eremy Corbyn at Goldsmiths University Strike Rally eremy Corbyn at Goldsmiths University Strike Rally. Source: Counterfire - Flickr

Starmer’s authoritarian blocking of Corbyn’s Labour candidacy requires a serious response from the Labour left, argues Andrew Murray

Labour Leader Keir Starmer has decreed that Jeremy Corbyn will not be the party’s candidate in Islington North, the constituency he has served as an MP for forty years, at the next general election.

‘Decreed’ is the operative word since Starmer’s right to make any such pronouncement is unclear. Candidates should be chosen by local parties, subject to ultimate approval by the National Executive Committee (NEC). Starmer has short-circuited that process.

This follows his abuse of power in removing Corbyn from the parliamentary whip for more than two years. The former Labour Leader was briefly suspended from Party membership after the publication of the EHRC report into antisemitism in the Labour Party. An NEC panel duly reinstated him following the release of an agreed statement, painstakingly negotiated with Starmer’s office.

Starmer then u-turned under pressure and withheld the Labour whip from Corbyn, something that, unlike party membership, is exclusively in his gift. Corbyn has existed in parliamentary limbo ever since.

Alas, there has been no serious strategy, nor serious resistance, to address this situation from the Labour left. A sort of Micawberism has prevailed in its counsels as the initial widespread anger among the party membership at Corbyn’s treatment was allowed to dissipate.

This was reflected in the responses to Starmer’s move this week. Momentum, the constituency-based organisation of the Labour left, issued a strong statement of condemnation, but there was a noisy silence from the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs, the left’s parliamentary expression, about 34 strong.

This is reflective of a deeper malaise. As Starmer has extended his poll lead to the point where victory at the next election looks more than likely – entirely the consequence of catastrophic Tory misrule rather than his own merits, which are visibly negligible – he has grown more brutal and contemptuous in his handling of the left.

Giving full vent to this authoritarian spleen, he accompanied his announcement concerning Corbyn with a warning to the left that if it didn’t like how he was running the party, they could leave. The threat that they could be made to leave if they objected to his leadership was unspoken but real.

The response of the parliamentary left has been to cave. Notoriously this is what it did when they were instructed to withdraw their names from a Stop the War statement critical of Nato (as well as Putin) before the Russian invasion of Ukraine a year ago.

This has now led to the preposterous situation whereby there is effectively no parliamentary dissent at all from the British government’s reckless promotion of continuing war in Ukraine and stalwart opposition to any peace talks. Seldom have the British people been so badly served by their representatives.

Retaining their parliamentary seats has become the main preoccupation of the left MPs, with debilitating effects on their political integrity. Some – Jon Trickett and Diane Abbott included – have spoken out against the attack on Corbyn, but they are a minority.

So the problem is this: left MPs face a choice of staying true to the left and risk ceasing to be MPs or staying MPs at the price of abandoning the left.

Corbyn’s response

Corbyn himself responded robustly to Starmer’s move:

‘Keir Starmer’s statement about my future is a flagrant attack on the democratic rights of Islington North Labour Party members. It is up to them – not party leaders – to decide who their candidate should be.

‘Any attempt to block my candidacy is a denial of due process and should be opposed by anybody who believes in the value of democracy.

‘At a time when the government is overseeing the worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation, this is a divisive distraction from our overriding goal: to defeat the Conservative Party at the next general election.

‘I am proud to represent the labour movement in parliament through my constituency. I am focused on standing up for workers on the picket line, the marginalised and all those worried about their futures. This is what I’ll continue to do. I suggest the Labour Party does the same.’

Nevertheless, Corbyn has yet to announce whether he will stand in Islington regardless, should Starmer’s dictat be allowed to stand, as seems likely given his control of the NEC. Such a move would lead to Corbyn’s own expulsion and that of anyone in the Labour Party caught offering him any support.

It could also lead to his election as an independent MP since his immense local popularity allied to his national celebrity and the sense that an injustice has been done to him might prove more than enough to overwhelm whatever patsy Labour offers up against him.

Such an outcome would give Starmer a satisfying bloody nose, but its wider ramifications would depend on broader developments and initiatives on the left. Alone in parliament, independent left MPs can struggle to make an impact, as George Galloway found when he was Respect’s sole Commons representative.

Some fear that the expulsions to which his campaign might give rise would further damage the left’s position in the Labour Party. These are the perennial dilemmas of Labourism. At present, the Labour left offers no political prospect beyond just hanging on and hoping.

Yet extra-parliamentary initiatives like Enough is Enough can descend into mere cheerleading – displacement activity almost – if they are not allied to a political strategy or, at the very least, building enduring grassroots campaigning structures.

What seems pretty certain is that a Starmer-led government will utterly fail to grapple with the scale of the crisis facing working people. Having discarded all the popular Corbyn-era policies, he is left with only stale Treasury orthodoxies and risk-averse management, buttressed by a knee-jerk authoritarian imperialism.

Large sections of the British people are on the verge of an extended cry of rage against the inadequacies of their politicians. The form it will take as a Starmer government inevitably stumbles is conjectural at present, but it is that for which the left needs to prepare collectively.

Andrew Murray is a former adviser to Jeremy Corbyn.

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