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By Ben Guerin
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The Rochdale shambles shows Labour must sharpen its decision making

Keir Starmer, February 2024 (PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo)

3 min read

It’s hard being a Labour leader of the opposition (Loto). You are simultaneously the spokesperson on every policy of the party, all matters of internal party management, no matter how small, answerable for any utterance or action of every MP and peer, and a constituency MP.

One thing I’m convinced should be hived off from that list of responsibilities is matters of internal party management. The Labour Party elects a general secretary to lead on this, yet by convention they never take any public responsibility for issues of party discipline, candidate selection, or internal elections. This is left to the party leader and shadow cabinet members who often have no idea of the characters involved or the nuances of party rules and processes.

This is relevant again after the debacle that besieged Keir Starmer’s leadership when the now ex-candidate for Rochdale, Azhar Ali, was exposed for endorsing a conspiracy theory drawing on antisemitic tropes.

A process led by an a more independent general secretary and staff should have made a quicker and better decision

It has now come out that the Labour press team was given the full recording by the Mail on Sunday in advance of further revelations being published by the Daily Mail. Yet it should not have been the press team listening to it at all but an independent disciplinary system. The scandalous comments should have been investigated thoroughly as an issue of party rules and discipline, not media management.

Keir Starmer afterwards claimed, “I took decisive action”. There are two problems with this statement. One is that many people would argue it’s not true: Ali should have been suspended immediately for the conspiratorial claim that Israel “deliberately” let 7 October happen. 

The second problem is that it was Keir Starmer and his team taking the decision. The i reported that further revelations published by the Daily Mail – in which Ali talked about “people in the media from certain Jewish quarters” – prompted “an emergency meeting for Starmer and his inner circle”, reportedly lasting five hours.

The EHRC report rightly criticised “the overall practice or policy operating… in which Loto or the leadership was involved in ‘politically sensitive’ complaints” – and found Labour to have breached its legal duties. This does not seem to have changed. 

This may seem unduly procedural, but process matters because with better processes come better outcomes. 

Politicians are subject to all kinds of personal and political pressures. There were clearly some lobbying Labour to dump Azhar Ali straight away, and there were also those prepared to defend him. A process led by an a more independent general secretary and staff should have made a quicker and better decision.

Many people speak highly of the skills, experience and capability of Keir Starmer’s chief of staff Sue Gray. The temptation in Loto is always to hoard power, to be in control of everything. But that is untenable when managing so many parts of a complex organisation, with competing demands in each.

Even away from disciplinary matters, Labour’s excruciatingly drawn-out U-turn on its £28bn green investment plan was a shambles. A rare breakdown in shadow cabinet discipline appeared to have been the consequence of inertia and indecision at the centre.

So far these matters appear not to have done Labour any electoral damage because the Conservatives are so deeply unpopular and mired in their own scandals. But in an election campaign, and likely soon in government, Labour needs to get sharper in its decision making. A prime minister spending five hours debating an internal party candidate would be even more ludicrous than an opposition leader doing so.

Keir Starmer has previously professed his support for more devolution of power – he would be well-advised to practise it within his party, too.

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