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Labour and ‘The Purge’: Leadership’s Direction Sparks Revolt Among MPs and Activists

Concerns are increasing that Labour Leader Keir Starmer risks creating a stifling monoculture in the party

Just a handful of left-wing candidates have been selected under Keir Starmer’s leadership. Photo: Peter Byrne/PA/Alamy

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The Labour left has been largely mute since Jeremy Corbyn was barred from standing as a Labour candidate. They walk on thin ice, fearful that a rebellion could lead to mass suspensions – including of socialist MPs. It has, so far, worked out pretty well for the Leader of the Opposition.

But the rumblings of discontent are growing, following a string of moves from Keir Starmer’s office that have, for some, gone a bridge too far.

Last week, Neal Lawson – a Labour Party activist for more than 40 years and a leading figure in the push for cross-party cooperation on the left – received a letter out of the blue. He was being investigated, on the threat of expulsion, apparently over a 2021 tweet in which he dubbed council-level cooperation between the Liberal Democrats and Greens “grown up politics”, sharing a tweet from left-wing Lib Dem MP Layla Moran.

Lawson is the director of Compass, the progressive group that has, for more than 20 years, drawn in ideas from other left-of-centre parties and brought them together. It is perhaps the most prominent manifestation of the late Labour MP Jo Cox’s mantra that we have ‘more in common’ than that which divides us. Since 2011, the group has been open to people of non-Labour parties (disclosure: I’m one of its thousands of members).

Lawson’s backing for progressive alliances is not something new: it has been a project of Compass for much of the past decade, from pushing tactical voting recommendations to endorsing power-sharing at a local level between Labour and others.

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Labour has form for controversial suspensions and the blocking of candidates not in line with the current leadership’s thinking. But even Tony Blair felt no need to block Socialist Campaign Group members, or to isolate and remove those who harbour the pluralist view that Labour does not hold a monopoly on good ideas.

The refusal of party HQ last month to allow left-winger Jamie Driscoll to stand to be North-East Mayor – over his appearance on a platform with ex-Labourite film director Ken Loach – lit the flames of the latest party revolt. But, as parliamentary selection-watcher Michael Crick has noted, small fires had already been burning across the country.

Crick, a respected journalist of many decades, has described the “purge” of Labour candidates conducted by the party’s National Executive Committee. “The Labour Left has been utterly annihilated,” he has said, as has “anybody with a strong trade union background”.

In his view, it has gone so far that “Angela Rayner, Robin Cook and Neil Kinnock would not now be able to gain selection as Labour candidates,” ConservativeHome reported.

Why speak up about it in ConHome, the Conservative bible? Because the lack of ideological breadth in Labour’s intake, should it win a landslide next year, is seen as a threat to the prospect of a reflective, representative government, one that is open to criticism within its own ranks.

Instead, the Labour tent being reduced to the size of a pin could have the effect of reducing the calibre of candidates who could hold safe seats across Britain for the next three decades.

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One left-wing Labour MP told me that the threat of expulsion of Neal Lawson – and others – has sent a clear “pulse” through the party; the sense that the leadership can get rid of who they please. But the shockwaves from this latest move now risk destabilising the project.

“Labour, which has always been a ‘party with socialists in it’ is now losing even that,” the MP said. “There is a sense that everyone within the party feels expendable – even including people like David Lammy and Angela Rayner. The overall atmosphere is grim.”

“You can be kicked out of the party based on trumped-up accusations,” the MP added. “They can find anything on you if they want to get rid of you.”

A Labour spokesperson said that Lawson “hasn’t been expelled”, that he was “served with a notice of allegation seven days ago, putting claims to him that he expressed support for candidates from other parties” and that he has 14 days to respond.

Some Labour MPs have come out fighting for him.

Senior party thinkers including Baroness Ruth Lister and MP Jon Cruddas are directors of Compass, and Lawson told Newsnight that at least four party frontbenchers have approached him offering their support.

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And now John McDonnell, former Shadow Chancellor under Jeremy Corbyn, has spoken out in the strongest terms yet. Supporters of Starmer are “drunk with power” and conducting a purge of the Labour left, the Labour veteran told the BBC.

He has now raised his concerns with the Labour Leader in writing, warning: “If you stumble, these are the people that will come for you.”

“What [Keir Starmer has] allowed to happen is a right-wing faction [has] become drunk with power and use devices within the party almost on a search and destroy of the left,” he told Newsnight. “They seem to be more interested in destroying the presence of the left in the party than getting a Labour government.”

Labour is trapped in a pendulum of party domination – where one clique boots out its opponents only to see the same weapons turned on them again after a few years.

Both Labour and the Conservatives – the latter still suffering from Boris Johnson’s purge of its EU moderates – would do well to remember that, under Westminster’s system, parties are broad churches. Or they are nothing.

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