Keir Starmer’s Squeeze of the Left is a Worrying Sign of Things to Come
The Labour Leader is seeking to rebuild the party as an increasingly narrow church, argues his former advisor Simon Fletcher
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With the prospect of a general election looming, in which Labour is now the clear favourite, the party is embarked in an increasingly bitter internal war over its process of selecting candidates.
Last week, 13 members of the Sedgefield Labour Party executive resigned amid accusations of a “stitch-up” to select the constituency’s parliamentary candidate in favour of one hopeful. Rows have also been exploding over blocked candidates in places like Stroud, Wakefield, and Hastings and Rye.
On Saturday, a black left-wing candidate in Harriet Harman’s seat of Camberwell and Peckham, Maurice McLeod, was blocked from the party’s longlist in the constituency. Now, Emma Dent Coad, the former MP for Kensington and Chelsea – and leader of the Labour group on the local council – has been prevented from standing for selection in her former seat.
It may be getting closer to government, but Labour’s never-ending war shows no sign of making way for unity.
Keir Starmer was elected Labour Leader on a promise to end factionalism. Instead, his leadership has been dominated by command and control. A sense of injustice is growing within the party, as machine politics cuts through local concerns.
In many cases, there is a feeling that longlists and shortlists are being manipulated to a degree never seen before, to make the terrain as safe as possible for candidates favoured by the Labour Leader’s office. While that is not always possible in every selection, the complaint is rife.
Julie Gibson – a senior local Labour councillor, postal worker and trade unionist – was excluded from the shortlist for the West Lancashire by-election. In Hastings and Rye, Labour blocked both the left’s candidate Maya Evans and also Bella Sankey, a human rights campaigner, formerly of Liberty and Reprieve.
After Camberwell and Peckham, two members of Labour’s frontbench went public with their concern about the process. Shadow Paymaster General Fleur Anderson and Parliamentary Private Secretary Flo Eshalomi maintained that party members should have been allowed to decide. Both MPs nominated Keir Starmer to be Labour Leader.
On top of the selections controversy, the saga of deselection rumbles on, with some sitting left-wing Labour MPs faced with a battle over their position.
Liverpool West Derby MP Ian Byrne is now the subject of a reselection fight. The case of Apsana Begum, MP for Poplar and Limehouse, is extremely disquieting. “I can’t think of any circumstance where it would be acceptable,” she has said, of the party’s decision to continue the selection trigger process while she was signed off sick from work.
Numerous complaints have been submitted about her treatment but Labour stands accused of having abandoned its duty of care towards her. The widely-held view on the left is that, if Begum were not a member of the left-wing Socialist Campaign Group of MPs, the party’s response would have been completely different.
While Sam Tarry was deselected in Ilford South, other fellow members of the campaign group have been reselected. In the same week as Tarry’s defeat, the left MP for Coventry South, Zarah Sultana, completed her reselection with a unanimous set of nominations.
What really stands out in the case of Ilford South was the aggressive posture of those who wanted Tarry gone. The finger-pointing and gloating of senior Labour sources in briefings to the media were directed not only at the Labour left but senior ‘soft left’ Shadow Cabinet figures too.
It revealed a problematic culture that is flourishing under the present leadership. The Times’ Patrick Maguire reported that his WhatsApp “was ablaze with crowing Starmerites last night”, the morning after the result.
Several journalists reported being briefed by a senior Labour source who singled out Labour MPs who had supported Sam Tarry for particular opprobrium. One former senior party aide, not on the left, told me: “I want a Labour government with the same passion as I did in 1997, having lived too much of my life under a Tory Government – but I hate this side of politics. Factional, nasty, macho and unnecessary.”
The MPs who supported Tarry were not restricted to the socialist campaign group. They included the former leader of the party, Ed Miliband.
Miliband has been on the receiving end of sustained negative briefings to the press himself. “Three names recur when senior Labour figures air their grievances with Starmer’s operation”, reported The Times, after a Labour HQ reorganisation was announced last week. One of those names was Miliband’s.
A row over Labour’s conference slogan was, according to the newspaper, “symptomatic of more significant tensions over the party’s economic policy and the influence of Miliband”.
Miliband has never been forgiven by some New Labour figures for defeating David Miliband. But that historic grievance has dovetailed with a newer sin – that since he ceased to be leader, Miliband has his own base and an openness to ideas that is regarded as unsound by many on the party’s right.
Within what might be called ‘Starmerism’, there is a grouping that insists on political purity and adherence to the traditional viewpoint espoused by those like Peter Mandelson. It is not much interested in the views of those who deviate from its orthodoxies, even if that includes senior Shadow Cabinet members – up to and including the former leader. Where this group is strongest is in its grip of the machinery that oversees disciplinary matters and selections.
Many Labour people in Westminster see this group as not terribly invested in Starmer himself but loyal to their own project. Of course, there is a big problem with this theory – which is that however far the machine group has its own political dynamic, it is undeniable that Keir Starmer’s leadership has deployed it as an instrument of party regulation, so that its behaviour has now become one of the defining characteristics of Starmerism.
As a result, Labour’s leadership is consciously remaking the parliamentary party through the present round of selections, at the behest of the Leader’s office. Under the guise of ‘due diligence’, many now believe that the real litmus test is who a candidate would nominate in a hypothetical leadership election. If the answer is that they could not be relied on to back somebody like the Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting, they will be seen as unsound.
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One reason that Labour’s candidate selections have become a flashpoint is because the central party has granted itself greater powers to determine the outcome of the longlisting and shortlisting of parliamentary candidates. That process is being used to assist centrally-favoured candidates against people coming from quite wide strands of opinion.
No one should be so naïve as to believe that the political ups and downs of the internal life of the Labour Party can, or should, be eliminated. They do however go through differing degrees of intensity. A question for the leadership of any party is how far it wants this divisive culture to predominate.
Labour’s infighting can seem very distant from the interests of the wider public. But the party’s internal culture should be of interest to anyone who wants to know what a Keir Starmer-led government would be like. An ethos of command and control can harden in office to the detriment of legitimately-held differences of opinion about major issues of policy. And narrowing the composition of the next generation of Labour MPs so that many more of them are hand-picked from the centre will tend to cut the parliamentary party off from people, movements and ideas at the sharp end of the multiple crises a Labour government will face.
Taken as a whole, the range of forces affected by the new machine politics is now very large. The left, the soft left, the affiliated trade unions and numerous local constituency activists, have now all felt the extent of the reach of the party’s centralised machine. The only question is whether a sufficiently powerful movement will evolve to constrain it.
Simon Fletcher was campaigns and elections advisor to Keir Starmer until 2021 and previously worked as a senior advisor to both Jeremy Corbyn and Ed Miliband