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15 February 2023

Will Labour divisions scupper Starmer’s election hopes?

The leader has issued the left of his party with an ultimatum: back me or quit.

By Rachel Wearmouth

The Labour Party is no longer being monitored by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) over its handling of anti-Semitism.

The watchdog has said it is satisfied with the reforms Keir Starmer has made after finding the party to have committed unlawful acts under Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour leader underlined in an op-ed for the Times last night that it had become an “incubator for this poison” under Corbyn but now has a “zero tolerance” approach and the changes made are “permanent, fundamental, irrevocable”.

Starmer also used the moment to issue the hard left in his party with an ultimatum: support him or quit.

“The Labour Party I lead today is unrecognisable from 2019,” Starmer said. “There are those who don’t like that change, who still refuse to see the reality of what had gone on under the previous leadership. To them I say in all candour: we are never going back. If you don’t like it, nobody is forcing you to stay.”

Hundreds of Labour members have been expelled from the party for saying they would campaign against the recommendations in the EHRC report.

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There are some within the party, however, who fear that the hard left could scupper the party’s election hopes by creating division. There have already been factional flashpoints, such as the recent Bolton North East selection row which I wrote about here. Rishi Sunak is keenly aware of this issue and rarely allows PMQs to pass without reminding Labour MPs that they campaigned for Corbyn at the last election.

When those who remain loyal to Corbyn’s agenda have defied Starmer in the past, or have made inappropriate comments, the approach has been to force an immediate U-turn and extract an apology. The most recent example was Kim Johnson using a point of order in the Commons at the start of February to say sorry for calling the Israeli government “fascist” – comments she recognised were “particularly insensitive” given the country’s history.

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The language used by Starmer suggests that he will no longer be so patient with members of the Socialist Campaign Group of left-wing MPs, which frequently criticises his leadership.

This warning comes after reports that when Starmer met Tony Blair in Davos the former prime minister told him he needed a strategy to deal with the party’s more extreme elements.

Corbyn is still a member of the Labour Party but lost the party whip after he claimed the issue of anti-Semitism had been exaggerated for political purposes. Starmer confirmed in a press conference this morning that Corbyn will not be Labour’s candidate for Islington North at the next election.

Starmer’s notice to the former leader’s allies yesterday makes clear that unless they are careful, they could share a similar political fate. The big question now is will Corbyn choose to stand against Labour, and whether MPs and groups such as Momentum choose to campaign for him if he does.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

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