Last year Jeremy Corbyn was leading the Labour Party into a general election in a bid to prompt wholesale change with a sweeping manifesto. Today he no longer represents Labour in his Islington North constituency, is instead standing as an Independent MP after having his whip withdrawn and has launched a new political project. Keir Starmer was appointed on the basis of uniting the party, but less than a year into his tenure and the infighting which prevailed throughout Corbyn’s tenure has persisted and plunged the party into a civil war. At a time when the Conservative Party’s handling of the global pandemic has been questionable, instead of focusing on dislodging them, the Labour hierarchy are instead fixating on sewing discord in the party.
After the catastrophic December 2019 election and the death blow dealt to the Labour Party, the principle narrative was that the party needed to move on from the Corbyn era and forge a new identity.
The election of the former shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer in the April leadership elections, at the expense of the close Corbyn ally Rebecca Long-Bailey, was supposed to commence that journey.
Starmer’s new shadow cabinet appeared to reinforce that. Packed with figures from the moderate wing of the party, including some of Corbyn’s fiercest critics like Wes Streeting and Jess Phillips, it signalled Starmer’s intention to learn, improve and reform. Yet recent weeks have suggested the complications that tormented Corbyn during his tenure appear deep-seated and are proving stern tests for Starmer.
The anti-Semitism saga dominated the headlines throughout Corbyn’s reign, arguably reaching its height just weeks before the December election, when the Chief Rabbi made an extraordinary intervention in The Times. He urged the electorate to ‘vote with their conscience’, insisting that Corbyn was ‘unfit for high office’.
Hence, one of the first pledges Starmer made upon becoming party leader was to ‘tear out the poison of anti-Semitism’.
When he ruthlessly sacked Long-Bailey from his shadow cabinet after she shared an article that contained an anti-Semitic trope, he was attempting to firmly display his steadfastness in his promise. Marie van der Zyl, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, applauded Starmer for ‘backing his words with action on anti-Semitism’.
But any suggestions that Starmer’s actions would mark the beginning of the end of the anti-Semitism wrangling have since been trounced.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission began an investigation into anti-Semitism whilst Corbyn was in charge of the party and the report was published in November, concluding there were serious failings in the Labour Party leadership in addressing anti-Semitism.
Corbyn’s response was to claim that whilst anti-Semitism in the party was a pressing concern, the accusations that lingered for several years were ‘dramatically overstated for political reasons’. That the report stopped short of calling the party institutionally anti-Semitic suggests Corbyn’s concerns were plausible.
But the damage had already been done. Starmer swiftly suspended him, claiming it was the ‘right’ thing to do, before reinforcing that the party did not need to descend into civil war as a result.
Ostensibly, that was wishful thinking as the decision tipped the party over the cliff edge.
Just 19 days after the initial decision to suspend him was taken, Corbyn was reinstated into the party which sparked outrage. Upon hearing the decision, one Labour MP was reported to be considering their position in the party, stipulating they felt ‘betrayed’. Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP for Dagenham and Barking and an unyielding Corbyn critic said she could not comprehend the move, describing it as a ‘broken outcome from a broken system’.
However, despite being reinstated, Corbyn had his whip withdrawn for 3 months by the Chief Whip Nick Brown, thus preventing him from sitting as a Labour MP. This sparked a furious backlash from leftwing MP’s such as Diane Abbott, John McDonnell and Richard Burgon. Andrew Scattergood, the co-chair of the grassroots campaign group Momentum, accused the party leader of ‘making it up as he goes along’.
It is no secret that throughout the Corbyn years the party was overwhelmed by bitter factional squabbles. A leaked report in April 2019 illustrated the extent of the friction and hostility. The report contains hundreds of pages of evidence, including WhatsApp messages and emails, which mainly took place from 13 January 2017 to the week after the election result that June. They reveal an untrustworthy and debilitated culture at the top of the party which actively undermined the leadership.
Indeed in 2017, Corbyn was approximately 2,000 votes and 7 knife-edge Conservative seats away from becoming prime minister. Yet despite him gaining 30 seats and winning 40% of the popular vote, footage shows anti-Corbyn Labour MP’s looking displeased and surprised as the results filtered through.
A change in leadership was not going to guarantee the departure of such hostility, as illustrated by the ripples of dissension that have been materialising. In early October, Unite, Britain’s largest trade union and Labour’s largest trade union affiliate, voted to reduce its funding to the party by just under £1million. Then the Corbyn saga developments only intensified the existing divisions. The leaders of eight trade unions affiliated to Labour recently signed a joint statement expressing ‘concern’ over the unresolved situation of Corbyn’s place in the party.
Furthermore, 13 Labour members of the governing body, the National Executive Committee (NEC), recently staged a mass walkout in protest of the actions of Starmer’s leadership. More than 80 Constituency Labour Parties (CLP) have also called for Corbyn to be reinstated, expressed solidarity with him or a passed a motion expressing no confidence in Starmer.
In response, Labour’s general secretary David Evans ordered Labour MP’s and members not to discuss Corbyn’s suspension or the anti-Semitism report. Indeed, Labour recently suspended two senior officials of a local party branch. Hampstead and Kliburn CLP defied the orders from Labour HQ and passed a motion to reinstate Corbyn as a Labour MP. The general secretary also recently thanked local party officers who have implemented his guidance on motions criticising the suspension of the whip from the former leader.
The deputy leader and once staunch Corbyn ally Angela Rayner, addressing the Jewish Labour Movement’s one day conference, said members needed to ‘get real’ about the scale of anti-Semitism and threatened to suspend thousands of members if they continued to ignore the issue.
