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The Labour left under Keir Starmer: 'They're not just sealing the tomb but incinerating it'

'No Purge' poster held up during Keir Starmer's speech to the Labour Party Conference 2021 (Credit: Simon Dack / Alamy Live News)

11 min read

The Labour left’s power has collapsed since Keir Starmer took over as leader. Could it still pose a factional threat to the leadership? Sienna Rodgers reports

New Labour architect Peter Mandelson once said the party leadership’s aim during the Blair era was to put the parliamentary left in a “sealed tomb”. Since Keir Starmer won the top job four years ago, the left of the party believes he has adopted the same goal – and been even more ruthless in his pursuit of it. As one Labour left MP puts it: “Now they’re not just sealing the tomb but incinerating it as well.”

From the leader’s office and the front bench to Labour’s many internal party committees, the flank that so dominated during the Corbyn era has now lost power at every level of the party. Yet Luke Akehurst, the influential secretary of ‘old right’ group Labour First and member of Labour’s national executive committee (NEC), recently warned Starmer supporters that the left has not gone away entirely.

“You’re either inside the tent pissing out or you’re outside the tent pissing in. I’m not sure the Socialist Campaign Group are doing either”

“Whatever happens in the general election, we’re going to have to be ready to have a scrap with these guys again,” Akehurst said. “If, God forbid, we do not get an overall majority, they will not say ‘that’s because your task was really difficult’.

“They’ll say it was our fault – ‘if we’d only kept Jeremy Corbyn or Rebecca Long-Bailey, and had a robust socialist programme nationalising 100 industries’, or whatever, ‘we would have walked it’ – and they’ll come back fighting on that. Or if we win, they’ve already got the narrative going of betrayal and disappointment.”

Does the left really present such a threat? Among Corbynite MPs, two have had the whip removed (Jeremy Corbyn, Claudia Webbe); a further two have the whip suspended (Diane Abbott, Kate Osamor); and three have been deselected (Beth Winter, Mick Whitley, Sam Tarry). Out of hundreds of new parliamentary candidates, only a handful – Faiza Shaheen, Connor Naismith, Chris Webb, Lorraine Beavers, Anneliese Midgley – are clearly on the Labour left.

Evidently, compared to the Corbyn years, Labour politics are tough for the left right now. But left optimists say gloomy comrades are wrong to compare a highly unusual period of the party’s history to what is in fact the status quo. “It must be very hard for a young left-wing person who, for the entirety of their adult political life, has only known a left-led Labour Party and the Labour Party as it is now,” one old hand observes.

The cheerful among the Labour left point out that many on their side are now exerting extra-parliamentary influence, having become pundits or taken up jobs in non-governmental organisations. And as for Parliament, the Socialist Campaign Group (SCG) is larger than it was pre-2015.

“There’s more left Labour MPs now than there has been for much of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs’ history,” says Richard Burgon MP, secretary of the SCG. He highlights the diverse backgrounds of members – “geographically, and in terms of their political traditions” – while others stress how the demographics have improved, with young 2019 intake members, such as Nadia Whittome, 27, and Zarah Sultana, 30, having potentially long careers in Parliament ahead of them.

The House can reveal, however, that the campaign group has been getting smaller. At least four MPs have recently left the SCG: Paula Barker, Liverpool Wavertree MP; Dan Carden, Liverpool Walton MP; Rachel Hopkins, Luton South MP; and Navendu Mishra, Stockport MP. Barker, Carden and Hopkins were all front benchers until they quit over the Gaza ceasefire vote in November; Mishra was a whip until the September reshuffle.

Current and former SCG members who are critical of its leadership argue the group is ineffective and irrelevant as a parliamentary force. Some disagree with the policy of SCG membership being invitation-only and believe it should be open to the “soft left”.

“The lack of strategy is mind-blowing,” says one MP, who complains of “back-slapping” and a “dick-swinging competition”. “You’re either inside the tent pissing out or you’re outside the tent pissing in. I’m not sure the Socialist Campaign Group are doing either – I don’t think they’re even in the field to pitch a tent,” they quip.

One aide makes a criticism also put forward by others about a “lean in” approach they ascribe to former shadow chancellor John McDonnell. “He thought that having small shadow ministerial positions and PPS [parliamentary private secretary] roles were meaningful. It was a ridiculous strategy.”

Others say the SCG was never particularly effective but rather always served the purpose of providing a place for Labour left MPs to “huddle together for warmth”. Post-Corbyn, however, some tensions are deeply embedded and there is little warmth between certain left MPs. “It’s personal; it’s not even political now,” remarks a different staffer.

“I’ve got absolute privilege to call out anyone, anywhere on the planet, in Parliament. But in my own party, on my own party’s policies? No”

The mood is low particularly among the MPs on the party’s left who feel they have been silenced by a constant threat of whip removal. “We are cowed,” one Labour MP tells The House. “I’ve always had a frank conversation with my [constituency Labour Party]. Now I have to couch my words and be careful what I say to them,” they add. “I’ve got absolute privilege to call out anyone, anywhere on the planet, in Parliament. But in my own party, on my own party’s policies? No, that absolute privilege doesn’t work.”

Some activists on the left are frustrated by what they call a “quietism” strategy from MPs. “Going over the top into machine gunfire… There’s lots of people screaming at us to do that. But is that the right thing to do?” the same MP asks. Another “quiet” Labour MP explains their approach: “People will say ‘where’s your backbone?’ but we employ teams of people and have families to support.”

