Analysis: Labour’s uneasy truce ends in explosive fashion as Keir Starmer sacks Rebecca Long-Bailey — and piles pressure on Boris Johnson
The Labour leader swiftly sacked his education frontbencher. (PA)
Maybe it was the scale of the election defeat, the gravity of the coronavirus pandemic, or just a good old-fashioned comradely desire for unity after years of vicious Labour in-fighting.
But whatever has kept the party’s bitter civil war at bay since Sir Keir Starmer won that decisive leadership victory in April, it has surely been swept away with the swift and brutal sacking of his closest leadership rival Rebecca Long-Bailey.
The move came just hours after the Shadow Education Secretary shared an interview on social media in which actor Maxine Peake claimed that “kneeling on George Floyd’s neck” — the shocking police tactic that helped spark worldwide Black Lives Matter protests — had been “learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services".
The Independent, which ran the article, issued a swift clarification on the claim — but the damage had been done.
In sharing the piece, Long-Bailey said the actor was an “absolute diamond", a move that looked like a fulsome endorsement of the piece itself, even if she quickly issued a follow-up making clear she was not backing its full contents.
In a move that stunned a Westminster village that’s gotten used to big news, a Labour party spokesperson then announced that Starmer had “asked Rebecca Long-Bailey to step down from the Shadow Cabinet”.
“The article Rebecca shared earlier today contained an antisemitic conspiracy theory,” they said.
For hacks used to weeks of hair-splitting about what is and isn't anti-Jewish over the past five years, it couldn't get much more unequivocal than that.
So, as well as being a massive piece of political drama, why is the move significant?
Firstly, it sends a signal to both the Labour troops and the Jewish community that even a whiff of anti-semitism will not be tolerated under the new regime.
The leader’s office is acutely aware that the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which has launched a statutory investigation into the party’s handling of anti-Jewish racism, is reporting soon, and its findings are unlikely to be pretty.
Starmer can now point to a very different response than was often the case under Jeremy Corbyn, who was frequently criticised for not reprimanding MPs whose social media comments and shares sparked anger.
Secondly, it has drawn the party’s deep ideological splits out into the open.
Long-Bailey has not gone without a fight, and she’s already got allies on the party's Left rowing in behind her.
Expect more MPs who have so far kept their counsel on Labour’s strategy of 'constructive' opposition under Sir Keir to make their views known in the coming days
Doubling down on her sharing of the piece, Long-Bailey has said she tweeted the article because its "main thrust" was anger at the Government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic and a need for Labour unity.
And she added: “I learned that many people were concerned by references to international sharing of training and restraint techniques between police and security forces.
“In no way was my retweet an intention to endorse every part of that article.”
And, in a parting shot, she said Starmer had “already made his decision” to sack her despite a plea to discuss the matter.
John McDonnell, the former shadow chancellor and close ally of Jeremy Corbyn, has already leapt to her defence by sharing the piece himself, arguing that “criticism of practices of Israeli state is not antisemitic” — and saying that he stands “in solidarity” with Long-Bailey.
Fellow Corbyn ally Jon Trickett meanwhile asked what Starmer had "got against Northern socialists from working class backgrounds", and Momentum boss Jon Lansman, who has been critical of his party's handling of anti-semitism cases in the past, said sacking Long-Bailey represented "a reckless overreaction".
That's three major allies of Corbyn pinning their colours to the mast over this within hours.
Last week's big election post-mortem for the party studiously avoided blaming any one faction for Labour's woes.
But expect more MPs who have so far kept their counsel on Labour’s strategy of “constructive” opposition under Starmer to make their views known in the coming days.
Add to that the pressure there will now be on the leader’s office to take action against those who share the piece that sealed Long-Bailey’s fate, and you have the makings of a major clash.
In normal times, Number 10 would be forgiven for popping the champagne corks over a choice bit of Labour in-fighting like this.
Just as Starmer had begun to dent the PM’s poll lead and ruffle his feathers at PMQs, along comes a classic spat that, for the Tories, will highlight many of the problems that contributed to the PM’s thumping Commons majority last year.
But that doesn’t account for the other big story of the day — the mounting pressure on Boris Johnson to sack Robert Jenrick amid a major row over whether a Conservative donor influenced a controversial planning decision.
Labour has been pushing the issue all week, and while it has so far stopped short of calling on Jenrick to go, Starmer on Thursday said the row had “now got to the stage where the Prime Minister's judgement is at issue”.
If you were a Conservative HQ spinner worth your salt today, you’d have been getting ready to throw that line right back in the Labour leader’s face — but sacking Long-Bailey shuts that attack line down instantly.
In moving so quickly against his former leadership rival, Starmer has made clear that he’s ready for the big Labour fight that is coming.
And that should worry a Downing Street eager to tar him with the Corbyn brush.