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Keir Starmer was on a visit to Stevenage when the news came through. In the middle of interviews with local and national media, aides showed him Rebecca Long-Bailey’s now infamous tweet that “Maxine Peake is an absolute diamond”. The accompanying interview with the Independent had sparked a furious reaction that was growing by the minute.
The Labour leader read Peake’s line - “The tactics used by the police in America, kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, that was learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services” - and swiftly realised the scale of the problem. Not only was the claim untrue, it was seen as an anti-Semitic trope that somehow tried to pit Jews against black people.
For Starmer, whose leadership campaign was launched with a zero tolerance vow on anti-Semitism, the need to act was obvious. The day he defeated Long-Bailey on April 4, his first message as leader was that he would “tear this poison out by its roots”.
Long-Bailey was asked to take down her tweet and to apologise. Instead, she retweeted her original message with a clarification that she had not endorsed the entire Peake article. This was a form of words that she later claimed was agreed with the leader’s office (which is disputed). But this only caused more anger, and she was repeatedly told that Starmer wanted her to delete the message and issue a full apology.
HuffPost UK has been told Long-Bailey refused to take phone calls from the leader’s office, and after being given four hours to comply with his wishes, Starmer decided enough was enough. Having given her a way out, he felt he was left with no option but to fire her as shadow education secretary. After informing his deputy Angela Rayner, he rang Long-Bailey in person and said he was removing her from her post.
Starmer’s allies in the shadow cabinet stressed there was no grand strategy to jettison the most senior leftwinger in his top team. “She was diligent, willing to work with others on a common task,” one said. “But there are no shades of grey in zero tolerance. That’s the point.” One insider added that Long-Bailey had impressed the leader with her behind the scenes work on summer free school meals, a campaign which was picked up by Marcus Rashford to force a memorable government U-turn.
“There’s this bollocks that he was looking for an excuse to sack her,” said another. The idea of Starmer deciding to interrupt Labour’s demand for a jobs-led recovery out of coronavirus - his first in-person campaign trip of his leadership, complete with face mask - to then deliver a job loss of his own team, was seen as risible by those close to him. Rather than the original tweet, Long-Bailey’s refusal to do what her leader wanted was what sealed her demise. “If you challenge the leader like that, what do you expect?” said one frontbencher.
Once Starmer’s spokesperson hit ‘send’ on an emailed press statement announcing her sacking, Labour MPs’ WhatsApps sprang into life and the news spread across Westminster and beyond. One party staffer couldn’t hide their pleasure, sending the message: “Alexa: play ‘Things Can Only Get Better’.”
For the Jewish Labour Movement, it was a moment almost of catharsis. One source said: “We were waiting for big, bold action. I thought it would be the EHRC [Equalities and Human Rights Commission] report that did it, but it looks like Rebecca Long-Bailey is the catalyst now.” They vigorously dispute claims by Momentum founder Jon Lansman that the Independent article would not be grounds for an investigation into a party member.
The reason the Peake case mattered so much was that it seemed a classic example of a Labour supporter ignorantly repeating anti-Semitic tropes - and a Labour MP then weighing it against the wider radicalism of that supporter. “It’s this discounting, excusing, downplaying anti-Semtism that has been the culture under Corbyn. Starmer has been pretty gutsy instead.”
The fact that Peake - a long-time supporter of Corbyn - herself admitted her error later only served to expose Long-Bailey’s own failure to investigate and apologise, MPs said. JLM sources point to the way Labour MP Naz Shah swiftly apologised for her own sharing of an anti-semitic trope years ago, then proved a model of atonement in working with Jewish groups. “Redemption is a Jewish value, nobody is lost forever,” one source said.
The counter-backlash from Left Twitter was not a worry to Starmer, who pays no attention to many of the commentators and outriders who held court under Corbyn. His allies believe that he’s in fact more in tune with the broad mass of Labour members than some Campaign Group MPs realise.
His leadership election pitch was based on unity, but that could prove difficult in coming days. Starmer is also prepared for criticism from the leftwing Campaign Group of MPs, but their critics in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) say that anti-Semitism would be a self-defeating hill to try to die on.
