Starmer’s Night of the Plastic Knives

This purge of the Corbynites obscures his fundamental weakness.

James Heartfield

Topics Politics UK

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The Corbynite left is being purged from the Labour Party. Brighton Kemptown MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle was told yesterday that he cannot stand at the next General Election, apparently due to allegations of personal misconduct that have resurfaced from eight years ago. Economist Faiza Shaheen was expected to win in Chingford and Woodford Green, but has been blocked from standing for criticising Labour’s stance on the Middle East and allegedly liking Israelophobic posts on social media. MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington Diane Abbott does not know if she will be allowed to defend her seat, despite having the whip restored to her this week. Most dramatic of all, former leader Jeremy Corbyn was first suspended in 2020 from the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) for minimising anti-Semitism within the party. Last week, he was expelled after announcing his plan to contest his Islington North seat as an independent.

Starmer’s ruthless eviction of these well-established, left-wing Labour candidates has been widely compared to Stalin’s Great Purge of 1937 or the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, when Hitler cemented his leadership of Germany by killing off his rivals on the right. Except not everything has gone to plan. The treatment of Abbott has widely been reported as unfair in the media and caused hundreds to join her at a rally outside Hackney Town Hall last night.

While most people see little justice in the way that the Labour Party officials have clearly stitched up the left, Starmer can afford to ignore the grumbling because he is riding so high in the polls. The team around Starmer has made the calculation that with a lead of more than 20 points, the story of the next election is already set in stone: the Tories are out and Labour will come in on a landslide. Starmer no doubt thinks this is the best moment to silence his rivals because left-wing voters have nowhere else to go.

This may all look like the Night of the Long Knives on the surface, but in typical Starmer fashion, even when he stabs you in the back, it’s with a stage knife that only appears to do harm. The truth is that Starmer’s left-wing critics lost power four years ago, when he became leader. Denying them the Labour rosette is just the theatre of power.

The trouble for these left-wingers is that they have still not faced up to the fact that their political programme was rejected by the voters not once but twice – in 2017 and 2019. That is the real reason their brief domination of the Labour Party, from Corbyn’s election as leader in 2015 to Starmer’s in 2020, is over.

Rather than try to understand how they failed to connect with voters, the Labour left has taken refuge in conspiracy theories to explain their defeat. Starmer ‘lied’ to us when he said he would carry on Corbyn’s legacy, they complain. Big money – maybe even the infamous ‘Israel lobby’ – is behind Starmer or is driving the purges, some claim.

Since losing control of the Labour Party, the Corbynite left has thrown itself into campaigning against Israel. The scale of the weekly pro-Palestine demos in London since 7 October has no doubt persuaded them they are talking to the masses. But a General Election draws in a far wider share of the populace than any protest. Despite some anxieties about Muslim voters defecting from Labour over Gaza, Starmer’s lead in the opinion polls is undimmed.

Many non-Corbynite Labour members will think that the complaints of abuse of procedure are a bit rich coming from a left that itself proved pretty cliquish when it was in control. Indeed, the Corbynites also used procedure to stymie candidates that they did not like and to promote their own. In 2019, left-winger Sam Tarry’s Ilford South candidacy was helped by spurious allegations against his rival, Redbridge Borough Council leader Jas Athwal, who was removed from the ballot on the eve of the selection vote.

The question now is how many on the Corbynite left will follow the lead of the man himself and challenge Starmer’s Labour from outside the party. Alongside him are former Labour activist Syed Siddiqi, now running in Ilford South for the Green Party, and Leicester East MP Claudia Webbe, who was expelled from the PLP after losing a court case and is running for her old seat as an independent.

It seems unlikely, however, that many will want to join them. Anyone who does stand against an official Labour candidate risks being barred from party membership in the future. Then there’s the small matter of the voters. For some time now, the Corbynite left has masked its limited appeal to the electorate by passing itself off as the mainstream of the Labour Party.

Still, while the left may be reeling under the shock of Starmer’s purge, it is worth noting that the Labour leader’s own position is not as secure as it looks. He is using the already weakened left of his party as a whipping boy to demonstrate that he can be a tough leader. Yet, at the same time, many will have noticed how he shirks any responsibility for what is happening, by claiming that the procedures behind the purge are not under his control.

The wind is certainly under Starmer’s wings at this election, but crucially, few people still have any idea what his Labour Party stands for. His main aim during this campaign is to say as little as possible in the hope that he will be the last man standing, as the Tories and the Corbynites collapse around him. That is no recipe for holding power in the long run.

James Heartfield’s latest book is Britain’s Empires: A History, 1600-2020, published by Anthem Press.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics UK


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