‘What we have learned is that if you pick a fight with Starmer you will lose’

The ruth­less dis­missal of Re­becca Long-Bai­ley could be the leader’s clause IV mo­ment – or de­stroy party unity

The Observer - - News - Toby Helm Po­lit­i­cal Editor

It is of­ten said that new po­lit­i­cal lead­ers have defin­ing mo­ments when they show their steel and stamp author­ity on their par­ties. Neil Kin­nock’s epic con­fronta­tions with the Mil­i­tant ten­dency in the 1980s were seen as the bat­tles that won him his spurs, although he was ul­ti­mately un­suc­cess­ful in his ef­forts to make Labour electable. For Tony Blair, the de­ci­sion to ditch clause IV in 1995 show­cased New Labour as a force on the po­lit­i­cal cen­tre ground, one that would go on to win three suc­ces­sive gen­eral elec­tions.

This week­end a ques­tion many MPs are ask­ing is whether Keir Starmer’s bru­tal sack­ing on Thurs­day of Re­becca Long-Bai­ley, the stan­dard bearer of the Cor­bynite left in the shadow cab­i­net, could go down as a defin­ing act of his lead­er­ship. Could it be the mo­ment when the bril­liant lawyer be­came the ruth­less po­ten­tial prime min­is­ter ca­pa­ble of in­spir­ing fear as well as re­spect, and of chal­leng­ing the Tories at the next elec­tion? Or al­ter­na­tively, could it prove to be a mo­ment when he split the party, an­gered much of the mem­ber­ship built up un­der Cor­byn, and de­stroyed the very unity needed to take Labour for­ward?

Starmer’s peo­ple in­sist that the dis­missal of Long-Bai­ley was noth­ing to do with any pre-or­dained strat­egy or de­sire to purge the left. Noth­ing could be fur­ther from the truth, they say. “It was sim­ply a mat­ter of her de­fy­ing his author­ity when he had been crys­tal clear about his de­ter­mi­na­tion to root out an­tisemitism. He likes Becky and had worked well with her. He was not try­ing to get rid of her,” said one se­nior party source.

Long-Bai­ley was ini­tially at fault, Starmer’s peo­ple say, when she over­hastily shared on Twit­ter an ar­ti­cle by the ac­tress Max­ine Peake in which Peake said that Amer­i­can po­lice of­fi­cers had learned tac­tics used in the in­ci­dent that killed Ge­orge Floyd in the US, in­clud­ing kneel­ing on peo­plenty ple’s necks, from Is­raeli spies. The claims, de­nied by Is­raeli po­lice, of­fended many in the Jewish com­mu­nity who re­garded them as an­ti­semitic and of­fen­sive.

But worse was Long-Bai­ley’s sub­se­quent re­fusal to delete the tweet when asked to do so by a se­nior of­fi­cial from Starmer’s of­fice on the ex­plicit in­struc­tions of the leader.

Starmer was on a visit to Steve­nage when an aide showed him LongBai­ley’s orig­i­nal tweet, to which she added the com­ment “Max­ine Peake is an ab­so­lute di­a­mond”. A se­nior Labour of­fi­cial said: “Keir’s re­ac­tion was that she needs to delete it and she needs to apol­o­gise. There were mul­ti­ple con­ver­sa­tions with Becky but she re­fused to do it. She wouldn’t delete it. She ba­si­cally thought it would look worse to delete it.” Starmer re­garded Peake’s claim, for which the ac­tress later apol­o­gised, as an “an­ti­semitic con­spir­acy the­ory”.

In­stead of do­ing as Starmer or­dered, Long-Bai­ley merely put out a new post say­ing her shar­ing of Peake’s ar­ti­cle “wasn’t in­tended to be an en­dorse­ment of all of the ar­ti­cle”. Some on the left took to Twit­ter to ac­cuse her of back­track­ing and friends say she then felt boxed in and was even more de­ter­mined not to apol­o­gise, for fear of fur­ther an­ger­ing the left. She then failed to an­swer her phone for four hours as Starmer’s of­fice des­per­ately tried to get in touch to in­sist again that she re­move the tweet. Once back in London, Starmer did man­age to con­tact her and told her: “I am go­ing to have to stand you down.”

