Starmer was accused by the left of “New Labour style control freakery” following the election of former deputy leader Dame Margaret Beckett as chair of the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC).
Beckett’s election, plus that of vice chair Alice Perry, means the Labour leader can now more easily assert his majority on the NEC – and on its all-important officers’ group, which oversees internal party matters.
But Corbyn-backing members of the NEC staged a “digital walk-out” of its annual general meeting, protesting that left-wing union official Ian Murray had been cut out of getting the top post taken by Beckett.
The row came just hours after Corbyn was effectively told by chief whip Nick Brown that he would not be allowed to return as a Labour MP until he gave a full apology for his remarks that anti-Semitism had been “overstated” for factional gain.
Last week, former party chair Ian Lavery told HuffPost that Starmer was waging a “vendetta” against Corbyn and warned a leadership challenge could happen unless there was a change of direction.
Other flashpoints have seen the Bakers’ Union start a consultation process to end its affiliation to the party, plus left-wing Young Labour members being ordered by party HQ to withdraw a statement opposing the decision to withhold the parliamentary whip from Corbyn.
The latest clash came when 13 left-wing members of the NEC, led by Unite’s Howard Beckett and former MP Laura Pidcock, refused to take part in its meeting on Tuesday morning.
They claimed that, under normal convention, NEC vice chair and Fire Brigades Union official Ian Murray was due to become chair.
However, Starmer supporters pointed out that other conventions had been torn up under Corbyn’s reign and he was simply restoring the principle that those with the longest service on the ruling body took the chair and vice chair posts.
Beckett and Perry are the two longest serving members of the ruling NEC. One NEC member told HuffPost UK that the protesters were guilty of “breathtaking hypocrisy” because Margaret Beckett was herself excluded from the NEC post under Corbyn for factional reasons.
But Momentum’s Mish Rahman, a newly elected member of the NEC, said it was one of a string of attacks on the left.
“Yet again Starmer is trying to play games with democracy and undermine the role of trade unions within our party. This latest factional attack fits a worrying pattern of control-freakery reminiscent of the New Labour years,” he said.
“There can be no party unity until Starmer fully understands the need to work with the labour movement and the many tens of thousands of grassroots members who can help deliver a Labour government.
“Our walkout today was to remind him of this, and to send a message that we will not put up with petty and repeated attacks on trade unions and members.”
A joint letter from the 13 left caucus NEC members to general secretary David Evans stated “the real reason” for the decision to bypass Murray from the chair post was because he had signed a letter opposing the continued withholding of the whip from Corbyn.
The protest was described as “extremely childish” by one NEC member. Another said it underlined the growing realisation among Starmer’s opponents that they now lacked the numbers to influence its decisions.
In the recent NEC elections, Starmer’s slim majority on the ruling body was strengthened significantly as centrist group Labour To Win secured more seats.
With his authority underlined, the key posts of chairs of disputes and equalities and other important NEC panels are expected to shift from left-wingers to Starmer supporters next month and in January.
Deputy leader Angela Rayner, often seen as a “go-between” for Starmer and the left, was absent from the NEC meeting on Tuesday.
Prior to Corbyn’s era, the most high-profile occasion when a vice chair was not elected chair was in 1986/7, insiders said.
That was when Neil Kinnock opted to chair the NEC himself instead of Dennis Skinner, because it was a general election year. Skinner was made chair the following year.
Labour’s ruling NEC was later due to hold its annual “away day” to set its strategic goals for the year ahead.