Triumphalism reigns in Keir Starmer’s operation. For the factional warriors surrounding the Labour leader, sparring with Tories is business but crushing the left is pleasure. Banning Islington party members from reselecting Jeremy Corbyn as their Labour candidate is an act they relished. When he was courting the votes of Labour activists in 2020, Starmer declared that “local party members should select their candidates for every election”: but as this latest move underlines, the Labour leader is as interested in due process as he is in abiding by the solemn campaign pledges he made.
The purging of Corbyn is just one example underlining the nature of Starmerism. As a political project, it intends to permanently eradicate the left from the Labour party, and thus – given a first-past-the-post system Starmer has no intention of reforming – almost entirely from English politics.
On Wednesday, Starmer made a speech to mark the Equality and Human Rights Commission taking the party out of special measures over antisemitism and used the opportunity to say that Labour was no longer a party of dogma or a party of protest. “If you don’t like the changes we’ve made,” he said, “the door is open, and you can leave.”
Who exactly is he asking to leave? Is this, for example, addressed to those who believe in nationalisation of utilities, higher taxes for the rich, scrapping tuition fees, supporting trade unions, and who advocate for Labour as a broad church? This was exactly the political platform Starmer offered members when he stood for leader.
Corbyn joined the Labour party just three years after Starmer was born: it is central to his political identity, and he is likely to spend months appealing against the decision to ban him from standing. This is doomed to fail: Starmer’s team will never allow it. Many of Corbyn’s supporters wish him to stand as an independent candidate in a constituency he has represented for 40 years. But some believe Corbyn would be better off defecting to the Greens, bolstering their profile and placing Labour under external pressure from the left.
But it’s not just Corbynism facing destruction: Starmerism intends to make Labour a hostile environment for the soft left, too. Angela Rayner may be deputy leader, but she is held in contempt by Starmer’s operation, who believe she manoeuvred to topple the leader after Labour’s catastrophic defeat in the Hartlepool byelection in the spring of 2021. A key ally of hers – Leigh Drennan, chair of Labour North West – was barred from standing as the candidate for Bolton North East, underlining her marginalisation. She will be excluded from meaningful political influence in a future Labour government.
An apparent exception is Ed Miliband, who is almost alone in generating compelling policy ideas in his climate change portfolio, including £28bn a year on tackling the climate emergency and a national wealth fund to invest in green energy. But Miliband is an aberration, able to carve out policy ideas as a “big beast”, despite the efforts of Starmer’s allies to purge him in the autumn of 2021.
At its centre of this political strategy is Morgan McSweeney, who now de facto runs the operation as campaigns manager, and is a veteran of the doomed Blairite leadership candidate Liz Kendall’s campaign. McSweeney is committed to the left’s total destruction, telling one ally that he “doesn’t have any room for compromise with the hard left. He thinks they need to be eradicated from the party because they are so dangerous.” Aiding him in this endeavour are two officials: Matt Pound, a veteran organiser of the old Labour right, and Matthew Faulding, an alumnus of the Blairite faction Progress.
There are hints of insecurity in their strategy. Last Friday, Starmer’s strategy director, Deborah Mattinson, delivered a presentation to Labour staff: they should not get too excited, she warned, because the party’s whopping lead was largely down to Tories switching to “don’t know”. While Tony Blair enjoyed buoyant personal ratings in the runup to the 1997 landslide, Labour’s current double-digit advantage is accompanied by mediocre ratings for Starmer, even if they outshine Rishi Sunak’s own plummeting personal polling. Labour is destined to win the next election not on its own merits, but because the Tories self-immolated. The party still lacks a clear vision, and former Blair adviser Peter Hyman has been employed to rectify that, but, given the dearth of ideas on the party’s right, it seems there is little to be confident about.
Outmaneovured by brazen political deceit, Labour’s beleaguered left faces hard choices. MPs lack an agreed strategy, and are aware Starmer’s allies are seeking excuses to purge them. Some are seeking to campaign on popular issues: 29-year-old Zarah Sultana, for example, has a huge social media reach and is championing free school meals for all. John McDonnell, meanwhile, remains a formidable spokesperson as their most impressive media performer.
As the leftwing grouping Momentum defiantly refuse to leave, what hope for members desiring transformative change? While Starmer’s team behaves as though it’s 1997, Britain’s current state is more like 1974 – that is, in crisis and turmoil. If a Labour government offers only tinkering around the edges of the economy, and the lives of struggling households do not substantially improve, mass disillusionment may soon kick in. It remains the case that the most interesting ideas are bubbling away on the left: banishing them from Labour’s future is an act of self-harm. If a meek Starmer administration disappoints, a now cowed left may find an audience willing to listen. Starmer’s team is buoyant now, and understandably so: but history tell us where hubris leads.
Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist