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Ming vase politics: UK Labour and purging the Corbynistas

June 4, 2024 at 9:10 am

Jeremy Corbyn MP addresses the protest at High Court in London, England on 20 February, 2024 Guy Smallman/Getty Images]

By any reckoning, this was the move of a fool. A fool, it should be said, motivated by spite larded with caution. Evidently playing safe and adopting what has been called a “Ming Vase strategy” — hold it with scrupulous care and, above all else, avoid danger — the British Labour Party under Sir Keir Starmer is already setting its own boobytraps to step onto. This is some feat, given that Labour currently leads the incumbent Tories by such a margin that it is projected to win a majority of 194 seats in the House of Commons, giving them 422 in all.

With the election campaign still salad green, Starmer has made it clear that a number of the progressive faithful will no longer be expected to keep him company on his way into government, assuming that he doesn’t cock matters up before 4 July. A cull is under way of the Labour old guard, and they are not going quietly.

One is a former leader of the party, an unabashed progressive who has been hugging the left side of politics since he was a callow teenager. Jeremy Corbyn, the member of parliament for London’s Islington North constituency for over four decades and party leader for five years, is running as an independent, having been thrown out of the party for alleged “anti-Semitism”. In March, the National Executive Committee (NEC) voted by 22 to 12 to approve a motion proposed by Starmer insisting that it was “not in the best interests of the Labour Party for it to endorse Mr Corbyn as a Labour Party candidate at the next general election.”

The response from Corbyn was resoundingly biting. The move was a “shameful attack on the party of democracy”, showing “contempt” for those who had voted for the party at the 2017 and 2019 elections. “If you start shutting down dissent and preventing people from speaking out, it’s not a sign of strength, it’s a sign of weakness. A sign of strength is when you can absorb and listen to the other person’s arguments,” said Corbyn on Double Down News.

READ: UK Labour leader Starmer says he wants to recognise Palestine as part of peace process

The waters were muddied further by Labour’s near juvenile incompetence regarding the future of the MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, Diane Abbott, a figure who has been an enduring feature of Labour politics for decades. She was the first black woman to be elected to parliament, reliably Left, admirably innumerate and always reliable for having a moment of indiscretion. Abbott had been suspended from the party over comments made in a letter to the Observer claiming that Jews, the Irish and Travellers suffered “prejudice” rather than the “racism” suffered by black people. The question here was whether her readmission to the party would qualify her to run again or enable her to walk away into a veteran politician’s sunset.

Here was a moment of genuine danger for Labour. Confusion, always fatal for any party seeking government, reigned.

Was Abbott banned by her party from running at the next election because of her recently spotty record? Some Labour functionaries thought not, but felt that the NEC should have the last say. Whispers and rumours suggested the opposite.

The BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg bored people senseless with a slew of anonymous sources that did little to clear things up. “She was looking for a way to stand down with dignity when it was blown all up,” one source claimed. Another, said to be a “senior ally” of Starmer, suggested that things had come to a pass. “Everyone was aware of the symbolism. We had to draw the line, it couldn’t just go on and on.”

A strategy is certainly afoot to stay, remove or frustrate candidates of a certain left leaning disposition who fail to fit Starmer’s ultra-cautious strategy. They are memory’s heavy burden, a reminder of the roistering, scuffling legacy of the party. Distilled to its essence, the Labour leader is engaged in a crude and clumsy effort to purge the Corbynistas. As Katy Balls of the Spectator described it appropriately, the Labour leader and his cronies have been selecting “candidates they trust to have a low risk of scandal or rebellion.”

Economist Faiza Shaheen, for instance, has found herself blocked for taking issue with her party’s Middle East policy, although, as she put it, the “evidence” used against her entailed “14 tweets over 10 years, including me liking a colleague’s tweet saying she was running as a Green councillor, and a retweet containing a list of companies to boycott to support Palestine, both from 2014.”

In an article for the Guardian, Shaheen described how she was “removed, via email, from being a Labour parliamentary candidate from Chingford and Woodford Green.” She faced the dreaded NEC regarding her deselection. “More than four years’ work thrown in the bin. Any connection to my community brushed aside.”

Shaheen proceeded to make a fundamental, if obvious, political point. “The irony is that taking me off the ballot and replacing me with someone no one in my community knows will jeopardise Labour’s ability to win this seat and finally unseat the Tory grandee Iain Duncan Smith.” Moreover, the party’s Middle East policy and support for Israel may well see it lose many Muslim and other pro-Palestine votes which, its critics say, it has taken for granted for far too long.

Such examples may not be enough to derail the Labour juggernaut that is destined, at this point, to storm into the House of Commons and Number 10 with a massive majority. However, Starmer’s cull is already taking the shine off the effort. Abbott has a loyal following. Corbyn’s position in Islington North is the stuff of legend. Riling, obstructing and barring such figures serves to cloud the message, impairing an electoral effort that may, ironically enough, see the Ming Vase slip out of Starmer’s desperate hands.

READ: UK Labour leader must commit to stop arming Israel to get our vote, activists say

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.