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29 March 2023

Keir Starmer shows his strength by banning Jeremy Corbyn’s candidacy

Discontent among the unions will not trouble the Labour leader too much.

By Rachel Wearmouth

Last night (28 March) Keir Starmer was spotted enjoying a drink on the Commons terrace with members of the shadow cabinet.

It had been a long day and he probably felt there was cause for celebration. Hours earlier the party’s ruling body, the National Executive Committee (NEC), passed a motion to prevent Jeremy Corbyn standing as a Labour candidate at the next general election. This was no surprise, and Starmer himself had confirmed this month that the motion would be proposed, but it has nonetheless provoked drama, both publicly and behind the scenes.

Corbyn, who is still a party member, lost the Labour whip because of his refusal to apologise for saying anti-Semitism in the party was “dramatically overstated for political reasons” in the wake of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission report that criticised his leadership’s handling of allegations. However, the motion to prevent his candidacy did not mention anti-Semitism and was explicit in saying the NEC would be taking a purely political decision. It resolved that the NEC’s “primary purpose was to maximise the Labour Party’s prospects” of winning the next election and “avoid any detrimental impact” on the party’s “standing with the electorate as a whole”. The party’s interests, it said, were “not well served by Mr Corbyn running”.

This was Starmer strengthening his authority in the party and the motion passed comfortably by 22 votes to 12.

[See also: The cracks in Keir Starmer’s Labour Party]

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Several sources said that Andy Kerr, the deputy general secretary of the CWU, “went tonto” and was urged to moderate his language after he told Starmer he didn’t respect him. Kerr and many other left-wingers, now in a minority on the NEC, made their feelings known. Angela Rayner, the deputy leader, whose birthday it was yesterday, was not at the meeting.

Nor did the motion entirely unite moderates. Ann Black, who has been loyal to Starmer, took a principled decision not to back it, apparently due to its failure to mention the EHRC.

The Labour leader clearly wants to put as much distance between him and his predecessor as possible; at almost every Prime Minister’s Questions Rishi Sunak tries to attack Labour over Corbyn. Starmer may also welcome the ire of the left because it demonstrates to the public that the Labour Party has changed, but there’s a risk in that. Corbyn called the decision a “travesty of democracy” and, as Ben Walker points out, if the former leader does choose to stand as an independent in his Islington North constituency, he could win.

The Unite union, which was close to Corbyn and remains a major donor to the party, is due to hold a conference in the summer. It is not implausible that it could choose to disaffiliate from Labour or further reduce funding, given the brutal way in which the NEC has dispatched Corbyn. (Whether Starmer would see this as an immediate headache when donors are throwing cash at the party is another question.)

There are also rumblings of discomfort in the wider trade union movement about Labour’s selection process, which has gone against some favoured left-wing candidates. The Corbyn decision may exacerbate these tensions. An awareness of this among the leadership would explain why the NEC agreed a new appeal process at the same meeting for those ruled out of candidacy shortlists.

Starmer’s allies say Corbyn brought this on himself and had ample time to apologise. Even if this decision rallies some of those who oppose the new regime, it is evidence, if any more were needed, that this is Starmer’s Labour Party.

[See also: Boris Johnson the clown’s first encore]

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