One Labour source supportive of the leadership says they had expected the Labour left to organise within the party off the back of Starmer’s vulnerability on the politics around Gaza. “I’m surprised at how little they’ve taken advantage of it. If you can’t build a mass movement inside the Labour Party about this, what can you build it about?”

While some left MPs stress that they have delivered speeches on Gaza, resigned from the front bench and consistently called for a ceasefire, others are frank about being scared of reprisals. “We are frightened of being called antisemitic,” says the MP quoted above.

“If it’s a small Labour majority, anywhere between 20 and 40 – well, that’s very interesting territory”

Starmer’s chief of staff Sue Gray is regarded as a source of hope for the left in suppressing the leadership’s most factional urges. (“Sue Gray has blunted some edges,” says one left source. “She doesn’t like the boys’ club atmosphere in Loto [the leader of the opposition’s office].”) Yet concerns persist on the left that, even if they make it to the general election being called with the whip intact, the ruling NEC could directly deselect MPs at the start of the campaign.

“They’ll do a few of their own undesirables they don’t really care about, who they’ve got no feelings towards, and then they’ll use it as cover to do it to a few campaign group MPs,” predicts one left-wing aide. Names briefed to The Times last year as being tipped for deselection included Liam Byrne and Khalid Mahmood, Labour MPs considered to be on the party’s right.

“That has been our suspicion for quite a while,” a Labour left NEC member says of the idea the ruling committee could oust MPs who have been reselected by their local members. “They’ll bring things such as whip reports.” 

However, they believe that Gaza may have changed the electoral calculation: “Now it would be stupid for them to do that,” the NEC member adds. They say that in cases such as Poplar and Limehouse, deselecting an incumbent left MP like Apsana Begum could see independents pull voters away from Labour, Rochdale-style.

One left MP dismisses the idea: “I’m not worried about it. Such an approach would be unprecedented, to take out a load of MPs for any reason other than some disciplinary case that was live or had gone against them.” And a senior party insider does not say it would be undesirable but suggests Labour could face legal trouble if it attempted such a feat: “It is the kind of thing you could go to law about.”

Outside of Parliament, the left is similarly split over the key question: how friendly should they be towards Labour and its current leadership? Momentum, the group that sprang out of Corbyn’s first leadership campaign, asked itself at a convention in March whether its membership should be open to non-Labour members.

The proposal by James Schneider, the Momentum co-founder and Corbyn’s Loto communications director, went to the heart of the debate around the left’s relationship with Labour. Ultimately, the motion fell. Those who opposed it feared Labour would respond by proscribing the group, which would have seen Momentum members – possibly past and future – expelled from the party.

Momentum activists are divided between those who believe the outfit should be a left-wing version of Labour First – operating solely within Labour, seeking to win positions on key committees and backing favoured candidates – and those who believe it should be an internally democratic network of left-wingers organising both inside and outside Labour.

“We’d still have been Labour-oriented, but we shouldn’t be cutting ourselves off from our natural constituency,” says one insider disappointed in the failure of the Schneider motion. Referring to the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD), a Bennite group founded in 1973 to push for changes to the party’s constitution, the source says scornfully of Momentum: “It’s becoming CLPD for people who’ve heard of Dua Lipa.”

Labour First’s Luke Akehurst says of his rivals: “Momentum has dramatically lost its base in the party. It doesn’t function the way it should. But it’s still bigger now than the left was before 2015. It was [CLPD secretary] Pete Willsman and his filing cabinets doing all the organising prior to 2015.”

While the Labour left is bigger than pre-2015, some have been expelled from the party and many have chosen to leave. Labour has lost – or happily waved goodbye to – 200,000 paid-up members over the last four years.

“I think the problem is that the ones who have got themselves expelled over antisemitism have no choice but to operate outside the Labour Party, so they will constantly be a siren call to the ones inside, going, ‘look, you could be purer and more radical and have a lot more fun – why go to all those boring meetings when you could come on all our demos?’” Akehurst says.

For those who have not taken the Owen Jones route of quitting the party, the plan for now is simply to wait. As a Labour left councillor says: “There is a section of the left who’ve left and will not have any influence within the party. But the section that have stayed have been forced to adopt a more collegiate and cross-factional approach compared to what happened under Corbyn – it’s possible they’re more bedded in, and after the next election they’ll be the organic leaders of people trying to get the government to do more.”

Richard Burgon has a similar analysis. “When we hopefully get into power, we’re going to inherit a mess, and the left can play an important role in developing the ideas to help Labour meet the challenge it faces in office. We believe we can be useful for that end and have a significant input,” the SCG MP says.

“The left needs to have confidence in its ideas. Some of the stuff [Tony] Blair’s government did, particularly in its first term, like the national minimum wage and devolution, it was a lot of the stuff Tony Benn and the wider left had been talking about in the 20 or 30 years before. We’re not seeking to be oppositional; we’re seeking to be propositional.”

A widely held forecast from the hopeful left goes as follows: Labour wins, but the honeymoon is short; the party is forced to choose between sinking in the polls and changing tack; deep divides with Starmer’s own cabinet come to the fore, weakening the Labour right; with public services still collapsing and local government in crisis, the leadership turns to the left for policy solutions. With free school meals extended, public ownership revived, and wealth taxes introduced, the Labour left is victorious.

And if the landslide indicated by the polls fails to emerge, all the better for the left’s influence. “If it’s a small Labour majority, anywhere between 20 and 40 – well, that’s very interesting territory, and an opportunity for the Labour left,” says an MP’s aide. 

Yet even in these scenarios, the question remains: is the Labour left capable of uniting enough to take advantage?

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