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Faiza Shaheen’s resignation exposes Starmer’s fragility

Same old factionalism. Credit: Getty

June 5, 2024 - 1:00pm

For Labour, the first weeks of the general election campaign have been dominated by internal controversy. Sir Keir Starmer was forced to answer repeated questions from journalists about Labour’s candidate selection process. Would Diane Abbott be a Labour candidate? Why were Left-wing MPs and Parliamentary candidates suddenly being informed they could no longer stand for the party?

The answer to these questions can be explained by Starmer’s weakness, not his strength. He has spent his leadership alienating trade unions, silencing Left-wing critics, expelling opponents and blocking the ascendency of potential rivals. Yet this ruthlessness doesn’t necessarily suggest a leader in control of his party. Faiza Shaheen’s resignation from Labour this week, following her deselection as a candidate, is further evidence of this fragility.

Under Starmer, the control of the Labour Right has been more complete than under any leader of the Opposition, even Tony Blair. He has crafted the least politically diverse Shadow Cabinet in Labour’s history, and has been far more aggressive in imposing ideological discipline on the current and future Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). He and the National Executive Committee (NEC) have run Labour selections with an exceptionally tight fist.

This is not the behaviour of a self-confident leader. The first-past-the-post electoral system tends to create two large parties of Left and Right, rather than a collection of smaller, narrowly-focused parties. Under such a system, which advantages Labour, the party has a responsibility to represent a diverse array of left-of-centre opinion. Labour must be a broad church — it cannot be a sect, as sectarianism will destroy the party in the long run.

Leading this diverse coalition of ideas and interests takes skilful management, and the best Labour leaders have been the ones who excelled in this task. Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson both assembled Cabinets which contained a wide range of perspectives, bringing together ministers from the Left and the Right of the party, Eurosceptics and Europhiles, nuclear disarmers and nuclear enthusiasts, hawks and doves, spendthrifts and skinflints.

This approach is also vital for reasons of self-interest once in power, as the Labour prime minister can then ensure that different wings of the party share not just in successes but also in the blame for failures of government. All factions will have dipped their hands in the proverbial blood.

Wilson, perhaps the most skilled party manager in Labour’s history, understood this, and was careful to show “love” to different wings of the party. He had ideologically diverse Cabinets, with Right-wing big hitters such as Jim Callaghan, Roy Jenkins and Tony Crosland sitting across from Left-wing firebrands such as Barbara Castle, Michael Foot and Tony Benn. Both sides of the party therefore felt they had a real stake in the success of the Labour governments, regardless of which came out on top.

Even Blair, at least initially, put together a Cabinet with diverse perspectives. Alongside “Blairites” and “Brownites”, he appointed more traditional Left-wing voices such as Michael Meacher, Clare Short, and Robin Cook to important ministries. His front bench included ministers with a range of views on social issues, from liberal reformers to social conservatives like Ruth Kelly and Frank Field.

Where is that ideological diversity in Starmer’s party? The answer is that dissenters have either been silenced or removed. The Starmer leadership has become obsessed with settling factional scores in a way that Jeremy Corbyn never even contemplated. For all of his time as a rebel, Corbyn was ultimately a party man who saw value in a broad church.

For now, Labour’s rigidly sectarian approach has not meaningfully damaged its electoral prospects. It might cost the party Islington North, but Labour’s 20-point poll lead is proof that Starmer’s ruthlessness has some method to it.

Winning an election is one thing. Governing is another. At the first sign of trouble, Starmer will have few friends on the Labour Left, yet he is not fully trusted by the Right of the party, either. As Conrad Landin has written, when Starmer was selected for Parliament in 2014, he was seen as the “anti-Progress” candidate, referring to the Blairite pressure group within Labour. Starmer may be the vehicle of the party Right to achieve its factional aims, but its key figures do not see him as one of their own.

Only when a Labour ministry comes upon hard times, with Starmer at the helm, will his decision to ostracise Shaheen and other Left-wingers in the party come to be seen a serious misjudgement.


Richard Johnson is a Lecturer in US Politics and Policy at Queen Mary University of London.

