On Wednesday evening, when Labour members in North West Durham gathered to choose whom to back as the new mayor for the North East, they were given a strict warning: there should be no mention of Jamie Driscoll. The party had taken “legal advice”, said the meeting’s chair, a former MP for the constituency. Anyone who brought up Driscoll’s name “may face disciplinary action”.
Roughly 20 miles away, a similar scene was playing out in Newcastle. There, a group of Labour members walked out after the chair refused to allow a proposal to boycott the mayoral selection process.
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Both incidents were unprecedented in recent Labour history; and both illustrate the ruthless manner in which Keir Starmer and his aides have purged even relatively mild Left-wingers from the party.
Driscoll, who has served as the Labour mayor for the much smaller North of Tyne area since 2019, is routinely described as the “last Corbynista in power”, though this probably exaggerates how Left-wing he really is. His offence, it soon emerged, was guilt by association.
In March, in his role as mayor, Driscoll had hosted an “in conversation” event with the socialist film director Ken Loach, two of whose recent films were set on Tyneside. Loach is persona non grata in Labour, cast out for directing a production of Perdition, a play accused of antisemitism, in 1987. Party officials seemed not to realise that one of Loach’s subsequent works — his 1997 documentary McLibel — had included a substantial interview with a young human rights lawyer called Keir Starmer. Sometimes guilt by association matters; sometimes it doesn’t.
The rapid decline of the Labour Left since 2019 has been astonishing. Earlier this year, Labour announced that under no circumstances could Jeremy Corbyn stand as Labour’s candidate in his Islington North seat at the next election. At the same time, of the 123 new Labour candidates so far chosen to stand in vacated or target seats, only two are firmly on the Left: Faiza Shaheen, an economist who will again challenge Iain Duncan Smith in Chingford and Woodford Green, and Chris Webb in Blackpool South.
Under Starmer, the party apparatus has gone to extraordinary lengths to stop Left-wingers from getting on to the longlist. And in many cases, the victims are trades unionists and socialists whose politics — like Driscoll’s — are not exactly Corbynite. This week, l learnt of two would-be MPs in north Lancashire who have just been told by party officials that there is no point in applying as they will be excluded at the “due diligence” stage.
Indeed, the problem seems especially acute in the North West and Northern regions. In Copeland, for instance, Joe Ghayouba, a popular councillor who is half-Egyptian and has campaigned for Palestinian rights, was excluded; in Carlisle, Louise Atkinson, a black councillor and teacher who is president of the National Education Union, was mysteriously omitted without explanation. Even when reasons are provided, they are often trivial. One contender was told their offence was to “like” a past tweet in which Nicola Sturgeon said she’d tested negative for Covid.
If this seems ruthless, it’s only because Starmer is able to be. His aides have conducted by far the most tightly organised operation the party has ever known. Candidate selection is overseen by the two Matts — Matt Faulding and Matt Pound — and greatly assisted by long-standing Labour NEC member Luke Akehurst. Faulding was once deputy director of the Blairite think tank Progress, while Pound used to run Labour First, which represents the “Old Labour Right”, and organised to get Blairites picked as candidates during the Corbyn years. Labour First is now run by Akehurst, who as an NEC member gets to chair many of the panels that have been excluding Left-wingers. In other words, these three unknown men are now running the operation to choose the next generation of Labour politicians. Each is easily more powerful than most members of the shadow cabinet.
True, Labour’s due-diligence process certainly needed beefing up; in February, Jared O’Mara became the second Labour MP elected in 2017, following Fiona Onasanya, to be sent to jail for offences of dishonesty. But Labour’s due diligence process isn’t just about character flaws or past misdemeanours. As Akehurst admitted to me last week, there is a strong “political element” behind blocking candidates: “Maybe they’ve been incredibly publicly disrespectful of the current leadership… or they’ve got a constant record of breaking the whip as a local councillor… If we’re in a… hung Parliament situation, or a very narrow majority at the next election, I don’t want to have allowed people to become Labour MPs who are not solid votes for the Labour Party.”
