Euan McColm: Next Labour purge looms as Sir Keir Starmer must fight fire with fire

There’s no place in the shadow cabinet for the darling of the Corbynistas if the current favourite becomes leader, writes Euan McColm
Rebecca Long-Bailey, Lisa Nandy and Sir Keir Starmer at a leadership hustings last month. Picture: John DevlinRebecca Long-Bailey, Lisa Nandy and Sir Keir Starmer at a leadership hustings last month. Picture: John Devlin
Rebecca Long-Bailey, Lisa Nandy and Sir Keir Starmer at a leadership hustings last month. Picture: John Devlin

When Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn announced, after his party’s humiliation in last December’s general election, that he was standing down, those who announced they wished to replace him had one thing in common.

Candidates may have come from different factions of a brutally riven party but all insisted they had the qualities required to reunite colleagues. Whoever won, they all agreed, it was time for Her Majesty’s Opposition to get its act together and focus its attacks not on each other but on Boris Johnson’s Conservative government.

So much for that, then.

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With a month of the pointlessly long leadership contest to go, all pretence of unity has crumbled. Labour factionalism now runs deeper than ever. Corbyn’s successor will inherit a Labour Party bitterly divided.

As the contest rumbled into life last December, pro-Corbyn MPs and activists were confident that their favoured candidate, Rebecca Long-Bailey, would breeze to victory and, thus, ensure the party didn’t do anything radical such as move towards the political centre. That Corbyn’s brand of leftist politics had just been so comprehensively rejected by the electorate was a trivial matter. What was important was that ideological purity was maintained.

But the Long-Bailey campaign hasn’t, so far, been a roaring success. She may be the preferred candidate of Corbyn, his shadow chancellor John McDonnell, and any number of members of the far-left, but fellow challenger, Sir Keir Starmer, is, currently, the front-runner in the contest to lead the Labour Party.

This being so, it’s hardly surprising that Starmer is now the victim of a campaign of smears from Corbynista Labour members. It is time, demand Starmer’s opponents within the party, for him to declare every detail of donations to his campaign.

The truth of the matter is that Starmer has been declaring his donations as and when the rules of the contest require him to do so.

When Starmer has explained as much, he has sounded defensive and lawyerly. This can only fuel the idea that he has something to hide.

Trade unionists, politicians and activists loyal to Corbyn fear that a Starmer victory in this contest will mean an end to their dream (or adolescent fantasy, depending on your stomach for this stuff, of a socialist state, isolated from international allies) and so fighting dirty is necessary.

It doesn’t much matter that Starmer hasn’t, so far as I can see, done anything wrong, The whiff that something’s not quite right now hangs around him and that, from the Corbynista perspective, marks a roaring success.

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As the campaign against Starmer played out, the third candidate for the Labour leadership – Lisa Nandy – provided further illuminating detail about the Corbynista strategy.

She said that, before quitting his shadow cabinet in 2016, she raised with Corbyn concerns about factional fighting under his leadership. Rather, she claimed, than offering her any reassurance that such divisive behaviour must stop, members of his team “made it very, very clear they were going to continue to wage that factional war until the other side had been crushed”.

The gullible may have bought into the tall tale that Corbyn embodied a “kinder, gentler” politics. The truth is that he is a foul-tempered member of the crank left where bitter arguments between the People’s Front of Judea and the Judean People’s Front are perpetual.

Allies of the Labour leader concede that the meeting with Nandy did take place but are adamant that her version of events is incorrect. It is, says a source, “nonsense” to suggest Corbyn wished to wage war on another section of the Labour Party. Well, they would, say that, wouldn’t they? We are not, however, obliged to believe them.

It was clear from before he won the leadership contest in 2015 that Corbyn was going to do all he could to reshape the party. He and his comrades believed that the party had been stolen from them by Tony Blair and his supporters.

Corbyn made transformation of the party a central plank of his leadership. His appeal was to those with romantic notions about a Labour Party of the past that was more honest, more decent and more progressive than the one that he sought to lead.

It was hardly surprising, then, that when Corbyn did win and his allies began moving against undesirable MPs of the centre, members saw this as the fulfilment of a promise to make the party more democratic rather than evidence that the authoritarian left was fully in charge and no dissent from the new party line would be tolerated.

If Starmer finishes first in this contest, he should think hard about what Nandy has said. He should expect to be briefed against, smeared, and undermined by colleagues who cling to the nonsense that Corbyn was not to blame for Labour’s defeat by Johnson last year.

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And that is why, though he might talk about uniting the party, Starmer – should he win – must make purging Labour of the hard-left a priority.

The conspiracists, anti-Semites and Stalinists who have been at the heart of the Corbyn project for almost five years have nothing to offer the Labour Party. They turn off voters who – much to the Corbynistas’ fury – tend to be cautious rather than radical.

If he does become leader, Starmer should start by refusing to have Long-Bailey in his shadow cabinet. There is no accommodation to be made with the Corbynista left. Rather, it is to be neutered.

Nandy, I think, has been the most interesting candidate in this contest. She appears to have a good grasp of where Labour now is and, at the very least, some appreciation of the size of the challenge faced by the party.

This might not seem much but it’s a damned sight more than the Corbynista view that events rather than the leader and the message are to blame for Labour’s defeat last year.

If Starmer wins the leadership election, Nandy must surely be a candidate for one of the most senior shadow cabinet positions. Long-Bailey should be sent into backbench exile, a living warning to the Corbyn-supporting left that their time is over.



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