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  1. Election 2024
30 May 2024

Keir Starmer’s factionalism is bad for Labour and the country

This desiccated and brittle project will be found badly wanting in office.

By Neal Lawson

“When someone shows who they are, believe them,” said Maya Angelou. Yesterday, the hard right of Labour revealed itself as it purged a succession of left candidates. Why is this happening and what does it mean not just for Labour but for the country?

To understand we must go back to 2015 when, seemingly against all the odds, Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader. It’s unclear whether anyone has truly fathomed the enormity of that event for British politics and its repercussions now and possibly long into the future. Back then, in these pages, I stated that the radical and youthful political wave that created Corbynism was hugely encouraging. But unfortunately Corbyn, as surfer, never had the leadership skills to seize the opportunity. The 2017 election result was remarkable because it showed a huge chunk of the country wanted more radical economic and social change. But Corbyn couldn’t realise that potential. Look at Labour now: it’s as if Corbynism had never happened. Why?

The answer lies in the people Corbyn beat – the right of Labour. This odd amalgam of old Labourism and the remnants of New Labour had been shocked to the core, not just by its loss of the party leadership (seen as its birthright) but by the electoral evidence that a left-wing programme could come close to winning. This could not be allowed.

Opposition to Corbynism was located in the Parliamentary Labour Party, where his democratic mandate was never accepted. But his support in the party and the capacity of Momentum, as the failed coup of 2016 showed, meant this wasn’t enough.

There were two strategies to claim back the birthright of running the main alternative party to the Conservatives. The first was to start a new party. This was a serious option throughout Brexit wars, which were used by the Labour right as a convenient way not just to undermine the hapless Corbyn but to build lists and a platform for a new start-up party. Clearly it never happened.

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It didn’t because the alternative strategy worked: the Labour right mounted an audacious and cynical move to take back the party from within. We all know the story. By offering a supposedly more professionalised Corbynism, they would first secure the leadership and then destroy all political and organisational remnants of the project. Having suffered a near-death experience, the right was never going to leave the door open to the left again. 

Hence, since 2020, as the factional leaders of the right have taken over the governance and bureaucracy of the party machine, no stone has been left unturned in ensuring the left are destroyed. The suspensions of the left and the parachuting in of their own vanguard into safe seats are just the latest, but far from the last actions, of a small but highly organised, determined and well-resourced faction.

There is a moral and political response to these events, which will ultimately end in tragedy. The moral point is how people such as Diane Abbott and Faiza Shaheen have been treated. To torment people in your own party, to leave them dangling or cut them adrift at the last moment is cruel. To bully MPs and activists into self-policing through fear of reprisals is soul-destroying. But means always shape ends. If you campaign as bullies, then you will govern as bullies. You can’t end cronyism in the country when you practise it in your party. If this is what they do to their comrades, then God help everyone else. 

Every move to the right – ruling out major tax rises, watering down the Green Prosperity Plan, keeping the two-child benefit cap, embracing Natalie Elphicke – has a dual purpose. First, to protect Labour from the Tory media: don’t worry, lads, let us win, nothing will really change. Second, to make Labour a hostile environment for anyone who wants anything vaguely better than this. Then the right’s candidate to succeed Keir Starmer, who was never their person, can win. 

There have always been factional battles within Labour. The left tries to take out the right and vice versa. They live and die by the sword. Elements of Momentum bullied and threatened the right, it was both appalling and ineffectual in equal measure. Now the boot is on the other foot – and it is appalling but ruthlessly efficient. 

But the wider political point is this: it won’t work. Not for Labour and not for the country. Labour is now too narrow and too shallow. Governing in the 21st century is the art of negotiation, not imposition. And to navigate all the complexity and chaos of the world you need challenge, balance, curiosity, nuance and agility. Of course, you can send round members of the NEC to discipline wayward MPs and activists and hold the threat of expulsion or suspension over them. But you can’t govern the country like that. To govern progressively today demands pluralism. 

Victory in the general election will see Labour through this. But then what? Then this desiccated and brittle project will be found badly wanting.

The tragedy is this: there is a progressive majority in this country that can be mobilised. Office can be won on terms that don’t build a cage out of any victory. Socialists, social democrats, social liberals, greens, purposeful business, the rich seams of civil society, the working class and the middle class can be woven into a project that meets the challenges of climate and the failure of free markets. 

What brings this coalition together is the promise of proportional representation. This pragmatic left would embody both the idealism of Corbynism and the professionalism of Blairism – which is exactly what Starmer said he was offering when he stood for leader. But it was a ploy. Labour and the country will pay the price. 

This harsh, desiccated politics is neither moral nor modern. Bullies bully because they are scared and vulnerable. They must be kindly confronted. Impunity never lasts. Hope can never be extinguished. But it must be organised for.

[See also: Keir Starmer’s remodelling of Labour is complete]

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