Turning a Little Blue
At 1 a.m. on 10 September, Jess Barnard, the chair of Young Labour, received an email from the party telling her she was under investigation for ‘hostile or prejudiced’ behaviour. Citing two tweets condemning transphobia, the message asked if Barnard regretted ‘posting such comments on Facebok [sic]’, and instructed her – as is standard in party investigations – that the notice must remain confidential. Barnard nonetheless wrote to Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC), concerned by the notice’s irregular timing, slapdash composition and scanty evidence. ‘As a young member already facing hostility from some members of staff,’ she said, ‘this is very much starting to feel like harassment and intimidation.’ The email leaked, and the party rescinded the notice with a grovelling apology, blaming it on a junior staffer on a temporary contract.
The timing, though, is curious. Young Labour is one of the few institutional redoubts of the party’s left, and the notice came shortly after Barnard had revealed that the general secretary’s office was interfering with her organisation’s choice of conference speakers, issuing an informal general prohibition on any speaker associated with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, and Jeremy Corbyn in particular. Young Labour exercises a peculiar hold on the imagination of the party’s right, redoubled since the abolition of Labour Students in the dying days of the Corbyn era; the student wing had effectively served as a rotten borough and pipeline for future MPs on the Blairite flank. But it’s on policy that Young Labour has been consistently awkward for the new leadership, remaining committed to the positions that attracted many young members under the previous dispensation – public ownership, serious climate politics, internationalism – as well as advocating for trans equality. A late-night disciplinary email, concocted on scanty grounds, apparently outside the party’s legal processes: anyone acquainted with Labour’s unending internal power struggle will find it hard not to read the hallmarks of a botched factional ploy.
Older members justify the inordinate attention they give to Labour’s youth wing by citing its seat on the NEC, which gives young members a say on major party matters; for those interested in Labour power politics, such votes are precious. To more casual observers, this episode may seem only to confirm a few eternal truths: everybody in Labour hates each other, everything in the party is subject to factional thrall, and you wouldn’t trust any of them with your spare change. But the case is illustrative: according to someone else on the NEC, a number of similar letters have been issued to less prominent party members, with fewer avenues of defence than Barnard, and more likely to be cowed by the demand they keep it secret. The party still seems to have difficulty interpreting the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s insistence that disciplinary processes should be insulated from political or factional interference.
More excitable voices on the party’s left complain of purges in response to even the most isolated and justifiable of disciplinary cases. But the recent spate of investigation notices might give even sober observers pause. On 17 September, the left-wing Labour MP for Jarrow, Kate Osborne, received a similar notice to Barnard’s, based again on unclear and contradictory evidence (in her case, a tweet expressing solidarity with Rebecca Long-Bailey). Osborne’s legal team got it rapidly rescinded, but she drew attention to the smearing effect such investigations can have, in her case leaving her fearful for her job.
The party’s official response, that these are all errors made clearing a backlog of complaints, is curious. Given the variety of complaints made at the peak of the factional warfare, processing errors ought to be distributed randomly between left and right: no such distribution is apparent. Meanwhile, activists in Bristol have submitted subject access requests that require the party, under data laws, to share any documents concerning them. And it seems that someone has been patiently sifting through members’ appearances on obscure livestreams, to log such heinous infractions as calling for constituency parties to disburse funds to tenants’ unions and food services early in the pandemic.
Anyone detached from the party inferno may well find all this boring and repellent in equal measure. But Labour’s poisonous internal struggles are only part of a more significant shift ahead of its conference, which should alarm its more general progressive voters, many of whom had hoped Keir Starmer would deliver the core planks of Corbyn’s policy programme without his predecessor’s baggage.
Marsha de Cordova resigned as shadow equalities secretary on 14 September. She said she needed to devote more time to her Battersea constituency, a marginal she first won in 2017. But two days later, a different story appeared in the Voice: Labour’s most senior Black woman had quit her role in frustration at Starmer’s reluctance to engage on issues of race. His office was said to have stymied attempts to develop a progressive race equality policy for fear of alienating ‘red wall’ voters. The story, confined to Britain’s sole Black newspaper, sank beneath wide press indifference – but it isn’t hard to imagine more concerted media interest under a different leader.
Attempts to prevent a motion proposed by Labour for a Green New Deal from reaching the conference floor, along with furious briefing against Ed Miliband for rearticulating a commitment to public ownership of energy suppliers, suggest a move away from the party’s pioneering climate platform.
