19/11/2020 17:53 GMT | Updated 19/11/2020 18:06 GMT

Keir Starmer Could Face Leadership Challenge If He Keeps Dividing Labour, MP Warns

Ian Lavery tells HuffPost UK that Starmer appears to have a "personal and political vendetta" after refusing to let Corbyn sit as a Labour MP.

Keir Starmer has been warned he could face a leadership challenge if he continues what appears to be a “vendetta” against Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters.

Former Labour chair Ian Lavery told HuffPost UK’s Commons People podcast that the “opportunity” for a leadership challenge would always be available, but stressed he wants the party to “settle down” and “unite”.

Lavery hit out at Starmer for refusing to let Corbyn sit as a Labour MP – even though his party membership had been restored by Labour’s ruling body. He was initially suspended last month over his reaction to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report into anti-Semitism in the party.

Lavery told Commons People: “It looks very much that this is a vengeful, divisive, provocative sort of move from Keir Starmer.

“This isn’t about uniting the party – it looks to me as if it’s a personal and political vendetta now from the new leader of the party to the previous leader of the party.”

The Wansbeck MP urged Labour to set out clearly who was making the decisions on Corbyn’s suspension.

“Who made the decision that Keir has got the overriding powers to overrule the national executive committee [Labour’s ruling body]?” he said.

“I’m not being melodramatic but that’s a little bit like a tin pot dictatorship to me.

“We’ve got to have some form of democracy in the party and at this moment in time it doesn’t look like we have.”

Lavery said he would refuse to “walk away” from Labour if Corbyn was not reinstated fully. 

But he said ex-MP Thelma Walker’s resignation was evidence that anger was not confined to the hard left of the party.

“I want the party to be united. I want the party to flourish, move forward, win an election in 2024. If that’s with Keir Starmer, that’s fine,” Lavery said. 

Hollie Adams via Getty Images
Labour MP Ian Lavery 

Asked what he meant and whether Starmer would be Labour leader at the next election, Lavery said: “I hope that Keir can unify the party. I’ve got to say the first few months of his leadership would suggest that’s not his intention – unless he proves otherwise, of course.

“Keir is the leader. Obviously he should be in pole position to be leader of the party at the next election.

“But there’s a lot hinging on how Keir reacts not just to this but how Keir performs on behalf of the party.” 

Lavery said Starmer had caused “absolute mayhem” among the Labour membership since being elected leader. 

There is “genuine concern” about Starmer’s willingness to support the government’s Covid policy and abstain on legislation opposed by many in the party, including the controversial Overseas Operations Bill, he said.

Lavery also called on the leader to deliver on his pledge to unify the party and his 10-point plan, which included promises to continue with “radical” policies such as taxing the rich, backing public ownership, and legislating against “illegal wars”. 

Asked what happens if Starmer fails to deliver, Lavery said: “There’s always the opportunity of a leadership challenge and the rules allow that to happen.

“It just depends how Keir’s leadership develops.

“I’ve got to say I’m very disappointed in it in this moment in time and it’s not a left/right issue.

“Keir Starmer is a very decent, genuine individual.

“But it’s the direction that’s coming from him.” 

Lavery went on: “‘New leadership’ [Starmer’s slogan] is basically a message telling the rest of the country Jeremy Corbyn’s gone.

“Why shouldn’t the message be something the party actually stands for? ‘For the many, not the few’ – that was fantastic.

“But everything seems at this moment in time as though there’s a political provocation from the leader’s office.”

He added: “There’s always the discussions, there’s always noises about ‘people should be challenged’ – I would like to see the party settle down, I would like the party be unified, and I would like to move on and hold the government to account.” 

Corbyn was suspended from the party in October over his reaction to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report into anti-Semitism in the party.

The watchdog had found the party committed unlawful acts of harassment and discrimination while Corbyn was leader.

In response, Corbyn said allegations about anti-Semitism had been “dramatically overstated” by his political opponents. 

The Islington North MP, who later said he did not intend to “belittle” anti-Semitism allegations, was issued with a “warning of conduct” letter as a sanction over the response. 

But Starmer said he would not restore the party whip because his predecessor had “undermined and set back our work in restoring trust and confidence in the Labour Party’s ability to tackle anti-Semitism”.