Keir Starmer faces a barrage of criticism from the hard left – no matter what he does, according to James Ball.
When an influential party figure resigns in protest early in a new leader’s reign, it can be acutely embarrassing for the incomer. That was the fate that befell Keir Starmer this week, with the departure of Terina Hine as secretary of the Cities of London and Westminster constituency party.
Hine was stinging in her criticism, accusing Starmer of moving Labour ‘brutally and rapidly’ to the right, ditching ‘environmental commitments’ and trade unions, failing to take action over ‘racist and sexist abuse’, not holding the government to account over coronavirus, and – perhaps most outrageously of all – ‘wooing so-called ‘liberal conservative’ voters’. Far from embarrassment, though, Starmer can probably find comfort in the charge sheet compiled against him.
While it still may be possible he is moving the party ‘brutally and rapidly’ to the right, it would be difficult for anyone to evidence this in policy, as he has – sensibly for now – not made policy commitments, four years from a likely election in 2024. His apparent ‘failing’ on environmental commitments was not promising to put a pledge to make the UK carbon-neutral by 2030 into his next manifesto, something he did because – again, not unreasonably – he has noted that Labour lost the 2019 election, and promising to make the country carbon-neutral in just six years may well be outright impossible.
The allegation on tackling ‘racist and sexist abuse’ takes a little more unpicking. Hine was referring to allegations contained in the leaked, unredacted report prepared by Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, for the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) – which is conducting its own investigation into alleged anti-Semitism in the party – and which the party decided, on legal advice, not to publish.
The party now faces multiple legal actions from people named in that report, but one of Starmer’s first actions as Labour leader was to launch an independent inquiry, taking in the allegations it contains. Does that not qualify as action?
Furthermore, Starmer took action recently when Rebecca Long-Bailey tweeted an interview with actress Maxine Peake, which was critical of Starmer and which also contained an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory which Peake herself withdrew shortly afterwards. Long-Bailey was asked repeatedly to delete the tweet, refused, and was fired as shadow education secretary for that refusal.
To some, this would constitute proving you are determined to take serious action on racism, especially ahead of the results of the EHRC investigation. But to many on Labour’s left, it has virtually been seized upon as the opposite . Several (including one member of Labour’s ruling NEC) have accused Starmer of double standards for not acting against Rachel Reeves, shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, for the ‘offence’ of praising a 1920 speech by Lady Astor – the first by a woman to the House of Commons. Astor was an undoubted anti-Semite. For celebrating her speech, some on Labour’s left argue Reeves should be sacked.
This is bizarrely reductive from the get-go – there is a considerable difference in marking the first woman to take her seat in the Commons and endorsing her anti-Semitism. It is even more bizarre when a 10-second Google search will find praise for Astor from Corbyn, during his tenure as leader.
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What the calls to sack Reeves show is the scale of the problem Starmer faces. Many within his own party who did not start out as anti-Semites have become institutionally racist: unable to see justification for the accusations made against the party in recent years, they have come to see ‘anti-Semitism’ as a point-scoring accusation made to try to cause problems for political opponents.
Doing so belittles the experience of the victims of racism and props up its perpetrators. It is also tolerated as a norm in substantial factions of the party.
But this is the core of why people in those factions so need Starmer to ‘betray’ them, and why they will look for it at every possible opportunity. Corbyn could get away with almost anything: he made no major welfare policy in his five years as leader, and even kept two years of the benefits freeze in the costings for his 2017 manifesto – but could get a pass because his supporters liked him. Any move by Starmer, any hesitation, anything that can be seized upon, will be taken as a betrayal, even if on a scale astronomically smaller than actual policies endorsed by Corbyn.
That way Corbynism can be vindicated. Labour under Corbyn offered surprisingly little in the way of new political ideas and extracted a huge moral price from its supporters on anti-Semitism and outright incompetence. The only way that price can still have been worth paying – without having to admit it wasn’t, and to start the soul-searching that would require – is for Starmer to be even worse. Whatever he does, Starmer is going to be called out at every turn by those on Labour’s hard left as a Blairite, an enabler of racists, a hypocrite, a red Tory, and someone who betrayed his party.
The risk for those of the left who want to stick with Labour is that if this will happen come what may, the political cost of actually selling out the left diminishes every time. Perversely, Labour’s hard left want the party to shift to the right. If the rest of the party isn’t aware of the danger they pose on that front, there is every risk they could get their way.