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26 June 2020

What will the sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey cost Keir Starmer?

The Labour leader has shown a firm commitment to principle, but a battle with the party's left could limit him in other ways.

By Stephen Bush

Keir Starmer has sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey, his former leadership rival, from her post as shadow education secretary after she described the actor Maxine Peake as a “diamond” and shared an interview with the star of Shameless in the Independent, in which Peake claimed that “the tactics used by the police in America, kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, that was learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services”.

What’s wrong with that? It’s true to say that the world’s police forces share training and exchange techniques, and that holds true for the police in most nations.

But it is not true to say that kneeling on a person’s neck was taught by, or originates from, the Israeli secret services. Amnesty International, which the Independent originally cited as the original source for the claim, clarified to the New Statesman that they have never reported such an allegation.

This incident goes to the essence of many of Labour’s long-running problems on the issue of antisemitism: why should Israel’s security services be treated as more responsible for the killing of George Floyd than those of the United Kingdom or France, or any of the countless forces that use aggressive restraint techniques? Why is Peake, a British actor, singling out the world’s only Jewish-majority state as the point of origin for the killing of an African-American? Why not the United Kingdom – or why not simply the United States, where the killing took place? It’s an example of an all-too-common pattern on the British left: of placing Israel at the heart of a global web of ills.

As I’ve written before, the true face of Labour’s antisemitism problem is not people who have hatred in their hearts, but people who are either simply unable to see the problem when it is in front of them, or are unwilling to confront or condemn expressions of it when they see them.

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Starmer has shown that he is willing to do that, but his final victory is far from assured. The row complicates his leadership in multiple ways. It has the potential to make Long-Bailey an organisational figurehead in parliament for discontent on the left of the party. At the same time, it may complicate the Socialist Campaign Group’s efforts to become a more well-organised and disciplined outfit, exacerbating the SCG’s own internal divisions over strategy. But the sacking has attracted criticism from the general secretaries of several trades unions, most significantly Unite’s Len McCluskey.

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There’s another consequence to all this too, which is that Keir Starmer’s power and freedom of manoeuvre comes from the fact he has multiple routes to a majority on the National Executive Committee and the freedom, essentially, to pick who he wants in his Shadow Cabinet and frontbench. A battle with Labour’s left increases his dependence on the party’s right. Just as Jeremy Corbyn’s alliance with Unite meant that he watered down his positions on airport expansion, the demands of running Labour might place similar limitations on Starmer.

But what he has shown is that he is willing to act on the problem – even if that willingness is ultimately to his cost.