Even Britain’s worst crisis since the war cannot stamp out the flames of Labour’s seemingly eternal conflict. As constituency Labour parties defy diktats from the party’s general secretary that motions expressing solidarity with Jeremy Corbyn – a year ago, standing to be Labour prime minister, now not even a Labour MP – will be ruled out of order, the former leader’s team is beginning legal action to reverse the suspension of the whip, and to prove a deal was done to bring him back to the party. But while it is tempting to portray this as a clash between two internally unified groups – the Starmerites and the Corbynites – there are more complicated divisions at work.
When they occupied the leadership, iron unity saw Corbyn’s team through the 2016 leadership coup and the general election a year later; but throughout 2019, their operation became hopelessly fractured over Brexit and antisemitism. Those divisions remain, and Corbyn is listening to the faction that regrets his failure to sack Keir Starmer as shadow Brexit secretary. This group now believes that the incumbent leader is intent on smashing Labour’s left flank and its legacy – and that any search for compromise is therefore a naive delusion.
But the battle lines have been drawn not on policy but antisemitism, through Corbyn’s response to the EHRC report. This protracted dispute is causing genuine hurt and distress to Jewish people across the political spectrum. It is also causing despair among some of Corbyn’s closest and natural allies, and they fear that this saga is inflicting terrible damage on the left and destroying its influence – just 18 of the 34 Socialist Campaign Group MPs signed an initial statement criticising his suspension.
While leader, Corbyn’s personal distress at being labelled a racist led him to make poor decisions on antisemitism or simply to go awol: history repeats itself in his backbench exile. While a new Survation poll discloses that Labour members narrowly oppose Starmer’s decision to withhold the whip, it also reveals that most have strongly negative views towards Corbyn’s EHRC response, overwhelmingly so among the younger membership, who were supposed to form the advance guard of the Corbyn project.
For those who fear Starmer makes kneejerk decisions based on the prospect of negative headlines, his alleged fury after a former Corbyn speechwriter hailed the ex-leader’s readmission as a victory for the left is a worrying sign. They fear too that his panic at threats from the Labour MP Margaret Hodge to resign from the party if Corbyn has the whip restored shows that his leadership will always defer to pressure from the Labour right. If Starmer believed suspending Corbyn and then withholding the whip would reap electoral dividends, then he was profoundly misguided: both Starmer and Labour’s polling have slid, and the public overwhelmingly see the party as divided. Authoritarian manoeuvres – such as the party machine ordering Young Labour’s newly elected committee to take down tweets calling for Corbyn’s whip to be reinstated – belie Starmer’s election promises to promote unity and end factionalism.
The leader’s political operation – charged with running relations between the leadership and stakeholders including the parliamentary party, unions and NEC – is run by Jenny Chapman, former Darlington MP and ex-vice-chair of Blairite ginger group Progress, and Matt Pound, who ran Labour First, the organised “old right”. Both are passionately committed to marginalising the party’s left, but are alienating not just Corbynites but those considered “soft left” MPs, too.
Antisemitism is far from the only dividing line. This week, a meeting between Starmer and trade union general secretaries was fraught: unions want more policy engagement, but instead are being rebuffed by a political operation run by Labour’s right, and a leadership tentative about revealing the direction its policy agenda will take, leaving a vacuum. Profoundly unimpressed, unions are privately discussing slashing their financial contributions to an already cash-strapped party. The party has already lost the monthly subs of 50,000 members who have left the party since Starmer took the helm.
Much of Labour’s right spent the Corbyn years focusing their energy on castigating the left, rather than developing a compelling vision for the country. Now their nightmare is over, they have done little to prove that has changed. Some senior Labour figures fear the party lacks a plan other than parliamentary manoeuvring. When I asked one senior Starmer ally what the leader’s vision was, he responded immediately: “He wants to be prime minister.” But to do what?
Starmer’s cheerleaders would highlight that polling for the leadership and the party have improved during his tenure, but they have simply returned it to the level of support enjoyed by Corbyn between the 2017 election and the beginning of last year. Labour is yet to open up a healthy lead – even in the midst of national calamity and mass death – causing growing anxiety among some of Starmer’s own supporters.
What happens when the feelgood factor produced by mass vaccination and a return to something approaching “normality” hits home? Sunshine and optimism is Boris Johnson’s forte. That said, mass unemployment and social turmoil beckons – but here too Labour will be tested, because mass movements with demands to overcome growing injustices will undoubtedly emerge on Britain’s streets, and if the party fails to respond positively to them, it risks alienating broad constituencies in its electoral coalition.
During the leadership campaign, Starmer committed to maintaining the core domestic pledges of the Corbyn era, including raising taxes on the rich and big business, scrapping tuition fees, a green industrial revolution (a slogan, and much of its polices now raided by the Tories), “common ownership”, no illegal wars, and restoring workers’ rights. The leader’s team is divided between those who regard these promises as millstones that need to be discarded, and others who believe they are commitments that cannot be abandoned. The latter have more political common sense: while it is hard for a politician to establish a reputation for honesty and integrity, it is easy to lose one in an instant.
And that is surely where the left comes in. The Survation polling shows that the Labour membership overwhelmingly remains committed to the radical policy prospectus of the Corbyn era. The left is far more powerful than it was before 2015: in the parliamentary party, in the unions, in the membership, in civil society through institutions such as Momentum, and through the political sympathies of many younger people. A savvy left would focus on building political pressure on the Labour leadership to offer the transformative agenda that a crisis-stricken country needs – and which is politically required to distinguish the party from a Conservative government willing to raid and then water down Corbynite policies.
If the left cannot untangle discussions of its progressive vision to end inequality from the evils of antisemitism, then it will permanently lose sympathy from the party membership and public alike. The battles over policy are there to be won – and with it, the promise of Labour’s first transformative government since Clement Attlee.
• Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist