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Does Keir Starmer have anything to fear from the left?

Insiders are relishing distancing the party from Jeremy Corbyn in order to repel Tory attacks.

By Freddie Hayward

Is Keir Starmer’s left flank vulnerable? Jeremy Corbyn has been in exile from Labour since 2021 after he refused to apologise for saying reports of anti-Semitism inside the party were exaggerated. After months of speculation over his next move, the former leader is now running as an independent in his Islington North constituency – a decision that meant he was immediately expelled from the party. This is a threat to Labour’s dominance. In one of 650 seats, at least.

Corbyn’s expulsion from the party he represented in parliament for 40 years was not inevitable. In October 2020 a deal between himself and the leadership was close. Accounts vary, but negotiations were reportedly scuppered because Corbyn was on holiday on the Isle of Wight. The party later reinstated Corbyn’s Labour membership but Starmer refused to restore the parliamentary whip until the former leader apologised, hence he sat as an independent.

Since then, Corbyn has let rumours that he may stand in Islington North or for London mayor as Ken Livingstone did rumble on. The former was always the likely option because Corbyn has a relationship with his constituents that he doesn’t have with London in general. While he ruminated on his next move, Corbyn launched a vehicle to promote his politics: the Peace & Justice Project. While its branding is oddly reminiscent of the Tony Blair Institute’s, its patrons include former Unite general secretary Len McCluskey, the filmmaker Ken Loach and former Bolivian president Evo Morales.

Corbyn is a member of a political grouping of candidates called the Collective who support the Peace & Justice Project’s five priorities: an above-inflation pay rise for public sector workers and a £15 minimum wage; public ownership of energy, water, rail and mail; a rent cap and mass council home building programme; a wealth tax to fund the NHS; and support for refugees and nuclear disarmament. The Collective’s other candidates include the former Labour MP Claudia Webbe, Shamima Begum’s lawyer Tasnime Akunjee, and Andrew Feinstein, a former African National Congress politician who is standing against Starmer in Holborn and St Pancras. In the long term, the Collective aims to become a political party.  

For now, Corbyn is the only candidate with a good chance of victory, even if he will have to battle against Labour’s national poll lead and dominance in London. As one Labour source on the party’s left pointed out, Corbyn has the three qualities that any successful independent candidate needs: local pedigree; high name recognition; and a compelling story. Corbyn is famous for being a “good constituency MP”. He has 40 years of relationships and name recognition to draw on. (One key problem will be that any Labour members that openly support him will face expulsion.)

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Corbyn’s trajectory – going from party leader to independent candidate in one parliament – is unique. The threat, therefore, is contained. And yet, there are signs that Labour could face problems from the left, charged with anger at Labour’s position on Gaza and Starmer’s abandonment or dilution of many of his original 10 leadership pledges.

The Greens are currently the main beneficiaries of disillusionment with Labour. Carla Denyer, the party’s co-leader, is standing in Bristol Central against Labour’s shadow culture secretary Thangam Debbonaire. While Starmer’s party has a notional majority of around 17,000 in the new seat, the Greens won every ward in the constituency in the recent local elections. They view the contest as the best way to replace the party’s sole MP Caroline Lucas, who is standing down in Brighton Pavilion (a seat vulnerable to Labour). 

Whatever happens in Bristol, Corbyn’s decision to stand means most attention will be on Islington North. The Labour leadership is said to be happy to concede the seat in order to avoid a media circus gathering in the constituency. As one Labour source told me: “it’s only one seat.” That Paul Mason, the left-wing journalist and former New Statesman columnist, failed to make the Labour shortlist for the seat helps limit media attention. The party’s National Executive Committee eventually imposed local councillor Praful Nargund, the owner of several IVF clinics, on the constituency, denying local members a choice.

Corbyn’s announcement severed his remaining links with Labour. Starmer’s distaste for his predecessor (who he described as a “friend” in 2020) has only grown. Insiders now relish distancing the party from Corbyn in order to repel Tory attacks that the party has not changed. After Corbyn’s announcement, Starmer said: “Jeremy Corbyn’s days of influencing Labour Party policy are well and truly over. Jeremy Corbyn’s decision is his decision. What I’m intent on doing is putting first-class Labour candidates in Islington North, which we have now done.”

The result in five weeks’ time will depend on whether Corbyn’s 26,188 majority is, in reality, his majority or Labour’s. It will signal whether the threat to Labour from the left is latent or non-existent. 

With the party leading so comfortably in the polls, challenges from the left can appear obscure. For now, the priority for Labour’s strategists will be to limit the damage Corbyn can inflict on their campaign for No 10. And at the same time, win Islington North.

[See also: Jeremy Corbyn can win in Islington North]

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