Labour’s Messy Leftwing Purge Isn’t As Smart As It Seems

‘Starmer isn’t even in control.’

by Moya Lothian-McLean

30 May 2024

Faiza Shaheen, who has been barred from standing as the Labour candidate for Chingford and Woodford Green. John Sibley/Reuters

The era of “Grey Labour”, as writer Alex Niven has dubbed the current iteration of the parliamentary Labour party, has been marked by u-turns and discarded pledges. But in one crusade, Keir Starmer and his kingmakers have remained steadfast from the start: purging the left. 

With a surprise election on the horizon, that offensive has stepped up a gear. Last week, Labour HQ confirmed that Jeremy Corbyn would not be able to stand for re-election as a Labour MP in Islington North, after keeping the former leader in limbo since suspending the whip in 2020. Corbyn promptly launched a campaign to represent his constituency of 41 years as an independent. 

Yesterday, though, came a flurry of action that I’m dubbing ‘Grey Labour’s Night of the Butter Knives’, as a series of vocally leftwing MPs and prospective parliamentary candidates were blocked from representing the party. It began with a Times exclusive: after months of obfuscation from the Labour leadership, Diane Abbott, Britain’s first Black female MP, was going to be banned from reselection. 

At first, both Abbott and Starmer refuted these reports. But by Wednesday evening, Abbott had confirmed the rumours, telling the crowd at a local rally that she had been “banned from standing as a Labour candidate”. She also took to social media to condemn the wider “cull of leftwingers” conducted throughout the day. 

Those leftwingers included sitting MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle and party activist Faiza Shaheen, who was, until 12 hours ago, the Labour candidate for Chingford and Woodford Green. Both are firmly on Labour’s left; Russell-Moyle is a member of the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs, and Shaheen has been dubbed the ‘Chingford Corbynista’ by rightwing newspapers. 

Russell-Moyle told Novara Media yesterday that he had been informed of his “administrative suspension” as a result of a historic complaint he deems “vexatious and politically motivated”. He won’t be able to contest the complaint in time for the 4 June cut off period for selecting candidates, meaning he is effectively barred from restanding. 

Shaheen has suffered a similar indignity: after five years of diligent campaigning as the Labour candidate apparent – and toeing an increasingly draconian line (which occasionally attracted her critique from fellow leftwingers) – her candidacy has been blocked at the last minute by Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC).

In an emotional interview with BBC Newsnight, Shaheen told presenter Victoria Derbyshire that Labour’s NEC proffered 14 tweets as grounds for her deselection, including ones where she discussed her experiences of Islamophobia within Labour. The NEC had also flagged a tweet Shaheen ‘liked’, which detailed how mild critique of Israel is subject to intense, “hysterical” pushback. 

“Moreover, you can’t easily ignore them because those are not just random people,” the supposedly offending tweet read. “They tend to be friends or people who move in the same circles as you. Those people are mobilised by professional organisations.”

Shaheen said she had no memory of ‘liking’ the tweet and apologised for “play[ng] into a trope” by citing “professional organisations” acting in Israel’s interests.  

As Shaheen struggled not to cry on live TV, news dropped that Luke Akehurst – Labour NEC member and director of professional Zionist lobbying organisation We Believe in Israel – had been selected without consultation for the safe seat of North Durham. 

His candidacy is one of several declared in the last few days, as a slew of Labour MPs – including the brother-in-law of Rachel Reeves – have announced conveniently last-minute retirements. This has freed-up seats for Grey Labour allies to be parachuted in without input from local constituency parties under new selection rules approved by Labour’s NEC last year.

Alongside Akehurst, Josh Simons, director of the powerful pro-Starmer think tank Labour Together, has already been confirmed as one of these candidates, as has lobby journalist Paul Waugh and former Camden council leader Georgia Gould. 

The key takeaways here are twofold. Firstly, the faction behind Starmer doesn’t think that this sort of political manipulation – that which disproportionately excludes and disrespects leftwing MPs and candidates from minority groups – matters to the wider electorate. And to most, it probably doesn’t. It won’t stop Labour winning the general election. But it will further disillusion amongst some of Labour’s traditional voter base, already appalled by the right of the party’s war on anything deemed ‘left’ which is currently expressed through attacking anyone publicly opposed to the genocide in Gaza. 

There is quite obvious racism at play here – just look at the targets of Labour’s purge. Look at the excuses used to banish them from the party they’ve dedicated lives to, while a lobbyist for a foreign power, currently under investigation for war crimes and genocide, is allowed to stand as a Labour representative. Look at who is shut out and who is welcomed with open arms

There will be more such examples to come as 4 June approaches. Already Apsana Begum, the socialist MP for Poplar and Limehouse, seems at risk of a fresh deselection attempt after she previously accused Labour of “weaponising” her domestic abuse to push her out of the party. I worry about where the voters alienated by Labour’s machinations will go; which new, economically left but socially conservative parties they might end up clinging to, lured in by those taking unequivocal pro-Palestine stances – but at the cost of ignoring anti-climate change and anti-LGBTQ messaging. 

The second conclusion is that Starmer has lost internal authority – if he ever had it to begin with. The purging operation has been a mess of leaks and counter-briefings, piecemeal rumours and rogue emails, all of which expose Labour’s internal wranglings to the general public and make Starmer himself seem weak and out of the loop. Labour right bods boosted into safe seats are also often political hot potatoes, with pasts far more chequered than those leftwingers who have been expelled – risky people that any canny political strategist would not put front and centre. 

The fact is that the faction that ushered Starmer into the leadership, and now seeks to install him in Number 10, has little regard for its own figurehead or his – and the party’s – wider reputation. As reported by Politico London, Labour campaign chief Morgan McSweeney’s eradication operation is going down “poorly” across the political spectrum. 

“Starmer isn’t in control,” one Labour insider told me. “He wants to run the country, but he can’t even run his own office.”

This article was amended on 30/05/2024 to reflect that Faiza Shaheen ‘liked’ a tweet referring to professional organisations mobilising pro-Israel support, and did not author it. 

Moya Lothian-McLean is a contributing editor at Novara Media.

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