Most puzzling, though, is Starmer’s personal project: reforming the way the party leader is chosen, and returning to the old electoral college system instead of the one member, one vote (OMOV) method that elected both Corbyn and Starmer himself. Starmer’s proposal is being spun as returning power to the unions, but the chief beneficiaries will be MPs and the biggest losers will be the general membership (other reforms would also reduce their ability to dislodge constituency MPs). The precise tenor of the proposal, however, matters less than Starmer’s determination to push it through now.
None of the political work needed to smooth its passage appears to have been done: no major union leader could be found to enthuse over the change, and even Starmer’s front bench were reluctant to praise it. Starmer himself has repeated again and again – especially after the loss of Hartlepool – the need for the party to look outwards and cease its internal strife: prioritising an arcane change to party rules seems unlikely to achieve this, though it guarantees that the ambient, booze-fuelled paranoia of the party conference will be particularly intense.
Starmer’s motive is hard to discern. It’s vanishingly unlikely that he intends to leave and wishes to smooth the way for a successor, since he believes the pandemic is primarily to blame for his doldrums. More probable is a peripheral awareness of intrigue on his restive backbenches – and perhaps closer to home, too. Angela Rayner is still the only plausible challenger – and she seems unlikely to move soon – but Dan Jarvis’s stepping down as mayor of South Yorkshire after one term, and Wes Streeting’s recent bump in fundraising, suggest there are a few MPs expecting a change of leadership in the medium term.
Perhaps most likely, though, is that Starmer wants to get as much bloodletting out of the way now, far enough from an election that it can recede in voters’ minds, while he burnishes his image as a doughty, fair-minded and exceedingly competent patriot. This suggests, in turn, that Starmer thinks Johnson will avoid going to the polls until 2024, after the new boundary changes come in. But none of this explains the sloppy execution and appearance of panicked haste; accomplished machiavellians don’t look like they’re scheming.
Starmer should feel largely unthreatened from his left. The Corbynite rump in the party has broadly failed to regroup since 2019, spending much of the pandemic relitigating its defeat. Many left-wingers have disengaged from the party while retaining vestigial membership, giving their attention to less poisonous local issues, community support in the pandemic or climate activism. The left’s counter-festival of socialist ideas, The World Transformed, will be held again in Brighton alongside the sealed tomb of the party conference. Its wide-ranging programme suggests that sincerity, intellectual energy and ambition are still there on the left of the party. But the outcome of its scheduled debate, ‘Starmer Out?’, is academic: even as earnest members wrestle with how best to transform society in response to the climate crisis, the political capacity to realise those ideas ebbs.
All of this points to a relaunched Starmerism – at least the third relaunch in eighteen months – divested of the residual progressive commitments on which he built his leadership bid. Staking out his ground with a turgid 12,000-word pamphlet for the Fabian Society, apparently channelled from the year 2012, Starmer has ditched socialist rhetoric in favour of threadbare admiration for ‘hard-working families’, British business and a woolly commitment to fairness. Public ownership and the Green New Deal are out, ‘A New Deal for Businesses and Working People’ is in (no, me neither).
‘The Road Ahead’ is, in effect, a bloated version of the speech he is poised to give at conference. Yet its reliance on vague cliché dismayed even the vacuous ranks of the commentariat usually first to applaud him. There is little in it that Theresa May or David Cameron could have disagreed with. It is hard to know at whom it’s really aimed: few of Labour’s former voters will be eagerly awaiting their copy, and the enthusiasts likely to read it will find its circumlocution and avoidance of commitments frustrating. Perhaps the hope is that its sentiments will diffuse into a general sense of Starmer’s values: country, family, work, security and, above all, Not Being Jeremy Corbyn.
Starmer’s essay is a Rorschach blot: his opponents see a flailing dearth of ambition, his acolytes a sensible pitch for the centre-ground. Most telling are its absences. The climate crisis digresses into a paean to private industry. If Starmer is reluctant to define what he means by ‘contribution’ and ‘fairness’, old prejudices about ‘skivers’, ‘strivers’ and ‘benefit parasites’ will rise from their graves. Britons are working ever harder and for ever less pay: everyone agrees things should be fairer, and everyone wants more say and greater security. Some may even want to work a bit less, for better pay, and get to see the other members of their hard-working families when they aren’t exhausted. The obvious question Starmer avoids is: how? Facing a protean Tory adversary – willing to radically adjust the way they use the state, including its taxation capacity, and perhaps making a burgeoning turn on the climate – that question is all the more pressing. But answer came there none.