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Artillery Row

Shifting momentum: why Starmer sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey

There is more to RLB’s sacking than meets the eye

In sacking the last major Corbyn loyalist from his shadow cabinet, Keir Starmer (who is still not quite fully three months into his leadership) has struck several blows at once.

Firstly, he has impressed upon party and wider electorate that he is “the boss” (“strongman” is for abroad). The demonstration of this decisiveness is sweetly timed when Boris Johnson is seen to lack the ruthlessness to sack Dominic Cummings or Robert Jenrick.

Secondly, there is the toxic nature of the issue over which Rebecca Long-Bailey has been fired as shadow education spokesperson. She transgressed by retweeting an interview in the Independent with Maxine Peake (“an absolute diamond” in Long-Bailey’s accompanying comment) in which the former Communist-turned-Labour-voting actress calls for the dismantling of capitalism (fair comment) and states that “the tactics used by the police in America, kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, that was learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services” (unfair comment). Israeli police deny they have any such protocol and Starmer has described Peake’s claim as “an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory”. In firing Long-Bailey, Starmer has sent a very clear message that he means what he says about rebuilding the trust that Jeremy Corbyn lost with Britain’s Jewish community.

Momentum and the left wing Campaign Group of Labour MPs at Westminster are shocked by Long-Bailey’s defenestration. The conspiracy, some of them fear, is closer to home, with the charge of anti-Semitism merely Starmer’s excuse for going from a policy of containment to a war of annihilation. Their annihilation.

Twitter is alive with disillusioned Labour activists and voters defending Long-Bailey with the sort of support she doesn’t want – allegations that Starmer is a Zionist, or at the very least a Stalinist (in this instance, not meant favourably). “Absurd overreaction” is the more measured verdict of the journalist and conductor of Corbynite harmonies, Owen Jones, who echoes the verdict of “reckless overreaction” offered by Momentum’s chair, Jon Lansman. Former shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell has said he “stands in solidarity” with Long-Bailey.

Has Starmer squandered an uneasy but purposeful truce or decided to get his retaliation in early?  There was a telling moment in the House of Commons during Tuesday’s announcement of the new measures to ease Lockdown. After Starmer put on record that “I believe the government is trying to do the right thing, and in that we will support them”, Richard Burgon, who was Corbyn’s shadow justice minister (until sacked by Starmer), directly contradicted the new leader’s line of qualified support by alleging that easing the Lockdown was “once again gambling with people’s lives” and “really just about pleasing right-wingers on the Tory back benches.” None other than Jeremy Corbyn duly retweeted a clip of Burgon making this claim and added his own endorsement, “People and health must come before private profit.”

In seeking to nip this nascent dissent in the bud, Starmer has risked giving the Left its first martyr. Appalled by Long-Bailey’s dismissal, the Campaign Group promptly requested a meeting with Starmer, only to be told that the Labour leader would not see them. Highhanded perhaps, but what else was Starmer to do? Having issued the red card, no amount of being surrounded by outraged players was going to convince him to summon the sent-off player back from the changing room. Decision taken, now wave play on.

Has Starmer decided to get his retaliation in early?

Too late, Long-Bailey endeavoured to clarify her action by maintaining that her supportive retweeting of the Peake interview “wasn’t intended to be an endorsement of all aspects of the article.” Irony may be found in left-wingers who are generally enthusiastic witchfinders against political incorrectness suddenly finding the same intolerance meted out to one of their own for stepping beyond the bounds of acceptable thought. For this reason, Long-Bailey has attracted some normally unlikely Tory-minded sympathisers who know what it is like to find themselves “cancelled” for proximity to the wrong ideas.

Whilst Long-Bailey cannot be held to have necessarily supported every sentence in Peake’s interview, the thrust of it – which she clearly did cheer – was far removed from the tone of constructive opposition that Starmer is trying to instil. Among the actress’s other observations were “we’re being ruled by capitalist, fascist dictators” and a rebuke to working class people who voted Tory at the general election, “there’s a lot of people who should hang their heads in shame. People going, ‘Oh, I can join the Labour Party again because Keir Starmer’s there,’ well shame on you.” The notion that Long-Bailey was summarily fired on the spot is false. Several hours were spent trying to convince her to recant on her support for Peake’s views. She refused to recant, not because she endorsed the Israeli police conspiracy, but more likely because the rest of the article contained what to Long-Bailey are articles of faith.

In firing her, Starmer may merely have acted speedily to deal with a one-off lapse of judgement from the woman who simply happened to be his main challenger for the Labour leadership. Momentum see method: Starmer bent on seizing an opportunity – any opportunity – to remove one of the few remaining Corbynistas from his shadow cabinet.

For the last couple of weeks, Boris Johnson has sought to goad Starmer on the behaviour of Labour-supporting teaching unions that continue to oppose the reopening of schools. At a time when Starmer is trying to make the claim of widening social inequality a key issue, Johnson has fired back that nothing hurts social mobility more than unions keeping schools closed.

Recognising this weak spot, Starmer is trying to distance himself from the teaching unions. But that was problematic with a doctrinaire left-winger as his education spokesperson. Thanks to a throw-away claim by an ex-Communist actress, he has been gifted his chance to overcome the obstacle that Long-Bailey presented.

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