“They’ll just show their own impotence if they do,” one backbencher said.
Long-Bailey’s failure in the leadership contest ensured Starmer had a huge mandate from rank and file members, as he beat her by a margin of two to one. “It shows once again the Corbyn project was built on quicksand: they didn’t have an heir,” says one party figure. If leftwingers quit Starmer’s frontbench, just as Left members vowed to online today, they’ll be harming only themselves, they argue.
Other MPs on the Left worry that the danger is one of overreaction. Ed Miliband’s decision to sack Emily Thornberry for her tweet about England flags in Rochester is still seen by some as an attempt to play to the tabloid gallery, a move that ultimately didn’t do anything for Miliband’s standing with ‘White Van Man’. Thornberry made a comeback despite the tweet.
Yet for Starmer’s team, his main asset is not just his decisiveness but also his judgement. When Diane Abbott and new MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy took part in a Zoom call with members expelled for anti-Semitism, he decided on a light touch reprimand. The MPs were “reminded of their responsibilities”. But the Long-Bailey tweet, and her refusal to agree to his remedy, was seen as a crime of a different order for a member of the Shadow Cabinet.
When he was Director of Public Prosecutions, he built a similar reputation for swift action. “Once he’s made a decision, that is it,” says someone who has worked closely with Starmer. “Not in some unnecessarily forceful way, but you know he’s made his mind up.” What surprised some in the party tonight was that Long-Bailey had still not deleted her original tweet. One insider, eyebrow raised, asks whether she wanted to emulate Owen Smith, who actually wanted to be fired by Corbyn - and got his wish.
Unlike Tony Blair, Starmer has never set out to define himself against his party. Like many members, he is an urban liberal, a pro-European who backs radical policies. But he is also acutely aware that leaders of the Opposition often only have words as weapons, not actions. The only power he does have is over his party, so the action he takes is seen as a litmus test of his leadership.
The appointment of his new general secretary David Evans was another example of the way Starmer works, methodically maximising his advantage early in his leadership to get things done his way.
Next week’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) is expected to further entrench his authority by ushering in new voting rules that will ensure more ‘moderate’ NEC constituency members are elected this year. Despite claims to the contrary, none of his coalition of supporters has changed their stance in the light of the Long-Bailey sacking.
The online reaction that most impressed many Labour MPs today was not of Left Twitter, but of Tory MP Robert Halfon. He tweeted Starmer was “showing that he is a force to be reckoned with and that no Conservatives can afford to be complacent about his leadership or our strong parliamentary majority”. Halfon then tweeted that his Labour opponent at the last election had backed Momentum’s criticism of Starmer.
Halfon is right to be worried. His former new town constituency was a Labour seat under Blair. Which is precisely why Starmer was in another Blair-era southern new town, Stevenage, today. As well as winning back the ‘Red Wall’, Starmer really does want to eat the Tories’ lunch in the south and every other area needed for a Labour majority.
In keeping with that focus on the next election, he spent Thursday evening not on the details of who should replace Long-Bailey, but on a Zoom call to residents in another key seat in Scotland. “He’s got work to do,” was how one ally put it. “And he’s doing it.”
Quote Of The Day
“I do not consider sharing that article furthered the course of rebuilding trust with the Jewish community and that’s why I stood Rebecca Long-Bailey down.”
– Keir Starmer
Thursday Cheat Sheet
Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty tweeted: “If we do not follow social distancing guidance then cases will rise again. Naturally people will want to enjoy the sun but we need to do so in a way that is safe for all.”
Local councils in Bournemouth, Poole and Christchurch declared a major incident after tens of thousands of sunseekers visited beaches on the Dorset coast.
Downing Street has warned that the public “must play their part” in cooperating with NHS Test and Trace after fresh figures showed the number of people reached by the service had fallen week on week.
No.10 said that Boris Johnson retained full confidence in housing secretary Robert Jenrick despite fresh revelations about his relationship with the billionaire property developer Richard Desmond.
The prime minister’s newly-painted RAF Voyager took off for the first time since its £900,000 revamp, with a Union flag on the tail fin and United Kingdom written in gold on the fuselage.
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