During Keir Starmer’s campaign for the Labour leadership, one of the party’s most senior figures said to me that it was all very well to promise unity. “But unity around what?” The worry about Mr Starmer was that he might opt for a fudgy, phoney version of unity that sought to please every faction, including the hard leftists who brought Labour into such awful disrepute with the public. This isn’t durable as a long-term leadership strategy and it won’t convince the country that Labour is changing under new management. To do that, a less false kind of unity is required. This is the unity to be forged by purging all that was rotten and repulsive to voters about the discredited Corbynite regime, setting a fresh direction for Labour, rallying the party behind the new course and marginalising those who are unwilling or incapable of getting aboard.
We now have a clear indication that Mr Starmer wants unity, but on his terms. The signal was sent by the dismissal from the shadow cabinet of Rebecca Long-Bailey, the Corbynite standard bearer in the leadership contest, after she promoted a view that Mr Starmer held to be antisemitic. Her fellow travellers on the hard left are foaming that the sacking is a shocking disgrace. His admirers are hailing it as a steely act of ruthlessness by a brave leader. In truth, it was neither outrageous nor courageous. It was simply necessary. Mr Starmer had no choice but to fire her if he wanted to be taken seriously both by his friends and by his enemies and to convince the public that his Labour party will be very different to the one that they rejected by such a crushing margin back in December.
He was already reshaping the party, but had preferred to go about it with less public drama. The senior luminaries of Corbynism packed up their little red books and their solidarity-with-Venezuela banners and quit their positions with minimal fuss in April, their morale shattered by the scale of the election defeat and the emphatic margin by which Mr Starmer secured the leadership. Seumas Milne, Jeremy Corbyn’s chief ideologist, departed with his boss. Diane Abbott and John McDonnell retired themselves. More junior players in Labour’s tragic experiment with Corbynism were removed from the shadow cabinet to the sound of the tiniest of violins. Only political satirists wept on the day that Richard Burgon and Ian Lavery were removed from Labour’s frontbench. Jennie Formby, the Corbynite general secretary, took longer to dislodge, but she went eventually. Her replacement, David Evans, is the man Mr Starmer wanted in charge at Labour HQ. He has used the leader’s power to make appointments to the national executive committee to break the Corbynite grip on the party’s governing body. The shadow cabinet has been comprehensively recast with Starmer-like soft-leftists placed in the majority of the significant posts.
So Ms Long-Bailey already looked like an isolated and increasingly miserable figure at Labour’s top table. She had got a place there because Mr Starmer made a commitment during the leadership contest to give jobs to his competitors. A cynical theory popular among Labour MPs is that he appointed her as shadow education secretary to give her the opportunity to discredit herself. A few days before she was sacked, I was in conversation with a member of the shadow cabinet who remarked: “She’s so hopeless I can only think that Keir wants her to fail publicly.” This she had been doing before she was fired. She missed myriad opportunities to exploit the government’s many blunders over getting young people back into the classroom, sounding more interested in being an echo of the teachers’ unions than in representing the interests of everyone, including pupils and their parents. You should really be somewhere other than the opposition frontbench if you can’t land blows on a cabinet minister as useless as Gavin Williamson.
It is important to be clear about why she was sacked. She sent an approving tweet about an interview with Maxine Peake in which the Corbyn-supporting actress claimed that the Israeli secret services had trained the US police to use the knee-on-neck hold that killed George Floyd. Ms Peake subsequently disowned her claim. If Ms Long-Bailey had deleted her tweet and apologised, she would have kept her job. She instead issued a weaselly and uncontrite message saying the tweet “wasn’t intended to be an endorsement of all aspects of the article”. This made things worse in the eyes of Mr Starmer. Why did he regard the claim about the death of Mr Floyd to be antisemitic? Because it is a fit with the long history of antisemites blaming Jews for everything bad that happens in the world. Falsely connecting the killing of an African American man by a police officer in Minneapolis to the world’s only Jewish-majority state has the strong smell of an antisemitic conspiracy theory. Ms Long-Bailey should have known that the Labour leader cannot permit anything with even the faintest whiff of that. The most substantial statement he made in his very first address as leader was the pledge to “tear out this poison by its roots”.
One of his closest allies in the shadow cabinet says: “Keir can compromise on policy, but he can’t compromise on antisemitism.” Ms Long-Bailey had to be reckless or obtuse not to see that zero tolerance for antisemitism really now does have to mean zero tolerance. The antisemitic toxin that spread under the Corbynite regime was not just horrible in itself; it contributed to the wider ruination of Labour’s reputation that turned it into a nasty and extremist party in the eyes of so many voters. Ms Long-Bailey called Ms Peake an “absolute diamond” for also venting opinions that capitalism should be “destroyed” and anyone who could not vote for Mr Corbyn at the last election is a disgrace and effectively a Tory. Ms Peake is a finer actress than she is a political thinker or strategist. Sympathy with such Spartist tropes on the party’s frontbench isn’t to be encouraged when Labour will have to attract the support of many who did not vote Labour in 2019 if it is to win in the future.
Mr Starmer’s decisive response has drawn some flattering contrasts with Boris Johnson’s failure to sack Robert Jenrick and Dominic Cummings, but it does not come risk-free for the Labour leader. His internal opponents say, and some of his friends fear, that this will reignite fratricidal warfare after a period of relative peace. “The risk for Keir is that this makes Labour look divided. We know voters don’t like that,” says a senior member of the shadow cabinet. It is true that Corbynite ultras have been frothing on Twitter and their faction in the parliamentary Labour party are angry, but these people are a minority of both Twitter users and Labour MPs. Threats that Corbynite MPs would resign their frontbench positions have fizzled out. Futile demands for Ms Long-Bailey’s reinstatement from John McDonnell, Len McCluskey and their shrieky clique in the media have only underlined their marginalisation.
There is hostility to the sacking among those of the party membership who remain partisans for Corbynism and disappointment among those innocents who unrealistically hoped for an end to all strife. Yet the reaction from the activists has been less explosive than might once have been anticipated. This is because, as the excellent work of Professor Tim Bale and his colleagues has suggested, the composition and attitudes of party memberships tend to adjust with changes to the leadership. When Ed Miliband was leader, the party’s activists inclined more to the left than they had when Tony Blair was at his zenith. A similar shift occurred when Mr Miliband was replaced by Mr Corbyn. Moderates quit in disgust with the party’s direction and hard leftists joined to champion one of their own. Many Labour MPs I speak to are reporting another turnover in the membership over the last six months. There are still hard leftists present in constituency parties “trying to start a fight about something at every meeting”, in the words of one Labour MP. But a substantial number have quit or drifted away. The replacements tend to be sympathetic to the new leader’s style of politics. One soft-left Labour MP recently hosted a Zoom get-to-know-each-other with her new members. She exclaims with relief: “They’re fantastic!”
So Mr Starmer should be wary but not overly fearful of the Corbynite minority in parliament and the remaining hard leftists in the membership. When he is attacked from that quarter, they may even be doing him a tremendous favour. The more he is denounced by the diehards of Corbynism, the more it conveys the message to the public that Labour is changing – and for the better.
• Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer