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25 June 2020

Keir Starmer has sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey. What happens now?

The Labour leader has sent the strongest possible message about his commitment to tackling anti-Semitism – but at the price of a full-blown war within his party.

By Stephen Bush

Rebecca Long-Bailey has been sacked from the shadow cabinet after describing the actor Maxine Peake as an “absolute diamond” and sharing an Independent interview in which Peake stated that Israel’s security services were responsible for the origin of the restraint technique used in the killing of George Floyd, which a spokesperson for Keir Starmer described as “an antisemitic conspiracy theory”.

The remarks, and Long-Bailey’s decision to share the piece, had been condemned by the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council, but the former shadow education secretary had partially retracted the tweet by saying that she shared it because of Peake’s call to vote Labour to get the Tories out – giving the Labour leader the option to ride out the storm had he chosen to do so.

Instead, Starmer has opted to prioritise sending the strongest possible message about his fight against anti-Semitism within the Labour Party – sacking his main rival for the party leadership, who in many senses is still the unofficial leader of the party’s left in parliament, and who remains closely affiliated to many of Labour’s trades unions, particularly Unite.

The Labour leader’s decision to sack Long-Bailey is a sign that he is serious about having a zero tolerance policy on anti-Semitism within the party – but it is also going to be the trigger for a major conflict within Labour, one which Starmer cannot be certain of winning. It’s not clear if other frontbench members of the Socialist Campaign Group, the main left-wing grouping in the parliamentary party, will opt to join Long-Bailey on the backbenches. The reaction of the party’s rank and file is, likewise, uncertain: and Starmer could yet find that his majority on the ruling National Executive Committee, and with it his ability to drive through changes to how the party is run, which are vital to dealing with anti-Semitism, is lost as a consequence.

Equally, of course, the row could end up with Starmer strengthened: benefiting from the clear signal he has sent about his priorities, and a further divided Labour left, with some on the frontbenches, some clustering around Long-Bailey, and others looking to leadership from Richard Burgon, who several Campaign Group MPs think did a better job of outlining Corbynite principles in the deputy race than Long-Bailey did in the main leadership contest. The outcome of Starmer’s decision today is highly uncertain.

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What today shows us is that Starmer is not always as cautious or as incremental as he appears – he has started a major and significant fight with his party’s left flank. But it is a conflict in which he cannot be certain of emerging the victor.