Keir Starmer flagged up his intention to block Jeremy Corbyn from running as a Labour candidate in the next general election well in advance. However, when the move finally came on Tuesday of this week, Starmer’s modus operandi was even shabbier than we might have expected.
A motion that Starmer brought before Labour’s national executive discarded all the usual charges against Corbyn from his inner-party opponents. There wasn’t a single word about the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report of 2020, Corbyn’s response to it, or the issue of antisemitism in general.
We can only take this as a backhanded confession of failure from Starmer and his associates. After years of intense scrutiny and high-octane rhetoric about Corbyn’s supposed moral failings, they were unable to find anything — literally anything — that they could use in a motion that had to be fireproofed against a possible legal challenge.
The campaign against Corbyn is a low-grade political B movie that might aptly be called The Incredible Shrinking Narrative. First the EHRC report made no mention of the Panorama documentary episode “Is Labour Antisemitic?” that was supposed to constitute a damning indictment of Corbyn’s leadership. Now the motion to exclude Corbyn makes no mention of the Panorama allegations or the EHRC report. When it comes to the crunch, there’s no there there — at least not when you might have to defend your accusations in a court of law.
The only reason Starmer offered for blocking his predecessor’s candidacy was the fact that he led Labour to an electoral defeat in 2019. Corbyn’s real offense in the eyes of the Labour Party’s right-wing tendency came much earlier than that, when he led the party to a surprising breakthrough in the 2017 general election. Starmer is holding Corbyn responsible for an outcome that his own factional allies worked frantically to bring about so they could regain control of the party.
In order to break up the 2017 advance, it was necessary to launch a multipronged assault. Egged on by Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson, some of the Labour officials who had responded with horror to the 2017 result went on national television to present a story about the handling of antisemitism complaints under Corbyn that was, in the words of Martin Forde, “wholly misleading.”
The main priority for Watson, Peter Mandelson, and their associates during the same period was to use an entirely cynical form of anti-Brexit maximalism to drive a wedge between different segments of the Labour electorate. They got precisely what they wanted in December 2019 when Labour’s vote share in the Leave-voting constituencies of northern England, Wales, and the Midlands dropped from 50 to 39 percent, costing the party fifty seats.
There was an immediate push after the 2019 election to deny that Labour’s newly minted Brexit policy was responsible for these losses. This was particularly important for Starmer, who had insisted upon the need for that policy every bit as stridently as Watson, Mandelson, and the People’s Vote campaign.
However, Starmer tacitly conceded that his Brexit strategy was a fiasco for Labour by ditching it as soon as he became leader. Having invested so much energy in the push for a second referendum on Britain’s EU membership, Starmer ended up whipping Labour MPs to support Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal.
He is still ruling out any move toward greater participation in the European single market or the customs union, all in the name of winning back former Labour voters in the semi-mythical “red wall.” This is not the behavior of a man who believes that Corbyn was the main problem for Labour in 2019.
Shock and Awe
Negative perceptions of Corbyn did play a significant role in Labour’s defeat when combined with the toxicity of Starmer’s preferred line on Brexit. But those perceptions were often detached from reality to a staggering degree.
Starmer’s director of strategy Deborah Mattinson conducted focus groups in the lost constituencies after the 2019 defeat and published the results in a book called Beyond the Red Wall. The book cited comments such as those made by a woman who described Corbyn as a “terrorist” who would “betray us.” To be clear, the woman did not claim that the leader of Britain’s main opposition party might be soft on terrorism — she insisted that he was himself a terrorist, presumably armed with a gun or an explosive device of some kind as he went about his business.
Mattinson simply described this as an example of “patriotic” sentiment among Labour’s former supporters, instead of asking why such lurid fantasies had gained traction. It is the way you would expect people to describe an opposition politician in an authoritarian state, not a functioning liberal democracy. One obvious factor behind it was the inflammatory rhetoric of Labour’s own MPs.
In the immediate wake of the 2019 election, Andy Beckett noted that Labour’s performance, however disappointing it might be, was still better in terms of vote share than those of 2010 or 2015. The demographic slant of its electorate also put Labour in a much stronger position for the future than had been the case in 1983, when the Conservative Party had also won a landslide victory:
According to the Conservative pollster Michael Ashcroft, last week Labour received almost three times as many votes from the under-35s as the Tories. In 1983, the Tories led Labour comfortably in this group. Then, Margaret Thatcher’s party often seemed more modern than Labour, offering a vision of an individualistic, competitive country, which many young people liked. There was an intellectual ferment on the right, which for years had been producing fresh policy ideas.
Few people would say these things about the Tories now. In 2019, their almost content-free manifesto, and massive reliance on older voters, were highly effective as election tactics. Yet, like the airy promises to increase state spending in today’s Queen’s speech, they are also signs of a party with questionable long-term prospects. By contrast, Labour’s youthful support, and policies addressing what are by common consent the biggest contemporary issues — the climate emergency, the inadequacies of the modern economy and Britain’s proliferating social crises — suggest a party with the potential to do much better at future elections.
