Updated: Jul 2, 2020
The sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey as shadow education secretary last week was the final hammer blow to the final nail in the coffin of ‘Corbynism’.
It is being tipped as Keir Starmer’s Clause IV moment; the moment when the new Labour leader put the Corbynite legacy of the last five years firmly in the rear-view mirror, cementing his leadership and paving the road ahead. The Socialist Campaign Group are now firmly relegated to Labour’s backbenches, after a brief and ill-fated renaissance.
For many people, Corbynism was the antidote to decades of damaging political consensus. Characterised by the days of New Labour, when the Conservatives and Labour converged on and fought over the political centre-ground, under the assumption that this is where elections were won. Until 2015, the days of a commitment to public ownership and traditionally strong links to trade unions were a memory of a bygone era.
Under the stewardship of Corbyn, Labour returned to the many of the values which characterised their initial raison d’etre as a socialist project. The project began with the shock election – shock doesn’t quite do it justice – of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in 2015 and seemed to be ended by the thumping electoral defeat in 2019.
The last of the Corb-hicans
Since this defeat, there has been a widespread retreat of prominent ‘left-wingers’ in ministerial roles in the party. Former shadow home secretary Diane Abbott and shadow chancellor John McDonnell virtually retired themselves following the resignation of Corbyn. Former shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon and party chairman Ian Lavery were removed from the frontbench following Starmer’s election as leader. General secretary Jennie Formby clung onto her position for a little longer but was eventually ousted. Long-Bailey remained the last bastion of Corbynism within the shadow cabinet. This was arguably only the case because Starmer had made a commitment in his leadership campaign to offer his rivals frontbench positions.
With Long-Bailey now gone, the source of leadership for the Socialist Campaign Group is not an obvious one, there is a noticeable charisma vacuum. There is no obvious candidate who could easily replace her. Moreover, there has been a notable lack of support from any Corbynite MP’s to condemn the sacking, or any attempt to throw their weight behind her. There’s been some muted outcry, but a noticeable absence of both bark and bite.
This is partly to do with the fact that anti-Semitism is seen as a huge issue within the party, and the case against Long-Bailey is, unfortunately, quite a condemning one. She retweeted an interview with actress Maxine Peake, which promoted an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, and then refused to delete it. Keir Starmer has been enormously vocal on his zero-tolerance on anti-Semitism within the party.
There is a far-reaching understanding within the Labour Party, that disunity has severely hampered their electoral hopes at the last two elections, and there is very much a desire to make this a thing of the past. For Corbynites to fight Starmer on this sacking would likely achieve little and undermine the progress in the polls which Labour has recently made.
There has not been much vocal support, outcry or action whilst the dust has settled. Those who have voiced opposition have been the usual suspects of McDonnell, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey and Momentum founder Jon Lansman.
McCluskey tweeted that the action by Starmer was “an unnecessary over-reaction to a confected row”, adding that “unity is too important to be risked like this”. However, there have been no resignations.
Anecdotally, had it been Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the influential right-wing European Research Group in the Conservative Party, who had been fired from his front bench position, one can only imagine that around half of the MP’s in the group would resign or defect to the Brexit Party.
The position of strength which Starmer is operating under has been bolstered by his performance in the polls. Less than 3 months after election as Labour leader, Starmer has overtaken Johnson as voters preferred choice of prime minister, 37% to 35%. With the indication that he is increasingly being viewed as the prime minister in waiting. A ringing endorsement of electability which proved elusive to Corbyn throughout his tenure as leader.
In addition to the lack of senior Corbynite representation on the frontbench, even in these first three months, there has also been evidence of an agenda shift, away from certain issues which had primacy under Corbyn’s leadership.
Earlier this month, Boris Johnson scrapped plans to make changing gender easier, in what was a blow for trans-rights. Plans originally made by Theresa May’s government allowed people to change their legal gender by self-identification and shorten the difficult process to legally change gender. Starmer’s Labour is not opposing the scrapping of this proposal.
It would appear Starmer has taken the advice of former Labour PM Tony Blair, when he warned the next Labour leader from getting trapped in the “cul-de-sac of identity politics”, which it had in the past. Blair said in an interview at Kings College London, “If you go, ‘Transgender rights is our big thing’, and the right goes, ‘Immigration control is our big thing’, you’re going to lose that war.”
WATCH: Blair's election postmortem, and his broadside on the Trans debate
Additionally, on June 16th, Boris Johnson announced that the department for international development will be merged with the foreign office, which will ultimately result in a reduction of foreign aid. Whether a country receives British aid or not, is now a decision which will be made by foreign secretary Dominic Raab. Crucially, Starmer failed to meet this announcement with any meaningful opposition and allowed the Tories to go unopposed. He characterised the move as “tactics of pure distraction” and questioned the efficacy of its timing, rather than opposing it on its own terms.
Removed from the issue of anti-Semitism, this sacking has Machiavellian undertones, as it carries the considerable bonus of bolstering Starmer’s position in two key areas he is currently attacking the Tories over:
The first is the issue of strong leadership. There have been very public and credible calls for Svengali Dominic Cummings and housing minister Robert Jenrick to be sacked. Both of which Boris Johnson has resisted, despite outright hostility from his party with over 80 MP’s conspiring to get rid of Cummings, and an all-out media assault. Starmer’s swift action to dismiss Long-Bailey, before the press could drag the situation out, places his decisive leadership in direct opposition to the actions of the government. It also appeases the national press, who gave Corbyn and his prominent frontbenchers such a rough ride.
Secondly, Long-Bailey has come in for huge criticism for her support of teachers’ unions and their role in schools being unable to open. Her being shadow education secretary has meant that Labour has been fighting Gavin Williamson’s failure to get schools reopened with one hand tied behind their back. With her out of the picture, Starmer can distance himself with Labour’s initial backing of the unions in the row – which admittedly has aged like warm milk, leaving him free to lay the blame firmly at the government’s door.
Most importantly for Starmer, he and Long-Bailey’s replacement, Kate Green, will be singing from the same hymn sheet. Green was not the favourite to take the role, but she does have impressive credentials to be front and centre of the symbolic break with Corbynism. She worked as Owen Smith’s campaign manager during the attempted coup of Corbyn’s leadership in 2016, a campaign which Starmer also worked on. She also resigned from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet in 2016.
Gone with a whimper
Within politics, the suffix of “ism” is often reserved for the name of those, rightly or wrongly, whose ideology had a lasting impact on the status quo. There is a reason that Thatcherism has become a key political term and Majorism or Cameronism, have not. The very existence of a ‘Corbynism’ is indicative of Jeremy Corbyn’s lasting impact on the British political status quo. Labour’s four-year flirtation with the left-wing was not the absolute catastrophe it has been made out to be. Corbyn did not enjoy electoral success, but he did succeed in fundamentally reshaping the political debate and getting issues back into the mainstream which years of political consensus had phased out.
But there is little denying that Labour leader Keir Starmer has now defeated his party’s left-wing. The very notion of which should be an absurdism, however, that is very far from the case. It’s like hearing that the Greens have expelled the scourge of environmentalists within their party, or that the BNP has defeated their racists.
Through significant personnel change, Starmer has locked the Socialist Campaign Group out of the party. He has ruthlessly closed the chapter of Corbynism in the Labour Party history book, and it has gone with a whimper.