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What’s fuelling the Labour Party’s civil war?

Susannah Butter
·8-min read
<p>Labour Party</p> (Michelle Thompson)

Labour Party

(Michelle Thompson)

After giving a forceful speech about workers’ rights last Tuesday, forensically listing all the ways in which they have suffered during the pandemic, Unite union member Howard Beckett pressed the ‘leave meeting’ button and abruptly disappeared from the Labour National Executive Committee’s away-day Zoom call. Some people wondered if it was a technical hitch, but he was followed by 12 other Labour Party members in a protest ‘about how factional the decisions of the current Labour leader have become’, as they wrote to the party’s general secretary.

The catalyst for their walkout was the election of moderate MP Margaret Beckett as chair of the committee. She has said she was a ‘moron’ for voting for Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. Her appointment was seen as a provocation by those on the left campaigning against Sir Keir Starmer’s suspension of Corbyn from the party after the report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s investigation into anti-Semitism.

‘The mood in the party is febrile,’ says a Labour activist. ‘People voted for Starmer because he promised to unite the party but I haven’t seen this many factions in my 30 years as a member. They’re more interested in fighting each other than clobbering the Tories.’ Compounding the tension are new divisions over whether to back any Brexit deal that Boris Johnson may reach in the next few days. Starmer has indicated that he will support a deal if the alternative is a more damaging but those who were previously loyal to him, including shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds disagree. “If we do get a deal it will be as thin as gruel," she said.

The tentative optimism of a month ago has fractured. This autumn, Starmer was ahead in the polls for the first time since Boris Johnson became prime minister. Then, on 29 October, the commission’s report was released and what happened next exposed deep rifts that threatened to destabilise the leader in a civil war for the heart of the party.

The report found ‘serious failings’ under Corbyn’s leadership and failure to handle complaints about anti-Semitic abuse. However, it was not the report that led to Corbyn’s suspension but his response to it. Around half an hour after the report was published (arguably not long enough to have read a 130-page document), Corbyn put out a statement. It began by stating that anti-Semitism was ‘abhorrent’ but it went on to say that ‘the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons’.

Starmer, says an insider, ‘was pissed off’. He had warned Corbyn of what the report might say and said he was ‘deeply disappointed’ that Corbyn’s comments appeared to contradict his opening line. About £370,000 has been raised to pay Corbyn’s legal costs to challenge his suspension, in a crowd-funder organised by Labour Party member Carole Morgan, and a petition calling for the whip to be restored to him has been signed by 32 MPs, including Diane Abbott.

The Conservatives are watching with glee. This is a welcome distraction from the way many people think they have handled the pandemic. Labour’s general secretary has intervened saying that motions ‘including expressions of solidarity with Corbyn’ are ‘out of order’. But is it a serious threat to Starmer or the last throes of a dying movement?

This is a scenario that Starmer feared. Since he decided to stand for leader, he has been acutely aware of the need for him to appeal to a broad swathe of the party. ‘Keir has made a constant effort to reach out to Corbyn’s supporters, to find common ground and bring them into his tent,’ says a moderate Labour member. It is not as clear cut, however, as a split between Corbyn and Starmer supporters. ‘There has been a lot of psychodrama about who has stuck with Corbyn,’ says a former spad. ‘A lot of it is down to personal ambition.’ Deputy Labour leader, Angela Rayner, and Rebecca Long-Bailey, for example, have drifted apart since Starmer sacked Long-Bailey from his shadow cabinet in June. ‘Ange and Becks’ shared a flat in Westminster for five years and say they ended their lease because Rayner wanted to spend more time with her children.

‘Angela is ambitious,’ says a former spad. ‘She sees herself as the future leader and is selling herself as the compromise candidate, manoeuvring to make it look like she is the only one who can negotiate with the hard left.’

Long-Bailey, meanwhile, has acknowledged that ‘this is a sad situation and we should have united’ but signed the statement saying that Corbyn should return. ‘Becks had a bright future but there is no coming back from this any time soon,’ says a Labour source.