The party leadership’s insistence on side-lining Corbyn is perhaps supposed to deliver a message of intent, outlining to the electorate the clear change in political direction. However, it is also being received as a flagrant offensive against the left. Momentum have already said they will ‘not take attacks on the left lying down’. The internal divisions are threatening to be thorny and perpetual, particularly as Labour members are still overwhelmingly in favour of the 2019 manifesto. Likewise, 74% describe the policies as ‘broadly correct’, so discarding the architect of those policies is unlikely to be without complications.
This is likely to dictate the policies and decisions Starmer adopts. To illustrate this, Labour’s 2019 conference approved a ‘Socialist Green New Deal motion’, a policy which then became a central party policy. Then recently, after climate activists and young Labour supporters warned the party inaction over its green new deal could harm its electoral chances, a Labour spokesperson reiterated the party’s commitment to achieve the substantial majority of emissions reductions by 2030 and nationalisation of energy.
Therefore, any intentions to deliberately muzzle the left could be ill-considered because although the party hierarchy is undergoing a transformation, the left maintain considerable influence. In the recent NEC elections, which impact the overall strategic direction of the party, seven of the 15 positions were won by Momentum-backed candidates. In the Young Labour elections, Momentum-backed Socialist Future candidates won all but three seats on the 16-member committee. Seemingly, the Labour members do not share the leadership’s avidity to shut the door on left wing ideals.
It is unlikely any side possesses intentions to formally split from the party, especially after witnessing every Centrist MP who split from the party in February 2019 lose their seat in the December election.
However, the schisms are deepening. This was demonstrated by Corbyn’s recent announcement, in which the former Labour leader launched a Project for Peace and Justice, designed to promote research and activism around the causes he has spent his life defending. The project, which has announced a global conference for January 17, promises to provide a platform for campaigns against war and in favour of concerted international action on the climate and soaring inequalities.
Whilst is it not an official diffusion of the party, the project gives those on the left, particularly those who feel they are being marginalised by the party, a cause to rally behind and an excuse to depart from the party that has alienated them. New data shows 38% of 18-24-year olds view Starmer as untrustworthy, whilst only 11% consider him to be trustworthy. That is arguably Corbyn’s most loyal demographic, and one that will likely have no reluctance to abandon Labour and join Corbyn’s movement. It would not be preposterous to suggest Starmer has already provided them with incentive to leave. Hence, the disparity in the party is unmistakable and could prove deeply damaging.
In fact, the polls that emerged in the wake of the EHRC report and the sacking of Corbyn provided astute indications into the potential repercussions should Labour persist with the existing turbulence. Asked whether the Labour party is divided or united at the present time, YouGov polling showed 57% of the British public thought the Labour Party was divided. One week before the former leader’s removal from the party, only 36% thought as much. Much of this shift was down to perceptions within the party. Prior to the controversy, just 22% of Labour voters described the party as divided; immediately after the suspension the figure more than doubled, to 51%.
That suggests uneasiness and concern within the party is growing. That Labour has lost over 50,000 members since Starmer became leader is instructive, particularly as at one-point Labour had almost three quarters of a million members signed up.
The nation’s faith in Labour appears to be ebbing too. An Opinium poll in mid-November showed support for Labour slashed by four points, dropping to 38% as the Tories leapfrogged them. A YouGov poll at the same time mirrored the trend, displaying a reduction in Labour support nationally. That Labour had grabbed a five-point lead just weeks earlier suggests the slump in support was a direct consequence of the internal strife Starmer engendered by sacking Corbyn.
To compound matters, in a separate YouGov poll conducted recently, when asked ‘which of the following would make the best prime minister?’, respondents placed Boris Johnson on 29% meanwhile Starmer was on 34%. The answer that received a higher percentage than both the Tory and Labour leader was ‘Not sure’.
A different polling company asking the same question one week later had Johnson leading Starmer by 11 points, sitting at 43% whilst Starmer lagged behind on 32%. Starmer’s latest satisfaction ratings remain gloomy. 38% of people are satisfied whilst 33% are dissatisfied. The +5-net rating is the lowest satisfaction rating since he was elected, and the fact his net rating was +31 in June shows a worrisome slump in support.
In October 2019, the Global Health Security Index released a report examining levels of global health security across 19 countries. Countries were scored on a scale of 0 to 100 where 100 is the highest level of preparedness. The UK came second, on 77.9 just behind the United States. Yet Boris Johnson’s handling of the pandemic has been the embodiment of inadequate, as apparent by the fact the UK was the first in Europe to pass 50,000 deaths.
What does it then say of the opposition party if it still cannot captivate the public even after ineptitude governance from the ruling party?
It is unclear what the end game for the party is but they are currently scoring several own goals. The unsettling factor for Starmer is that anti-Semitism, the topic he conclusively pledged to stamp out, is still front and centre and is demolishing the likelihood of accomplishing his other fundamental pledge of uniting the party. Starmer promised to restore the nation’s trust in the party and yet is currently the nation’s second choice, trailing behind a prime minister who is the polar opposite of trustworthy. In removing the whip from Corbyn, Starmer added fuel to an already raging factional fire in the Labour Party that is now threatening to incinerate any chances of Starmer entering 10 Downing Street. The party has now essentially arrived at a watershed moment where it must decide between demonstrating to the public it can be a credible alternative, or obsessing over muzzling the former leader and the left wing of the party.