Keir Starmer’s sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey was both opportunistic and profoundly ideological. It enabled him to identify himself with western imperialism’s support for Israel and simultaneously to distance himself from the Left in the Labour Party and trade union resistance to the Tories. The pretext for the sacking was spurious, but symbolic. By no stretch of the imagination could Long-Bailey have been guilty of furthering “antisemitic conspiracy theories” by re-Tweeting an interview with the actor Maxine Peake. But the symbolism is clear in the linking of any implied criticism of Israel with antisemitism, and is a nod in the direction of groups such as the Jewish Labour Movement and the British Board of Deputies, which had been in the forefront of the accusations of Labour antisemitism.
Additionally, in the context of Israel’s threat to further annex parts of the West Bank he was throwing the Palestinians under the bus, in effect negating Labour’s support for their rights as agreed at the 2019 conference. There was a further and perhaps more significant reason for the sacking. As Ronan Burtenshaw has pointed out in a Tribune article, Starmer has been systematically undermining Long-Bailey in her role as shadow education minister.
He was clearly unhappy with the way in which she had supported the National Education Union’s five tests for the safe re-opening of schools, and regarded this stance as being at odds with his determination to be generally supportive of the Tories’ Covid-19 strategy. Long-Bailey, a long-time supporter of Jeremy Corbyn and an opponent of Starmer’s in the leadership election, was seen to be too close to the teachers’ union and its successful opposition to government plans.
Starmer has sent a clear signal that any vestiges of the Corbyn leadership will be erased and any opposition from the left will be squashed.
This is consistent with the exhortations of Polly Toynbee, a prominent right-wing Labour commentator whose ability to rewrite history is breath-taking. Not many months ago she was lauding Labour’s redistributive economic policy under Corbyn and describing his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, as “bestriding the world like a colossus”. Now she is arguing that Labour under Starmer has to junk the ‘Corbyn legacy’. In the process, she exposes her longstanding hostility to any effective union action by falsely accusing the education unions of keeping schools closed, and chiding Starmer for not being critical enough of them. She further argues that he needs his own ‘Clause Four’ moment by, for example, ending the re-selection process for MPs.
This comes in the context of different groups in the Labour Party continuing their postmortems on the election defeat. There are competing explanations of this disaster. Toynbee chooses to refer to one in particular, Labour Together’s, which has produced a superficially substantial analysis, but one in which crucial questions are left unanswered. It acknowledges the fact that the decline in the Labour vote in post-industrial towns has deep roots stretching back over the past two decades.
But it fails to address the fact that Labour has been in control of local councils implementing austerity in areas where many of the votes have been lost. To these voters Labour is seen as the political establishment and has been punished accordingly. It points to the scale of Labour’s task in the future, noting that to achieve a majority in parliament it needs to win an additional 123 seats, a tall order particularly when it acknowledges that 58 existing seats are held by slim majorities.
But instead of arguing for a strategy to address this mammoth task it provides nothing more than platitudes and evasions. It acknowledges that Brexit was a key factor in the defeat but fails to examine the reasons for Labour’s fudge on the issue. ‘Get Brexit Done’ was a simple Tory message and contrasted with Labour’s “campaign for Remain in the face of a Tory or no-deal Brexit, as well as agreeing to a second referendum on any deal that Labour could negotiate”. This was a negation of Labour’s 2017 position of respecting the 2016 referendum. There is no acknowledgement in the report that the principle architect of this self-destructive position was Keir Starmer, and there is no attempt to articulate a credible future position except to say that it is a matter for the leader and his team.
The report also acknowledges the problems of factionalism and disunity in the party prior to and during the election, but fails to identify the source of this problem. Corbyn had faced four years of attempted sabotage from the Parliamentary Labour Party and the full-time party apparatus. There were mass resignations from his first shadow cabinet, Starmer among them, and a 197-40 vote of no confidence in Corbyn from the PLP in 2016.
The scale of the abuse and obstruction from senior Labour staff was dealt with in detail in the June 2020 issue of Socialist Review, but there is no mention of it in the ‘Labour Together’ analysis and no honest accounting of the real source of “factionalism and division”. This, the report argues, was compounded by antisemitism allegations and the way in which they were used to undermine Labour, but it fails to nail the false depiction of Corbyn as a racist and antisemite and the way this allegation was propagated by the Labour Right. In fact, at least one contributing group to the report, Progress, was in the forefront of perpetuating these slurs.
It acknowledges that Scotland presents a massive problem given the almost total collapse of Labour’s vote to the SNP, but the ‘solution’ to this problem is to reaffirm Labour’s opposition to a new independence referendum when all the polls show increased support for one.
The overall effect of the report is to give ammunition to the right while pretending to favour a broad church and a commitment to building a movement that can deliver “real change, particularly on the economy”. Toynbee and others clearly prefer the interpretation that puts the blame for election defeat primarily on Corbyn’s leadership and provides the impetus for Starmer to junk his predecessor’s legacy. Acting as the ‘loyal opposition’, even in the face of Johnson’s lethal ineptitude and various Tories’ crises, Starmer’s Labour adopts increasingly right-wing positions. Declaring the toppling of the statue of Colston, the Bristol slaver, as “completely unacceptable” and expressing support for jail sentences up to 10 years for perpetrators of similar acts indicates a clear direction of travel.
This has been compounded by a refusal to take advantage of the Tories’ incompetence over Covid-19 — even to the extent of supporting a reduction in the two-metre rule. This is consistent with its initial response to the crisis which focussed on an ‘exit’ strategy rather than an effective response to the spread of the virus. If we add to this the embarrassing spectacle of Starmer taking the knee in the privacy of his office instead of a more public and collaborative demonstration of solidarity it is clear where Labour is headed.
Many genuine socialists in the Labour Party have nevertheless argued strongly that the only strategy for the left is to stay in and try win back control. ‘Don’t Leave Organise’ is the slogan of one such grouping. But even under Corbyn’s leadership the left failed to take effective control of the party apparatus, and Starmer is bent on taking it even further out of their grasp.
That trajectory is not going to be halted easily. In a period of heightened political volatility with the Tories in disarray the opportunities to engage with the key issues of Black Lives Matter and the impact of Covid-19 lie primarily in the mass movements of resistance. It is these movements that provide socialists with a more favourable terrain of struggle than internal Labour Party conflicts.
When Starmer elicits this response from Boris Johnson in response to his support for further lifting the restrictions of the lockdown Labour members may well wonder where the real opposition is coming from. “It is good to have his support on that matter (the re-opening of schools). I welcome the spirit and the manner in which he has responded to this statement today”. No further comment is necessary.