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  1. Election 2024
30 May 2024

How the Faiza Shaheen row helps Keir Starmer

For certain factions of the party this is no gaffe, it’s cynical tactics.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Faiza Shaheen did not mince her words. The woman who came within a whisker of winning Iain Duncan Smith’s east London seat of Chingford and Woodford Green in 2019 was all set to run again in this election – in fact she’d already started. Her face is on the posters. Her Twitter feed is full of campaign videos. “I was on doors, knocking, six weeks after my baby was born,” she told Newsnight last night. “I have put so much effort into that seat.”

But Shaheen will not be Labour’s candidate in this election. She got the news late yesterday that she had been deselected (hearing this first from the media rather than the party itself). She said she was in a “state of shock” at “being treated this badly”.

Labour has not confirmed precisely why she was deselected, but Shaheen believes the pretext is her social media activity. There have been complaints, allegedly, about her “liking” a tweet that referred to the “Israel lobby” – widely considered an anti-Semitic trope. Shaheen tearfully told Newsnight she didn’t “remember” liking it, and said she had apologised at a party disciplinary hearing this week.

Deselection over the liking of a single tweet may seem extreme. The Labour left certainly thinks so. A spokesperson for Momentum called the decision, alongside the deselection of prominent left-wing MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle in Brighton Kemptown, a “purge”. Prominent left-wing journalists Ash Sarkar and Owen Jones echoed the sentiment. The Labour Muslim Network said the deselection was “unacceptable”.

Diane Abbott – who is immersed in a media storm over her own selection (or not) – tweeted: “Appalling. Whose clever idea has it been to have a cull of left wingers?” The American comedian Jon Stewart – whose video the “Israel lobby” tweet referred to – has got involved. “This is the dumbest thing the UK has done since electing Boris Johnson… what the actual f**k.”

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So what’s going on? One reading is that the row this week over selections is a fundamental miscalculation by Keir Starmer and his team: a botched attempt at “ruthlessness” that has derailed the news cycle when Labour wanted to be talking about its plans on crime and the NHS. Shaheen’s tearful Newsnight interview – and the left-wing figures rallying around her – is leading the political discourse today.

And it’s not likely to blow over any time soon. Indeed, Starmer poured fuel on the fire by saying he wants the “highest quality” candidates, sparking renewed outrage on the left at the idea Shaheen didn’t make the grade. Shaheen herself isn’t going quietly either – there are now reports she has instructed a lawyer to challenge her deselection.

If you’re Rishi Sunak, still reeling from a gaffe-ridden first week of campaigning, and struggling 20 points behind, all this internal Labour fighting must seem like a godsend. But looked at another way, the Shaheen scandal could be viewed less as a debacle, more as cynical party management.

Put bluntly, there are people high up in Starmer’s Labour team who believe a big high-profile altercation with the left wing of the party is good for the campaign.

Their argument is simple: for all the vocal left-wingers outraged by the treatment of Shaheen (and, similarly, Abbott) there are voters in the centre who are reassured by it. This cohort sees it as further evidence, so the story goes, that Starmer has radically changed Labour since the Jeremy Corbyn era. These are the people – former Tories, swing voters and, yes, Jews – who the Starmer campaign needs to win over to get the biggest majority possible. Losing left-wing supporters in the process is deemed survivable collateral.

Starmer has done a huge amount of work over the past four years rebuilding relations with the Jewish community in particular. The war in Gaza has reignited tensions. And now the comments of some Labour MPs and candidates are putting that rebuilding effort at risk.

Viewed this way, it is actually very helpful to Starmer that Corbyn – who lost the Labour whip in 2020 for claiming anti-Semitism within the party had been “dramatically overstated” – is running against Labour as an independent. It is also helpful (as they argue) that Abbott – among Corbyn’s closest allies – is being rebuffed.

As for Shaheen, her misplaced Twitter “like” of the “Israel lobby” tweet isn’t the whole story. There are other social media posts that might look like red flags to a Labour Party committed to distancing itself from the Corbyn era (and a party anxious about getting drawn into a fight over Gaza). On the day the election was called, she reposted a photo of herself standing with Corbyn, saying she had been “active on Palestine for 20 years and will be so if I make it into gov”. That post has since been deleted, but earlier this week she tweeted that the “number 1 issue on the doorstep and via email so far” in her constituency was Gaza. The list goes on.

You might argue – as plenty are – that none of this is grounds for deselection. But to undecided voters unsure if they can trust Labour, the message this decision sends is that Keir Starmer meant it when he said he would change his party. And the more noise the left makes about it the more likely that message is to be heard. People across the country who have never heard of Faiza Shaheen and don’t care what happens in Chingford and Woodford Green are now aware of the row. The calculation is that the negative sentiment around party infighting will be outweighed, in the minds of key voters, by the sense that Starmer has a zero-tolerance approach.

Could it all come back to bite Starmer once he’s in government? Very possibly. All this anger at the treatment of Abbott and Shaheen isn’t going to evaporate. And that’s to say nothing of the optics of treating two left-wing women of colour in such a dismissive way. But Shaheen crying on Newsnight isn’t a story of hapless mismanagement derailing the Labour campaign. For certain cynical Starmer advisers keen to communicate a very specific point, she’s doing their job for them.

[See also: What the viral “All Eyes on Rafah” meme means for the conflict]

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