Katy Balls Katy Balls

Starmer purges the Corbynites

One of the first thing Keir Starmer and his team decided to focus on after winning the Labour leadership was candidate selection. The Labour leader’s senior aide Morgan McSweeney takes the view that a Labour rosette needs to mean something – and in recent years that has appeared to be in doubt. In the 2017 and 2019 snap elections a series of Labour candidates were picked with little vetting, or with factional reasons winning the day. This included Jared O’Mara who was selected for Sheffield Hallam for Labour when Jeremy Corbyn was leader and elected in 2017. In 2023, he was jailed over a £52,000 fraud. So, Starmer’s team have over the past year or so set about selecting Starmtroopers – candidates they trust to have a low risk of scandal or rebellion.

‘Country before party’ is a much more powerful messages than a few complaints from candidates about their ill treatment.

Starmer is now putting the final touches to this with a last minute purge of pre-existing candidates and MPs who risk frustrating their election campaign. There is an ongoing row about whether Diane Abbott, the former shadow home secretary, will be barred from standing. She had the Labour whip returned following a very long investigation into a letter she sent to the Observer likening discrimination suffered by Jews to what gingers experience. (She apologised soon after.) On Wednesday, Starmer said that ‘no decision has been taken to bar her as a candidate’, yet many expect her to be blocked after she made clear her intention on Wednesday night to fight on as the MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington and not be ‘intimidated’.

Others have more certainty. Faiza Shaheen has been blocked from standing as the Labour candidate in Chingford and Woodford Green against Iain Duncan Smith. She fought against him in 2019 when Jeremy Corbyn was leader and had kept the candidacy – meaning she was already viewed as one of the only candidates of this election with Corbynite links. After allegedly liking anti-Semitic posts on Twitter, her candidacy was not endorsed by Labour’s National Executive Committee. She has spoken of her shock at her treatment – pointing to all the time she had put in campaigning. Similarly, the current Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle has been suspended over what the former frontbencher under Corbyn describes as a ‘vexatious and politically-motivated complaint’ about his behaviour eight years ago. As Steerpike reported on Wednesday, more members of Labour’s Socialist Campaign Group could follow. Labour activists in Poplar are urging the party to intervene against Apsana Begum.

This is all ahead of Labour National Executive Committee meeting on Tuesday to endorse the final list of the party’s candidates. It means there could be more scalps between now and then. The risk of course is that this all becomes an internal row and isolates parts of the left that believe Starmer is ‘Tory-lite’. However, the calculation is that in the areas Starmer needs to win, a changed Labour party and ‘country before party’ are much more powerful messages than a few complaints from candidates about their ill treatment.

The party has always taken the view that they had until the election campaign to make final decisions on candidates based on their behaviour. It’s not just to limit Tory attacks in the campaign, there is also a governing point. Starmer’s team early on into his leadership looked over to the States and ‘The Squad’ – four women elected in the 2018 United States House of Representatives elections: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib. On the left of the Democrats, this small group have often provided an internal opposition. Starmer wants an army of Starmtroopers to focus on delivering his agenda – rather than fighting it.