Some in the Labour party sus­pect that Long-Bai­ley, more than Starmer, was look­ing for a con­fronta­tion, though her al­lies strongly dis­pute this. One of Starmer’s sup­port­ers noted how quickly left­wing MPs and union lead­ers came out in a cho­rus of out­rage and treated her as a mar­tyr. “The [so­cial­ist] Cam­paign Group roared into ac­tion pretty quickly around her. That was very no­tice­able,” one said.

Len McCluskey, the gen­eral sec­re­tary of Unite, con­demned Starmer’s ac­tion as “an un­nec­es­sary over-re­ac­tion to a con­fected row”, adding that “unity is too im­por­tant to be risked like this”. The founder of Mo­men­tum, Jon Lans­man, called the sack­ing “reck­less”, while for­mer shadow chan­cel­lor John McDon­nell also reg­is­tered his dis­gust and ap­peared to en­cour­age the left to rally around against Starmer.

While Starmer may not have wanted to be rid of Long-Bai­ley, of Labour mod­er­ates be­lieve the events of Thurs­day can only have done the new leader good. A Labour front­bencher said: “The pub­lic will see the con­trast with the way Boris John­son re­fused to sack Do­minic Cum­mings and how he is hang­ing on to Robert Jen­rick [the hous­ing sec­re­tary ac­cused of favour­ing Tory donor Richard Des­mond in a plan­ning case]. It is not a left ver­sus right is­sue for Keir, it is one of lead­er­ship.”

A se­nior Labour MP pointed out that Long-Bai­ley and the left had, un­for­tu­nately for them, picked a fight over a claim for which the au­thor had gone on to apol­o­gise. “The hill that they de­cided to fight on and to die on has dis­ap­peared,” he said.

Cer­tainly the lat­est Opinium poll for the – con­ducted on Thurs­day and Fri­day – sug­gests the in­ci­dent has done Starmer no harm at all. For the first time since he be­came leader, Starmer is ahead of John­son when peo­ple are asked who they think would make the best prime min­is­ter: 37% favour Starmer against 35% for John­son. It is the first time an op­po­si­tion leader has led on this ques­tion since Opinium first asked it in 2015. Starmer is also soar­ing ahead of John­son in net ap­proval rat­ings. The Labour leader stands on +27%, up from +22% a week ago while John­son is on -7%, down from -5%.

To­mor­row, Labour’s new gen­eral sec­re­tary, David Evans, who worked for the party un­der Tony Blair be­tween 1999 and 2001, and helped it win the 2001 elec­tion, takes the reins at party head­quar­ters, suc­ceed­ing Jen­nie Formby, who was a close ally of Jeremy Cor­byn.

His ap­point­ment will be watched very closely by all sides of the party. When he was cho­sen re­cently, a left­wing fig­ure on the na­tional ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee said party mem­bers who joined un­der Cor­byn “won’t for­give them if they al­low a hard right gen­eral sec­re­tary to wage fac­tional war­fare”.

One of Evans’s first tasks will be to or­gan­ise Labour’s re­sponse to an in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the Equal­ity and Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion (EHRC) into an­tisemitism in the party, due to be pub­lished soon. Starmer has al­ready com­mit­ted to ac­cept­ing its find­ings and set­ting up an in­de­pen­dent com­plaints process, but how the party deals with the mo­ment will be telling. The left fears the party will be se­verely crit­i­cised for fail­ing to tackle an­tisemitism com­plaints, par­tic­u­larly un­der Cor­byn’s lead­er­ship, and that he and his team will be left to take the lion’s share of the blame.

As shown by the dis­missal of LongBai­ley – now re­placed by Kate Green – Starmer’s lead­er­ship can­not yet emerge from the shadow that an­tisemitism has cast over the party. But af­ter last week, one thing is now much clearer about the way Starmer will pro­ceed. As one Labour front­bencher put it yes­ter­day: “What we have learned in the last 48 hours is that Keir Starmer is not just a lawyer. He is ruth­less too. He will act firmly. If you pick a fight with him, you will lose.”

‘He likes Becky and had worked well with her. He was not try­ing to get rid of her’ Se­nior party source

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