This is more than just another tedious episode of the Keir Starmer picks a fight with his own party saga. The banning of Jeremy Corbyn – a man he not long ago called “a colleague and a friend” – from standing for Labour is a high-profile symbol of the crushing of local democracy and natural justice within the party.
In February, Labour leader Keir Starmer unilaterally announced that his predecessor Corbyn would not stand as a Labour candidate at the next election. Today, Starmer got his wish when 22 members of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) backed his motion barring Corbyn from continuing his 40-year stint as the Labour MP for Islington North.
The motion moved by Starmer claimed that the Labour Party’s electoral fortunes would be “significantly diminished should Mr Corbyn be endorsed by the Labour Party as one of its candidates for the next general election”. Despite the rhetoric by Starmer supporters in the media, the motion made no mention of antisemitism or Corbyn’s response to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).
Corbyn was suspended from the party in 2020 following a statement he issued after the publication of the EHRC’s report into antisemitism. While Corbyn stated that its recommendations should be implemented and that antisemitism was “abhorrent”, his claim that the scale of antisemitism within Labour had been “dramatically overstated” by his opponents and much of the media was ill-judged, and he was suspended pending investigation.
In November 2020, Labour’s NEC voted to end Corbyn’s suspension and reinstated him as a member. Corbyn had said he regretted any hurt caused by his words following the report by the EHRC into antisemitism, and issued a new more carefully phrased statement.
In my view, and presumably that of the NEC panel that reinstated him, his misjudged and subsequently clarified words were deemed to be a reason for disagreement rather than expulsion. Nevertheless, Starmer withheld the party whip meaning that for the last two and a half years nearly, Corbyn has been a Labour member, but has officially sat as an independent in the House of Commons.
It is very clear from speaking to long-standing Labour members in Islington North that their pick to be their candidate at the next general election would have been Jeremy Corbyn. Their will has now been ridden roughshod over.
The local party has issued an immediate response to the NEC’s decision, citing Starmer’s pledge when running for leader (which like most of his pledges has since been discarded) that “local party members should select their candidates for every election”. The local party also stated, “we reject the NEC’s undue interference in Islington North, which undermines our goal of defeating the Conservatives.”
Quite how they will reject the NEC’s motion is unclear, but they are right that this is a distraction from Labour’s task of ousting the Conservatives. Instead of talking about the Conservative failures on the NHS, the economy or their vile migration bill, let alone Ed Miliband’s positive policies he was trying to announce today, Labour spokespeople are instead forced to talk about internal wranglings.
The decision will cause significant problems for Labour for more than the next news cycle too. Several affiliated unions voted against the motion, including Unite, CWU, Aslef, FBU and the TSSA. Unison refused to back it and abstained. Union funding to the party has already declined and that trend seems likely to accelerate.
One of the longest-serving trade unionists on the NEC, who voted for Andy Burnham rather than Corbyn to be leader in 2015, reportedly told the meeting he has served under several leaders and respected them all, concluding, “but you Starmer I have no respect for”. Starmer was sat only a few seats away.
The elected deputy Angela Rayner absented herself from the NEC today, helpfully putting some distance between herself and the leader’s factional manoeuvring.
More widely, I have already been contacted by several members who say – and some who have already publicly declared – that they will campaign for Corbyn if he decides to stand as an independent.
If Corbyn does decide to run as an independent, I worry that the sectarians now running the Labour Party will spend staff resource scouring social media for signs of support for Corbyn and purging those pledging to campaign for him.
Whether Corbyn will decide to run as an independent is unclear. But as a highly regarded constituency MP with 40 years of service, and as someone with a national profile and large support base, he stands a better than usual chance of winning.
Starmer’s duplicitous sectarianism will likely mean fewer Labour members, less union funding, and, if Corbyn stands as an independent, more party resource in the next election going into fighting what should have been a safe Labour seat. Bizarrely and counterproductively it could also give Corbyn a much higher profile in that election than he would have had as just another Labour backbencher.
Whatever happened to the Keir Starmer who stood for leader describing Jeremy Corbyn as “a colleague and a friend” who wanted to “build on that legacy”? Many Labour members are clear that it was all a lie. Perhaps the biggest problem for Starmer will come if it begins to resonate with the public that he says one thing before an election and another thing afterwards.
Andrew Fisher is the former director of policy for the Labour Party