When Rebecca Long-Bailey, then Shadow Education Secretary, tweeted an interview of the actress Maxine Peakes by The Independent, few would have predicted that it would have been one of the last things she did as a member of Starmer’s Shadow Cabinet.
Nonetheless, 3 hours later she was gone, stood down by the leader of her party, who had defeated her in the leadership contest with 2 times as many votes. Starmer’s staff and allies have been keen to stress to journalists that the decision was only taken as a last resort after, they claim, Long-Bailey was offered multiple opportunities to delete the tweet and apologise. For herself, the former Shadow Education Secretary insists that she was dismissed before getting a chance to speak to Starmer directly. She also claims that the wording and substance of the clarification tweet she subsequently sent was agreed upon with the leader’s office, before they demanded that both tweets be deleted. Naturally, Keir Starmer and his office disagree.
There has been plenty of backlash from backbenchers and left wing members of the party. Jon Lansman, head of the Corbyn-supporting campaign group Momentum, said that nothing in the article would have been deemed antisemitic by a Labour Party panel. The Socialist Campaign Group of MPs, the principal left-wing grouping within the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), tweeted a petition in solidarity with the disgraced former Shadow Cabinet member. Owen Jones, an avowed socialist writer for The Guardian, tweeted that it was an “absurd overreaction”.
Other quarters have been more complementary. The Guardian’s Rafael Behr tweeted that Starmer had made the right decision both morally and politically, seeing it as a pre-emptive strike on worse behaviour in the future. Tim Shipman, of The Sunday Times, described it as a “good day’s work” for the Labour leader, saying it differentiated him from Boris Johnson’s reluctance to sack ministers or advisers who become political liabilities, demonstrated his resolve on antisemitism, “offloaded a Corbynite”, and “Helped the hard left Twittersphere reveal itself as ridiculous”. BBC Newsnight’s Lewis Goodall noted that, although the “left won’t forget[sic]”, it delivered a strong message on antisemitism and allowed Starmer to pick someone he preferred as Shadow Education Secretary.
It is worth noting that, although a Labour insider told the Huffington post that Starmer was not looking to sack Long-Bailey all along, her replacement is Kate Green, who, like Starmer, supported Owen Smith’s failed leadership challenge against Jeremy Corbyn in 2016. This would, to some, place her on the centre or right of the party, and make her a good option for Starmer to assert his influence. That having been said, Green was also Chief Executive of the Child Poverty Action Group. As such, her work on issues relating to disadvantaged children could lend her gravitas as Shadow Education Secretary, a crucial brief given the ongoing issues in the sector.
Dismissing Long-Bailey could have other advantages. The Equality and Human Rights Commission, to which Labour was referred to in May 2019 by the charity Campaign Against Antisemitism, is due to publish its report on antisemitism and discrimination in the Labour Party in the middle of July. As such, as Goodall also noted, Starmer arguably needed something to draw a line between his leadership and that of his predecessor, to be able to defend the party by arguing that things have changed now. Rebecca Long-Bailey may have unwittingly provided him with an opportunity to do just that.
The alternative is that Starmer may have ignited another factional struggle, despite having run as a unity candidate in the leadership election, which could cause him needless damage as he attempts to wrest control of Parliament from the Conservatives. The Socialist Campaign group rallied around Long-Bailey shortly after she was stood down from the cabinet, and deputies from the group met with Starmer on the 26th of June on her behalf. The group included Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell (formerly Shadow Chancellor under Corbyn’s leadership), setting the stage for a factional split within the party between its left and centre-right. Indeed, Labour has a long history of fierce internal conflicts, with a highlight reel that includes Neil Kinnock’s famous conference speech on poor governance by the Liverpool city council, dominated by the left-wing Militant group, and the scrapping of Clause IV under Tony Blair. So factional strife would not be unexpected.
But as ever in politics, all is still to play for. We do not yet know how Starmer’s tenure as Leader of the Opposition will play out, or how his prospects will shift as with the unfolding economic crisis. We have yet to see his electability – a key part of his leadership bid – tested. Nor have any specific policies been announced, which will prove an important test of how Starmer’s rhetoric matches up to the reality he wants to create, and may either assuage or irritate frustrations on the Labour left. What next for the Labour Party? A lot of uncertainty. Plus ça change.