenchers including John McDonnell and Diane Abbott have pulled out of attending a Stop the War rally in London on Wednesday amid pressure from Keir Starmer over the group’s stance on Ukraine.

The Labour leader told his party’s MPs on Monday there was “no place” in the party for anyone drawing a “false equivalence” between the actions of Nato and those of Moscow.

Labour sources had suggested that if backbenchers made any comments at the Wednesday evening rally that were critical of Nato or sought to blame the western alliance for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it could lead to the whip being withdrawn.

McDonnell, the former shadow chancellor, subsequently released a statement saying he would not attend the event at Conway Hall in London despite being listed as a speaker.

“People are dying on the streets of Ukrainian cities. This is not the time to be distracted by political arguments here,” he told the website LabourList. “Nothing is more important at this time. Nothing should distract us from that. So I won’t feed into that distraction by going tonight.”

Abbott, the former shadow home secretary, told the Guardian she would not be attending either.

During the event, a man waving a Ukrainian flag interrupted the end of Jeremy Corbyn’s speech. The man was then forcibly removed from Conway Hall.

Some leftwing Labour MPs believe Starmer is seeking a pretext to suspend them from the party, and are keen not to hand him any opportunity to do so. McDonnell said it was important for socialists to “stay on the pitch for as long as it takes”.

McDonnell and Abbott were among 11 Labour backbenchers who yielded to pressure from the party’s chief whip last week and withdrew their names from a Stop the War motion urging Nato to “call a halt to its eastward expansion” and accusing the UK government of “sabre-rattling” over Ukraine.

Starmer is keen to press home the shift in Labour’s approach to foreign affairs since he took over from Corbyn a year ago. He has offered staunch support to the government over Ukraine while pushing for tougher action on sanctions.

The Labour leader used a Guardian article last month to attack Stop the War, in which Corbyn continues to play a prominent role, effectively accusing the group of siding with Russia.

“At best they are naive, at worst they actively give succour to authoritarian leaders who directly threaten democracies. There is nothing progressive in showing solidarity with the aggressor,” Starmer wrote.

A Labour spokesperson said: “Keir Starmer has set out the position of the Labour party and that is the position we expect every Labour MP to follow.”

Asked whether Stop the War could be proscribed by the party, so that Labour members would effectively be banned from supporting it, he added: “That would be a matter for the national executive committee.”

Andrew Murray, deputy president of Stop the War alongside Corbyn, condemned the approach, saying: “Keir Starmer’s authoritarian fear of Stop the War demeans him and the Labour party, not us. We have been proved right on Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya where Labour leaders were wrong. We are right in demanding de-escalation in Ukraine too, including immediate Russian troop withdrawal and a halt to Nato expansion.”

Corbyn still has the whip suspended over his reaction to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s critical report on Labour’s handling of antisemitism complaints under his leadership. He now sits as an independent and unless Starmer restores the whip will not be allowed to stand as a Labour candidate at the next general election.

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