On a personal level Corbyn’s former supporters are still friendly with him but are pragmatic. ‘John McDonnell and Jon Lansman, who told the NEC protesters to “get over themselves”, don’t want to make the same mistake they did in the Eighties when they disappeared, so they are making an effort to be seen to be helping Starmer,’ says the spad.

‘Jeremy has been advised badly,’ says a Labour activist. ‘I suggested he add a line to his EHRC response saying he is deeply distressed, which I know he is, and was shocked he didn’t.’ A YouGov poll suggests party supporters are divided, with 38 per cent of members saying Starmer was right to suspend Corbyn, and 32 per cent saying he was wrong.

‘Starmer kicking Corbyn out of the party was ill-advised because it politicised the disciplinary proceedings,’ says Paul Mason, a left-wing journalist who voted for Starmer in the leadership election. ‘Labour needs to focus on winning elections in May but instead this is taking up bandwidth. Starmer should have let Corbyn back in and in six months had an independent disciplinary process. That would have showed leadership by demonstrating that Starmer knows that Corbyn is a valued member of the party but giving some conditions. Instead he has this distraction.’

Beyond Corbyn being reinstated, his supporters’ motives vary. Mason says it is unlikely that they wish to mount a leadership challenge. ‘The left has no project of bringing Jeremy back,’ he says. ‘It looks at the new generation of left MPs who are not so ideologically rigid, like Nadia Whittome and Zarah Sultana. They present a politically attractive form of socialism and a future much more in line with green policies and LGBTQ issues.’ The 2019 intake was chosen by Corbyn and many have remained loyal. The irony is that Starmer’s politics are actually quite far to the left, especially on the economy — he wants to abolish universal credit and put public services in public hands. On Desert Island Discs he said he was a socialist (admittedly Tony Blair did, too, in his leadership run — it is considered to be the right answer).

There have been power moves over funding; the general secretary of Unite has been using money as leverage, cutting what it gives to Labour by about 10 per cent. ‘Keir is not too worried about this,’ says one supporter. ‘He will be able to raise funds elsewhere, and some Jewish donors are coming back. He has much bigger things to worry about, like getting back the confidence of the business community and how to win back Scotland, where Brexit will increase support for independence.’

Other Corbyn loyalists include Diane Abbott, who agrees with Starmer that there is a need for unity but not on how to achieve it. ‘Divided parties do not win elections,’ she said in an email. ‘But Starmer seeking to expel Corbyn is not the way to unify.’ She signed her email, ‘One love’.

‘It is extraordinary that this is the hill the far left wants to die on,’ says Ben Bradshaw, MP for Exeter and former culture secretary. ‘Starmer has been absolutely right to act as he has done. This is not a left/right issue. It is anti-Jewish racism. The EHRC report coming out was a day of shame. Keir is determined to eradicate anti-Semitism and has been impressive in dealing with this scourge that has so damaged the party. We need to implement the EHRC recommendations and concentrate on the next election.’

On the other side, there is pressure from those who believe Starmer has not been firm enough with Corbyn. ‘There has been a catalogue of unforced errors,’ says a Jewish MP who left the party under Corbyn. ‘Starmer still has to prove himself. The bar is set low because of Corbyn and Boris Johnson but having a go will only get you so far. Starmer isn’t quite where he should be in PMQs.’

The pandemic has meant that Starmer has been in supportive mode, not trying to score points against the Government. But, says Mason: ‘In the run up to the May elections he will have to fight tooth and nail to make progress.’ Starmer is described by another former spad as ‘aware of the risk that he might enter Ed Miliband territory, not disastrous but not strong enough to win an election’. For now, the majority of the party are saying they want to move on from factionalism and the ‘political gangsters’, as one party member calls them.

‘The atmosphere has generally improved in meetings,’ says Bradshaw. ‘Partly it is because being virtual means that it is much more difficult for the people in the room with the loudest voices, often elderly men, to bully. So that in itself has improved the atmosphere but also people are being more careful. And those who are crossing the line are being dealt with.’

He continues: ‘There is a huge amount of goodwill to Starmer just because he is not Corbyn. He is a leader we can be proud of. Even more important than his policy is the fact that he is a decent guy without baggage.’

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