It was precisely because they wanted to avoid such thoughtful reflection upon the 2019 result and the way ahead that the Labour right launched a shock-and-awe campaign of factional warfare as soon as they regained control of the party machine. Corbyn’s suspension as a Labour MP was just the tip of the iceberg in that regard.
The Powers of Conversion
What does the left-wing current that rose to a position of unprecedented influence under Corbyn propose to do about Starmer’s long-heralded move? The immediate reaction of Corbyn’s ally John McDonnell was an exercise in wishful thinking: “I am a great believer in the powers of conversion, and I think we can reverse this decision, full stop.”
The Momentum founder Jon Lansman dispensed with the illusion that Starmer could be persuaded to change his mind. According to Lansman, Corbyn’s exclusion from the Parliamentary Labour Party was “an act of factionally motivated victimization” against a man who should form “a necessary and desirable part of Labour’s coalition.” Yet he insisted there was nothing that could or should be done about it, whether by Corbyn or anyone else:
I am sorry that Jeremy Corbyn has been victimised and now has a choice to make about his future. We can assume that he will not be a Labour MP after the next election. He could do as Tony Benn did — to retire from parliament at the next election to devote more time to politics. As a Labour Party member and — unlike Tony Benn — as a former Labour leader, he would continue to be able to speak out on anything he chooses and would have far greater weight than any backbench independent MP lucky enough to be elected would ever have.
I very much hope that he follows Tony Benn’s course of action rather than standing as an independent against the Labour Party when we all want a Labour government. I imagine that is what every Socialist Campaign Group MP would like him to do since, apart from any other consideration, they wish to remain Labour MPs. The alternative is probably that thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of Labour Party members will be expelled for supporting an independent parliamentary candidate in Islington North. That, of course, is what members of the faction that Keir Starmer has put in charge of running the Labour Party on his watch are hoping for.
This argument replaces one comforting fable with another. The far-fetched idea that Corbyn can now embark on a rich political life after leaving Westminster behind is little more than garnish for the main argument: by running as an independent, Corbyn would put the MPs of the Socialist Campaign Group in a difficult position. In essence, Lansman believes that the Labour left should move on without Corbyn and remain firmly embedded within Starmer’s party in the hope that better times may lie ahead.
This relies upon two implausible assumptions. The first is that Starmer’s factional aggression will stop now that Corbyn has been ousted. In truth, there is good reason to think the party leadership will be looking for a pretext to exclude left-wing MPs between now and the next general election. No amount of tactical caution will suffice to protect them from a renewal of hostilities.
Writing in the Times recently, Patrick Maguire quoted a “Starmer loyalist” who believed that the work of purging the Left was only half-done:
As long as they have a foothold in the party and the unions, there is a route back. All it will take is a union to swing to the left and suddenly our control of the party is precarious all over again.
A member of Starmer’s shadow cabinet offered a similar warning:
If we only scrape a small majority, or end up the biggest party in a hung parliament, then all of a sudden these people are relevant again . . . we’ll have to have another general election to get rid of them.
The optimists of the Socialist Campaign Group might take this as evidence that the tides may yet shift back in their favor. But Starmer and his team have given every indication thus far that they intend to complete the job Tony Blair left unfinished, even if that harms the party’s electoral prospects.
The second implausible assumption concerns the wider context in which the Labour left has to operate. The point of excluding Corbyn is not merely to remove one individual from the parliamentary scene, but to depict the entire period of his leadership as a uniquely pernicious chapter in Labour’s history that must never be repeated. Corbyn was initially suspended as a Labour MP for stating some basic facts about what happened between 2015 and 2019 in a tactful and understated manner. No political current can forfeit the right to tell the truth about itself and expect to have a future.
Even if the Labour left wanted to forget about the Corbyn years and move on, its opponents would not permit it to do so. Guardian columnist George Monbiot recently expressed his bewilderment at the legal action Starmer’s leadership is taking against five former staff members it accuses of leaking a report on Labour’s organizational culture under Corbyn:
The impact of pursuing this case could be massive. It is likely to come to court early next year, coinciding with an election campaign. The horrendous content of some of the messages leaked in the files, and the civil war within the party that the suit may reignite, could scarcely be greater gifts to the Conservatives. If the Labour Party loses, it could be liable for an estimated £3-4m in costs.
Monbiot’s conclusion is the only realistic one that we can draw from such behavior: “Once again, factional warfare seems to take precedence over winning an election.”
Of course, the main basis on which the Left should oppose Starmer is not through relitigating the battles of the past, however recent. The priority should be to demonstrate that the policies a Starmer government is going to enact if he becomes prime minister will range from inadequate to malevolent in their impact on Britain’s social crisis. If Corbyn decides to run again — and he has every right to do so — that should be the principal focus of his campaign.