Keir Starmer and Jeremy Corbyn Keir Starmer and Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Jeremy Corbyn / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Starmer’s witch hunt of the left and the Party’s disconnect from its working-class base is undermining Labour’s ability to defeat the Tories, argues Terina Hine

The Labour party is gearing up for the general election with a McCarthyite witch-hunt and a concentration of power that should make any democrat shudder.

One after another leftwing candidate has been eliminated from the process to select future Labour MPs. The latest victim is Beth Winter MP, member of the Socialist Campaign Group. Winter was up against centrist Gerald Jones for the new seat of Merthyr Tydfil and Upper Cynon. According to Winter ‘unacceptable obstacles’ were placed in the way of her selection, undermining both her campaign and the democratic process.

The Welsh result follows fast on the heels of the exclusion from Labour’s longlist for North East Metro Mayor of socialist Jamie Driscoll, the sitting mayor for North Tyne. Labour members in the region have been warned that to even mention Driscoll’s name at selection meetings could lead to disciplinary action.

The reason given for Driscoll’s exclusion, as with other left candidates, was spurious. Supposedly it was because he shared a platform with expelled member and film director Ken Loach at a theatre in Newcastle – if so it’s a clear case of guilt by association.

Then there’s Greg Marshall who stood as a candidate for Broxtowe in the East Midlands. He was excluded from the shortlist despite having twice been Labour’s candidate for the seat, and despite winning the backing of the vast majority of local members, eight trade unions, society affiliates, and regional Labour figures from across the political spectrum. Instead Labour’s new nominee is being parachuted from London’s Lewisham. Why? Because Marshall liked a few tweets opposing membership suspensions.

In another case, a left candidate was excluded for liking a tweet in which Nicola Sturgeon said she’d tested negative for Covid. On it goes. And of course in London’s Islington North, party members have been banned from nominating Jeremy Corbyn who has represented the consistency for forty years.

Of the 123 new Labour candidates chosen in vacated or target seats only two could be considered from the left: Faiza Shaheen (Chingford & Woodford Green) and Chris Webb (Blackpool South). Interference from the top in the selection of candidates is now de facto party policy. Who can and cannot stand for Labour is entirely in the hands of a ruling cabal in London’s Blackfriars.

Authoritarian Party regime

Starmer is showing he is in charge and that Labour has been cleansed of all association with the Jeremy Corbyn era. But many of the purged were hardly Corbynites, nor are they of the hard left. Behaving in such a heavy-handed way will destroy Labour’s broad church and is causing consternation among a number of the party’s leading figures, including Andy Burnham.

Starmer’s actions, however, are hardly unique, rather they replicate Tony Blair’s policy which saw Militant destroyed, and Clause IV abolished, London MPs parachuted into northern seats and the so called ‘professionalisation’ of politics. But even under Blair, the broad church was maintained; backbenchers such as Corbyn and Benn were allowed to rebel. This time the ruthlessness knows no bounds and anyone who dares raise their voice is at risk of expulsion or losing the whip.

Within the parliamentary party, the silencing is severe. MPs in the Socialist Campaign Group live in fear and keep their heads down. All criticism and debate are suppressed; an authoritarian regime is in ascendence.

Starmer hopes that his iron-fisted selection procedure will lead to a party made in his image and a landslide Labour victory at the general election. But Starmer is no Blair. At this point in his leadership Blair was receiving leader satisfaction ratings of +65%, Starmer’s are at -20%. Time and again, focus groups describe Starmer as ‘boring’ and ‘bland’.

Starmer himself has never been popular. He spent his first year as leader clinging on to his position by the skin of his teeth. Regardless of Covid and the government’s shambolic response, Labour lost the Hartlepool by-election in May 2021, when for the first time since 1974, the seat elected a Tory MP. Labour did appallingly in the 2021 local elections, and only just managed to hold Batley & Spen in the July 2021 by-election, with the biggest swing to a governing party in years and a majority of just 323 – hardly a resounding vote of confidence in Labour after a year under new management.

Of course, all this happened before the Partygate revelations, the cost-of-living crisis, the Tory financial meltdown under Liz Truss, and the overwhelming feeling across the country that the government is way past its sell-by date. So by May 2022, local elections favoured Labour, and most likely the 2024 general election will too.

Weak foundations

The Labour lead is healthy and the election is theirs to lose. A recent Focaldata poll, the first poll under the new boundary changes, put Labour twelve percentage points ahead (down from February’s huge twenty-point lead). According to Focaldata, when translated into seats, this would give Labour a majority of over 140. An amazing result if true.

But digging deeper into the poll, the picture is not quite as rosy as it first appears. There is a large bloc of undecided voters – most of whom are working class – the majority, according to the analysts at Focaldate, would vote Conservative (Labour offers them nothing) if they decide to vote at all, leading to a possible hung parliament. Labour’s majority could also be threatened if the right-wing Reform UK stepped aside for the Tories, as UKIP and the Brexit Party did in 2017 and 2019. Labour’s disconnect from its core voters is far from being addressed.

Another question mark comes in the form of leader ratings, which have highly correlated to general-election results for decades. Sunak is much more popular than his party, and while Starmer’s ratings are better than Sunak’s they are less than impressive. According to Focaldata’s chief research officer, based on leadership polling, Labour’s lead in February, which at the time was at twenty percentage points, would have been reduced to a mere three points if adjusted for leader ratings.

But that is not all. The method Focaldata used in its latest poll to translate the percentage lead into parliamentary seats has been disputed by other pollsters, including the former president of YouGov. If more traditional methods of transferring electoral swings to seats were used, Labour would still be victorious, but with a considerably more modest majority of 68 seats rather than 140.

A slim majority gives greater powers to minority groups in the governing party, as the Tories found to their cost under Theresa May. Fear of a close win or hung parliament, leaving a Starmer government reliant upon votes from left-wing MPs is giving an extra impetus to the purge.

Although the dysfunctional Tories make a Labour victory likely, it is not guaranteed. But rather than inspiring voters, Starmer’s leadership has focussed on creating a centralised, authoritarian party, where trade-union voices, socialists and regional democracy are completely sidelined.

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