Yesterday the leader of the Labour Party Sir Keir Starmer sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey, Shadow Education Secretary and MP for Salford, after she enthusiastically retweeted an interview that contained an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. In the interview, actress and Salford constituent Maxine Peake suggested US police forces learnt violent tactics, like kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, from “seminars with Israeli secret services”. Within three hours of Long-Bailey’s retweet, Starmer had summarily dismissed her.
Starmer’s leadership campaign was launched with a zero-tolerance vow on anti-Semitism, culminating in a promise to “tear out this poison by its roots” in his acceptance speech in April. To this end, the need to act decisively was obvious. But the fact Long-Bailey was Starmer’s Corbynite leadership opponent and the only notable Corbynite to still have a Shadow Cabinet position has rekindled Labour’s civil war, bringing a fleeting three months of unity to an abrupt end.
Starmer faces stalwart opposition from the left wing of the party, with former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell already launching a petition to reinstate Long-Bailey. But they need to tread carefully: anti-Semitism would be a pretty dire hill to die on.
It is clear that Starmer is determined to break away from the issue that dogged the leadership of his predecessor. But he is also acutely aware of the limitations of his position as Leader of the Opposition. The only actual power he yields is over his party, and this was the first real opportunity to demonstrate his leadership style: swift and decisive.
Starmer has behaved in stark contrast to the Prime Minister, for whom the blatant disregard for lockdown rules and stench of corruption has not so far warranted the sacking of his top adviser Dominic Cummings or Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick.
Starmer’s almost immediate sacking of Long-Bailey dashed any Conservative Party hopes of being able to throw back in his face the criticism he has mounted on Boris Johnson for his refusal to sack senior figures embroiled in controversy within the Tory administration.
But perhaps more interestingly, Starmer’s decision has garnered recognition from across the despatch box. Former Chancellor George Osborne tweeted that Starmer is “ very serious about getting into Downing Street”. This is an obvious statement on the surface, but from someone who spent considerable time at the helm of government, it is also a mark of respect. Conservative MP Robert Halfon went so far as to say Starmer represented a “force to be reckoned with” and that no Conservative MP “can afford to be complacent about his leadership”.
Perhaps Halfon is right to be worried. Judging from Starmer’s visit to Stevenage yesterday – his first public visit outside of London – he is keen to reconnect with swing voters, a group which felt alienated under his predecessor.
His determination not to be painted with the Corbyn brush could not be clearer. Now, with the sacking of Long-Bailey at the first whiff of anti-Semitism, it would seem he has passed the first litmus test of his leadership.
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