What has happened?

  • Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey.
  • The Shadow Education Secretary retweeted an interview with Maxine Peake that contained an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory
  • Starmer said it was his first priority to ‘tackle antisemitism’; RLB said she did not endorse the article, despite writing that Maxine Peake was ‘an absolute diamond’ above her retweet of the interview.

Analysis:

After December’s seismic defeat, many asked how Labour would discover new ground in the electoral landscape. Should they go left or right? Should they move on the economy or take on the hard-left on issues of culture and identity? 

Instead of trying to answer these questions with policy pledges or keynote speeches (albeit Coronavirus has partly prevented this from occurring), Kier Starmer is showing who he is and what Labour means in the way he has responded to events. Rather than aggressively declaring strident and uncompromising positions, he represents a tennis player striking defensive shots from the baseline. Whilst playing nothing special he hopes to succeed when his opponent makes the mistake. 

Starmer has made small steps and by no means does his responses to events express a wider ideology or platform from which to successfully fight an election. But they are what is needed. Today’s sacking of RLB is yet another example. 

  1. By showing such firm action against antisemitism Starmer very quickly into his leadership is proving he is different from Jeremy Corbyn and that the party has changed. He must succeed in doing this. Corbyn represented a party firmly defeated by the electorate. Labour cannot afford to look anything like this party by the time of the next election. RLB’s departure reflects another weakening of the Corbynite ideology and legacy within Labour.
  2. By sacking RLB quickly and without the duration of many painful news cycles, he has shown himself to be different from the Prime Minister. First, he has acted swiftly rather than appearing to, again and again, be fighting a relentless wave of criticism, weakening his authority with each fresh development. (Cummings and Jenrick). No-one will still be talking about these criticisms against RLB tomorrow night and that strengthens Starmer’s claims to be more competent than Johnson. Starmer appears in control of the events around him – albeit on a far easier scale to the PM. Although Starmer is only having to control internal issues here, this is something that should not be derided. His predecessor struggled greatly to ever achieve this. Second, when the election comes with some credibility Starmer is the leader who sacks people when they have done wrong. Johnson in contrast continues to struggle with a character issue from his time as Mayor of London – when he refused to sack members of staff against allegations of malpractice. Although some believe this is an example of a Prime Minister espousing loyalty, how many more examples of non-sackings will Starmer have to play with by the next election? 
  3. Nevertheless, there is a risk. A precedent has been set. If Starmer wants to rule the Labour Party with this form of strict discipline this only makes facing the next allegation that little more awkward. The next time the charge will be ‘You sacked Long-Bailey why aren’t you sacking x’. Thus it is likely that it won’t be long until a shadow minister Starmer thinks more highly of will have to be sacked by him. Leaving little room for manoeuvre may aggravate divisions within a party, which, it should not be forgotten, was engulfed in a fierce civil war only six months ago.
  4. Finally, this annoys the Corbynites. And annoys them a lot. This is great if Starmer believes Labour’s way back to victory is reclaiming the former red wall from the Tories. But this will take a few electoral cycles and even then, without Scotland Labour needs the metropolitan and student communities who were brought to the party under Corbyn. Starmer needs to find ways to bridge the divide between the Corbynites and the Labour voters of old who turned against the party in December. This sacking reflects a Leader who is unsure of how to do that yet. Perhaps that is the real reason Kier Starmer is yet to reveal his grand plan for the country. You might succeed in the early rounds, but no one wins Wimbledon without some form of attack.