Labour’s civil war shows little sign of abating, with the party’s leftwing lashing out at Keir Starmer for creating a “bullying atmosphere” over the decision to remove the whip from ex-leader Jeremy Corbyn.
In a bombshell statement on Monday night, Jess Barnard – the newly-elected chair of Young Labour – said “interference” from Starmer’s office served to “undermine members’ democratic rights and free expression” and are “a threat to the fabric of our party”.
Barnard revealed that the Young Labour National Committee had voted to publish a statement opposing Starmer’s controversial decision to remove the whip from Corbyn, following comments he made in the aftermath of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission report into Labour antisemitism.
But, Barnard said, she “received an email from Labour’s head office ordering me to remove the statement ‘immediately’ and alleging that Young Labour had ‘misused’ Labour ‘branding’ to provide ‘commentary on factional disputes.’”
‘Massive sense of betrayal’
“Rather than trying to silence young people, unelected officials in the Leader’s Office should consider the massive sense of betrayal that many young voters and Labour members feel about this decision,” Barnard said.
“It’s time for the Labour leadership to listen to young people. This generation is weighed down by low wages, insecure work, high rents and student debts – we did not get involved in politics to stay quiet and allow the status quo to continue.
“Young people have supported Labour at unprecedented levels in the past five years, but it would be a mistake to take their support for granted. I will continue to stand with the elected leadership of our youth movement, and uphold their democratic rights.”
Barnard’s intervention speaks to growing anger about Starmer’s treatment of the Labour left since succeeding Corbyn earlier this year.
A string of the 2019 intake of MPs quickly voiced their support, with 27-year-old Zarah Sultana – the Coventry South MP – adding that her generation is “fed up with the status quo”. “Young members must be able to freely organise,” she added.
Despite making lofty pledges to uphold key planks of the previous leader’s manifesto, scores of Labour members feel that Starmer has abandoned them, as part of his effort to make Labour seem more palatable to the broader electorate.
Highlighting Starmer’s lukewarm attitude towards policies like a Green New Deal, Barnard lashed out at the party’s reluctance to embrace “transformative” politics. It emerged on Monday that Labour has lost members at a rate of nearly 250 a day since Sir Keir took over last spring, falling by just shy of 57,000 between April and November.
The furore over Corbyn’s suspension seems to have unleashed a pent-up frustration on the left that had been bubbling under the surface since Starmer took over.
That anger reached a boiling point on Tuesday morning, when members on the left walked out – digitally – of the first meeting of Labour’s new National Executive Committee.
In a letter to Sir David Evans, the party’s general secretary, they condemned the “factional approach” of Starmer, after a Corbyn ally was blocked from becoming chair of the NEC. Instead, Dame Margaret Beckett – the longest-serving member of the NEC – was elected chair.
The danger of a divided party is a real one for Starmer. Recent polling has shown his favourability dip in comparison to Boris Johnson – which was seized on by the left as evidence that he is spending too much time battling Corbyn and not enough holding the Tories’ feet to the fire.
It is not clear how much Corbyn’s suspension has to do with that slip. The former leader was, after all, very unpopular beyond the Labour membership.
Nonetheless, there is little doubt that this ongoing battle with the Labour left has presented Starmer with an unwelcome headache, just months into a leadership that he pledged would unify the party.