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Labour Left Rally Around Zarah Sultana After Being Cast "Into The Wilderness"

Kevin Hayes / Alamy Live

6 min read

Coventry MP Zarah Sultana has emerged from Labour Party Conference in Brighton this week as a leading figure of the party's left.

Sultana is now seen by many on the left as the heir to former party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Addressing the crowd at a rally of the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs, a conference fringe event in Brighton this week, the 27-year-old received overwhelming applause from the audience, who chanted "Oh, Zarah Sultana", an echo of the infamous Corbyn anthem. Titans of the left including Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott were among Sultana's supporters.

Those on the further left of Labour say they feel as though they've been cast into the political "wilderness" since Keir Starmer, who sits on the centre left of the Labour spectrum, suceeded Corbyn as leader last year following 2019's historic election defeat.

In one of Starmer's earliest signals that he intended to lead a new version of Labour, he suspended his predecessor from the Parliamentary Labour Party arguing that Corbyn was undermining efforts to rebuild trust with the Jewish community following allegations of anti-semitism.

At his first in-person conference as leader on Wednesday, Starmer actively distanced the party from the Corbyn-era, and among senior party figures there was a palpable sense that the further left of the party, which thrived under Corbyn, was in retreat. 

From The World Transformed fringe event, held in a circus tent a short walk along Brighton seafront from the main conference venue, Sultana described Corbyn as her "political hero" and demanded he has the Labour whip restored.

“Our political tradition is needed now more than ever”, she said, describing Labour as a beautiful and anti-racist movement.

“It's nearly a year on since the party leadership disgracefully took the whip away from Jeremy Corbyn and still hasn’t restored it.”

She expressed frustration around the handling of the Green New Deal motion, and the unjust investigations into the chair of Young Labour, Jess Barnard, and MP Kate Osborne. Both women have now had investigations against them dropped and been given apologies by the party.

Sultana made a direct address to Starmer, accusing him of being more concerned with party in-fighting than taking on the government.  

“Instead of waging war on the left, instead of purging members, provide real opposition to the Tories, do your job,” she said. 

Mentions of Starmer attracted boos from the crowd.

“Our views are popular," Sultana continued. "People want to end the rip-off landlords destroying our communities and they want real action on the climate community."

Her attacks on the current leadership, which she called "shameful" and led by a "Blairite clique", came after a tumultuous few days which saw controversial rule changes voted through on the conference floor.

Despite a row over reforms to how Labour elects its leader at the start of conference, a version of Starmer's proposals was ultimately passed after he received last minute backing from the Unison union. The threshold for the number of MPs a propective candidate needs the support of has now doubled, making it much harder for a fringe figure like Corbyn to get on the ballot. 

But Sultana appeared undeterred in her belief that the left could regain control of the party once again. “We came within a whisper of winning in 2017 and we can and we will win again,” she said. 

Andy McDonald, who quit the shadow cabinet with a dramatic mid-conference resignation, sent a message to supporters saying Starmer should honour commitments he made when elected or "go back to the membership to see another democratic mandate".

Former shadow cabinet member and Corbyn ally Richard Burgon accused the Starmer leadership of being "missing in action" and vowed the "Labour left will again one day win a leadership election".

The left used the series of fringe events outside the main conference to set out their strategy for regaining influence within the party.

But delegates attending the events said the mood among activists was "much less jubilant" than at their last gathering in 2019, when Corbyn still led the party, and just months before Labour took a battering at the ballot box.

"Back when we were still pushing out our approach, we thought we were taking control of the machinations of the Labour Party long term, beyond Jeremy Corbyn," one Labour party member at The World Transformed events told PoliticsHome.

"We were going to have a degree of power. Then the election came, we had our arse handed to us and we've had the left portrayed as the racist wing of the party."

This conference they said, was a stark contrast, with "the conversations we're having at the event this time are about feeling a bit in the wilderness and what is the moral argument for staying in".

Another lamented the "weird vibes" around the socialist events, adding that one had been so poorly attended that it had more panelists than audience members.

"Some days have felt a bit sad because that energy we had for the last few years has kind of gone," they said. "But then there are people here on the left that are fired-up and passionate and willing to fight for what we believe in."

They painted a picture of a "strange" and "muted" conference overall. "It's definitely not buzzing like it was last time we were in Brighton," they said. 

But around Sultana, there was optimism. Ash Sarkar, contributing editor of left wing website Novara Media, said it was understandable that supporters had rallied around her.

"There are two really important things that shape their beliefs, one is what it means to be a young working class person and the second thing is the experiences of structural racism and how that relates to British foreign policy orientation," Sarkar told PoliticsHome. 

"Everyone of course can have the right politics, but not everyone is a skilled communicator like she is."

Tensions between factions of the Labour party culminated in a series of protests and heckles during Starmer's set piece conference speech on Wednesday morning.

A small number of those gathered in the hall disrupted the beginning of the speech with chants of 'Oh, Jeremy Corbyn', while others shouted about the decision to remove the whip from the former leader.

A larger group repeatedly held up pieces of red paper during the speech, saying it was an effort to "show the red card" to Starmer.

But the Labour leader, who had reportedly prepared for the disruption, received a standing ovation when he responded to one heckler with the retort, "shouting slogans or changing lives?"

Following his speech a raft of shadow ministers praised Starmer for his handling of the hecklers, which shadow Northern Ireland secretary Louise Haigh told PoliticsHome was a "tiny, tiny minority".

"They know where the door is," she added.

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