Here, of course, Starmer’s hitmen are partly emulating the ruthless tactics of Corbyn and his allies. Under his regime, loyalty rather than ability also seemed to be the main qualification for selection. The Corbynites, for instance, felt not the slightest guilt in brazenly overturning the selection of Camden councillor Sally Gimson in Bassetlaw on what were obviously trumped up and minor charges.
Yet Starmer’s high command has gone far beyond the harsh rule of the Corbyn years, even pitting MPs against each other in some seats. When Left-winger Beth Winter was defeated by loyalist Gerald Jones in the new Merthyr Tydfil and Cynon Valley seat this week, she complained that the Welsh party had fixed the process against her. Such is the strength of the Starmerite machine that many on the Left have simply given up trying.
And why wouldn’t they? Under the Akehurst criteria, it’s unthinkable that Neil Kinnock, John Prescott, Clare Short and Robin Cook, all of whom were rebels in their early careers, would be selected. Nor do I think Angela Rayner, the party’s deputy leader, would get on the Labour list today — she couldn’t be described as a Corbynite, but her trade-union background would make her suspect to some of those working for Starmer.
Past Labour governments, by contrast, have always thrived on being a “broad church”. Attlee’s cabinet counted Nye Bevan and Stafford Cripps among its towering figures, yet both had suffered periods of expulsion from the party only a few years before. Wilson’s benefited from the presence of Dick Crossman and Barbara Castle; Callaghan had Tony Benn and Michael Foot (another former expellee), while Blair’s deputy John Prescott had been one of the “tightly knit group of politically motivated men” denounced by Wilson during the 1966 seamen’s strike.
As the experiences of both Boris Johnson and Liz Truss demonstrated, it’s a mistake to confine one’s government to a narrow band of loyal yes-men and women. Cabinet government needs the odd maverick, people who are willing to come up with alternative ideas and scrutinise and challenge existing policy. “Keir is blocking off his exits,” a former Corbyn aide recently told him. “You need some people who are creating space, and who enable the party to be a bit bolder.”
Meanwhile Team Starmer’s treatment of Corbyn and, to some extent, Diane Abbott has also instilled a sense of fear among the three dozen die-hard MPs who still belong to the Socialist Campaign Group in Westminster. They’ve deliberately kept quiet in recent months, terrified that the leadership will jump on the slightest excuse to deprive them of the whip and disqualify them from standing for Labour.
“People are very worried that anything that is in any way challenging will be used in a disciplinary process against them,” John McDonnell said recently. “You don’t want to put yourself in a position of vulnerability and then let other people down as well.” McDonnell advises colleagues to keep their heads down, to keep their noses clean. But he also attempted to cheer up Left-wing MPs by reminding them that if Labour gets a small majority next time — of just 20, say — then they could suddenly be back in business, effectively holding the balance of power in the Commons, as the old Tribune Group did during the Wilson/Callaghan government of the Seventies. And that, of course, is what the two Matts and Luke Akehurst fear.
The Labour Left aren’t just victims of a Starmerite plot, of course. They lack leadership, ideas and confidence. The 2019 election defeat knocked the stuffing out of them. Yet tens of thousands of people who took part in the Corbynite movement haven’t just vanished or died. Many have ripped up their Labour membership cards, but many are still active in politics — in unions, pressure groups and single-issue campaigns. Consider the Corbynite group Momentum, which has refocused its work on issues such as climate change and getting people elected to local government councils.
What’s more, history suggests the Left will be back. The Attlee government spawned the Bevanite surge of the Fifties, while disillusionment with the Wilson and Callaghan governments led to the rise of Tony Benn and the Bennites in the Seventies and Eighties. More recently, the Iraq war and other alleged “betrayals” of the Blair-Brown era eventually prompted the most astonishing Left-wing turn of all — the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.
And when this happens, the fight rarely ends. Like mafia factions engaged in a perpetual tit-for-tat vendetta, the Labour Right and Left closely observe each other’s tactics, then adopt them, with ever more draconian reprisals. If and when the Labour Left returns, it will be with a great sense of vengeance — and Labour’s politics will get more bloody than ever.