Rebecca Long-Bailey. Photo: Wikimedia Commons Rebecca Long-Bailey. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The sacking of the shadow cabinet’s only prominent socialist is a milestone in Labour’s move to the right, argues Alex Snowdon 

The fallout from Thursday’s sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey as shadow education secretary continues. It appears that thousands of socialists have left the Labour Party in disgust at Keir Starmer removing the most left-wing member of the shadow cabinet.

The sacking of Long-Bailey has been followed by two notable developments today. Her replacement has been announced: Kate Green was chair of Owen Smith’s leadership campaign, challenging Jeremy Corbyn in 2016. This appointment reinforces the sense of a shift to the right. Also, a remarkable email has been sent to Labour Party members to mark Armed Forces Day. It is unashamedly nationalistic, celebrates the arms industry and condemns the government for making defence cuts. 

For many, it is the final straw. It illustrates three closely related phenomena: the weaponising of antisemitism, the silencing of criticism of Israeli apartheid, and the accelerating right-wing shift in the Labour Party. 

The weaponising of antisemitism 

During the period of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, two key strategies were developed by his right-wing opponents – inside the party and outside of it – for derailing Labour’s left-wing trajectory. 

Exploiting the divisions and disarray over the implications of 2016’s referendum on EU membership was one strategy, with a massive (ultimately successful) push to get Labour to adopt support for a second referendum, despite the electorally suicidal effects. I wrote about this in last Saturday’s CounterBlast, prompted by a new report into the causes of Labour’s December 2019 election defeat. 

That was the more decisive factor in the 2019 election. But the other weapon has proved important in the long-term and continues to be potent. This is the cynical misuse of the issue of antisemitism for political ends. 

This is not a uniquely British phenomenon, as it is driven (to a certain extent) by the desire to re-legitimise Israeli apartheid after many years of growing opposition to its racism, violence and discrimination. Western governments, most obviously those in the US and Britain, share Israel’s own determination to roll back the global opposition to apartheid by falsely characterising it as motivated by antisemitism. 

The weaponising of antisemitism is designed to stigmatise and weaken the left as well as specifically tarnishing the reputation of those who champion justice for Palestine. We have seen this deployed to undermine the left elsewhere, for example in attacks on left-wing US Congresswomen like Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, but it has been most prevalent in Britain. 

It has become a recurring motif of attacks on the left in Britain precisely because the left made significant breakthroughs in 2015, with Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, and afterwards. Corbyn’s policies, representing a break from decades of deadening neoliberal consensus in mainstream politics, proved popular. Attacking the left therefore had to take the form of slander and smears.

Antisemitism has been redefined as a result of this. That trivialisation damages efforts to combat antisemitism and racism more generally. Antisemitism has been reconceptualised from a form of racism to a left-wing pathology, stripping it of meaningful substance and turning it into a political football. Keir Starmer has shown this week that he is happy to keep kicking that political football around, if it means he can weaken the left. 

Silencing Palestine 

Corbyn’s election as leader marked a step forward for the cause of Palestine in British politics. He had long-term associations with both the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Stop the War Coalition. Yet since 2015 we have actually seen a strengthening backlash against Palestine solidarity in the political mainstream. 

The antisemitism smears have been central to the project of propping up apartheid Israel. It is a vital long-term strategic ally of the US in the Middle East. Britain’s foreign policy has for decades been shaped by subservience to Washington. Israel has therefore always been viewed as a British ally, with a cross-party Westminster consensus behind it. 

Consequently, it has long been a totemic issue for Labour’s right wing, who regard support for Israel as representative of a wider fealty to the British state’s foreign policy pretensions. It sharply differentiates the Labour Right from the left, which has a record of supporting peace, human rights and anti-racism (in Palestine/Israel as elsewhere), while aligning it with the Tories. 

Ongoing support for Israel has become progressively harder to justify as a result of developments in the last two decades in particular. The Separation Wall has become a highly visible symbol of segregation and inequality, the inexorable growth of illegal settlements has exposed the settler-colonial impulse that has always driven Israel, and the hugely contentious Nationality Law laid bare the racism and systematic discrimination that already characterises the apartheid state. 

Most shockingly, we have seen the massive military assaults on Gaza in 2009, 2012 and 2014, followed by the high levels of Israeli state violence against Gazans protesting at the border fence since 2018. These have galvanised worldwide outrage and opposition. 

The global Palestine solidarity movement is simultaneously anti-colonial, anti-war and anti-racist. For supporters of Israel, it has been necessary to redefine legitimate opposition to Israel’s apartheid regime – a regime which is responsible routine land theft, violence and anti-Arab racism – as in fact motivated by antisemitism. People who are opposed to an ethnocratic state that privileges one ethnic group over other groups – literally the definition of apartheid – are mischievously mischaracterised as being motivated by hostility to the ethnic group that happens to be in a privileged position. 

This has been an audacious ideological project, but one that has had considerable success. The ingenuity of Israel’s supporters will certainly be tested, however, by the annexation of 30% of the West Bank, which appears to be imminent. The plans are even opposed by many erstwhile supporters of Israel. They are yet another nail in the coffin of ‘liberal Zionism’, strengthening the nakedly supremacist and unashamedly colonial elements in Israeli politics. 

Labour’s slide to the right

Finally, the sacking of Long-Bailey is a milestone in Labour’s move to the right under the leadership of Keir Starmer. It doesn’t illustrate, as some commentators have fancifully claimed, that Starmer is determined to root out antisemitism from the Labour Party. It in fact demonstrates that he will happily misuse a serious issue to remove his political opponents. 

Long-Bailey was the only prominent left winger in a shadow cabinet packed with figures from the broad right of Labour’s parliamentary party. Now there are none. Her removal is especially notable because she had contested the leadership election and was therefore viewed as a standard bearer of the left. 

Her sacking is an insult and a provocation to all those who voted for her. It also raises the spectre of disciplinary action against those who share her politics, considering it is part of the long-running saga of attacks on the left under the banner of dealing with antisemitism. 

Long-Bailey has the education brief, a role in which she had fared very well. She took a strong position on opposing government plans for premature wider reopening of schools, backing the National Education Union’s popular and influential Five Tests. She also contributed to wider public debate about how schools might, in a post-pandemic society, move beyond the old ‘exam factories’ model and develop a New Normal. 

This approach put her at odds with Starmer and other shadow cabinet colleagues, who were keen to prove their ‘constructive’ and ‘responsible’ credentials by opposing Boris Johnson’s government as little, and as meekly, as possible. Above all, it clashed with Starmer’s desire to show that Labour would not put up any obstacles to the lifting of lockdown restrictions. Johnson’s drive to get people back to work must not be interfered with. 

Labour is increasingly being made safe for capital again. After an interruption to business as usual, when Corbyn was leader and socialists tilted party policy leftwards, Labour is again being turned into a safe Team B for managing the British state. The direction of travel is unmistakeable. 

The decisive battles ahead will not take place on the floor of Labour Conference or via elections to the party’s national executive, still less in the House of Commons. They will happen on the streets, in the workplaces and in communities. Socialists can make a difference if we focus on where the action is, maintain a principled approach, and champion left-wing politics.

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Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).