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Rachel Taylor
Rachel Taylor
19 days ago

I’m not sure the comparison with Blair is valid. Shaheen is not even an MP yet. She has no political achievements to her name. At present, she is only yet another International Socialist activist. Unless she were going to be appointed to a position in government there is no chance whatever that she would accept the shared responsibility and blame. By ejecting her now, Starmer ensures she will just be a name no-one remembers.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
19 days ago
Reply to  Rachel Taylor

That might be true if this article were just about Shaheen. There’s a much wider point being made though, which concerns the effect of being in government if half your party views you with something akin to disdain if not outright hostility. The sheen of being elected PM will wear off in record time for Starmer, being an utterly superficial sheen.
One might say he’s preferred sheen over Shaheen.

Arkadian Arkadian
Arkadian Arkadian
19 days ago

“It might cost the party Islington North, but Labour’s 20-point poll lead is proof that Starmer’s ruthlessness has some method to it.”
Not sure I agree. He is there not because he is good or has some kind of vision, but because he is not the leader of the Tory party (although the differences between them are flimsy at best). A bit like when Biden was elected because he was not Trump.

David Morley
David Morley
19 days ago

This is the real concern. That he won’t rock the boat, and will just be same old same old under a new brand.

George Venning
George Venning
19 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

Agreed. The Labour right and the Democrats have always run the same pitch to their left flank – “we’d love to do all the same things you want to do but it just isn’t possible for x,y or z reason”
But they are about to be gifted all the power that the UK constitution can grant any Government and they have sought no mandate at all for the legitimate use of that power.
So they’d be perfectly capable of re-nationalising the utilities, for example (a very popular policy) but it would cost them enormous political capital and credibility because they have been so unequivocal in saying that they wouldn’t. They could introduce rent controls if they wanted to, but again, they haven’t made the case for doing so, and it seems unlikely that they would put it in their manifesto so they’d be unable to whip their vast parliamentary majority.
You can do this for any policy you like – they have ruled out the easy, popular ones and built no support for the harder and more controversial ones.

william langdale
william langdale
19 days ago

“Corbyn was ultimately a party man who saw value in a broad church”.Eh? There hasn’t been a Labour government in his lifetime that Corbyn supported.

George Venning
George Venning
18 days ago

Party, as distinct from leadership.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
19 days ago

Clutching at straws, boys!

David Morley
David Morley
19 days ago

The comparison with Wilson is not a good one. At that time the left did largely exist on a continuum, with some wishing to go further, in broadly the same direction, than others.

Today the Labour Party consists of a mixture of special interest groups, with roots more in student politics than the interests of working people. And they pull in competing directions. If the Labour Party is to achieve anything real in relation to issues that matter, it is going to have to control those groups. It has to avoid getting distracted into relatively minor issues.

If it is to succeed, the Labour Party needs to genuinely be the party of ordinary working people, not the party of Guardian readers, and not a battleground for petty infighting.

George Venning
George Venning
19 days ago

Starmer’s Labour is a paper tiger.
As an exhausted and discredited Government totters, Starmer is offering to change the personel but not the (disastrous) overall direction. That’s a weird offer to be making when Starmer himself is as personally uninspiring as he is.
And as soon as the threat from the Tories is obliterated by the election, Starmer and his project will have few friends.
I’d say that they’d be in the same position as Biden but Biden’s entire administration is animated by the fear of Trump – who is actually a credible threat. Labour won’t be able to hide behind that ploy with the Tories reduced to a rump of 120 MPs – they’ll simply be exposed as having no ideas.
Nor will they be able to blame a Manchin/Sinema figure for blocking their agenda.
They’ll have all the power to do anything they want and they won’t do it because they simply don’t believe in doing it.
This is a recipe for political disappointment that is at least as potent as the false promises of Brexit.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
19 days ago
Reply to  George Venning

Unfortunately, they do have ideas – most of which are trivial, divisive or both. E.g. votes for children, easier gender transition, VAT on school fees. Their only big idea is to eradicate what remains of our energy security by closing down the North Sea.
However, they have no ideas – and no idea – regarding how to deal with the existential threats to western civilisation currently bubbling up across the world.

George Venning
George Venning
18 days ago

We don’t agree on much Dougie, and I suspect that your idea of how to deal with the existential threats to Western civilisation are different form mine but I don’t think either of our views will be debated – much less represented – by any of the parties in the election.
Unless Reform are your thing…