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Keir’ll Fix It

In the coming weeks, expect to hear Keir Starmer’s mantra of ‘country first, party second’ on loop. But what the naked, overt corruption evident in Labour’s selection process shows is that in reality, it is faction first, second, and third.

Keir Starmer has overseen the corruption of Labour's candidate selections. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Pressed to justify Labour’s deselection of Faiza Shaheen, Keir Starmer told journalists he wanted ‘the highest possible quality candidates to put before the electorate.’

Shaheen, a doctor of economics with a speciality in inequality, was raised and lives in the Chingford and Woodford Green constituency, where she came within 1200 votes of victory in 2019 — one of the only seats in the country to see a swing towards Labour. An evidently popular and dedicated candidate who was back knocking on doors only weeks after giving birth, she was re-selected by local members to contest the seat. None of that, however, was good enough for Team Starmer.

If the circumstances of Shaheen’s deselection — removed for liking 14 innocuous posts on Twitter over the course of a decade after the Jewish Labour Movement lodged complaints against her — was cause to question Starmer’s ‘highest quality candidate’ defence, her replacement left it in no doubt.

Less than 24 hours after Shaheen’s unceremonious dumping, Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee decided on a new candidate for Chingford and Woodford Green: Shama Tatler, a councillor from Brent with no apparent connection to the area.

Tatler is the co-chair of the right-wing Labour to Win faction which is in control of the NEC and the party. She also sits on Labour’s National Constitutional Committee, the body responsible for disciplinary matters, and is a member of the Jewish Labour Movement.

That means Tatler is a member of the organisation that made the vexatious complaints against Shaheen, sits on the body that deals with such complaints, and is the co-chair of the organisation that ultimately controls the party and rules on candidate selections — and directly benefited from Shaheen’s removal by replacing her as a candidate.

Tatler is not the only one. Luke Akehurst, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee and another leading figure in Labour to Win, was appointed (or rather, seemingly helped appoint himself) as Labour candidate for North Durham. Aside from the undemocratic nature of his imposition, it is difficult to express to those unfamiliar with Akehurst just how offensive and unsuitable his candidacy is.

Until last week, Akehurst worked for We Believe in Israel, a lobby group committed to defending Israel from accountability for its crimes under international law. Before that, Akehurst was a lobbyist for the arms industry, and he has a long history of repellent public statements. Only recently, he labelled the UN ‘antisemitic’ and promoted a conspiracy theory which held that videos of Israeli atrocities in Gaza were staged by Palestinian crisis actors.

The imposition of such a candidate would be outrageous at any time, but especially so given the ongoing atrocities in Gaza. Considering the political difficulties the issue poses to Labour, the decision appears deeply foolish, too. Akehurst’s campaign unsurprisingly descended into acrimony on its first day, with councillors leaving his launch event in protest and his supporters racially abusing and physically assaulting members of the public.

Tatler and Akehurst are joined as candidates by fellow NEC Labour to Win members Gurinder Singh Josan, the new candidate for Labour-held Smethwick, and James Asset, who will contest the newly formed seat of West Ham and Beckton, and Johanna Baxter, who will run in Paisley & Renfrewshire South. What these unprecedented impositions demonstrate is both the power of the Labour to Win faction within the party and the extent to which it is able to prioritise its own advancement over that of the party’s moral and electoral interests.

A party leader and the faction they represent seeking to influence candidate selections to favour their political allies is not anomalous. However, party bureaucrats appearing to abuse their roles to bump off factional opponents and anoint themselves as future MPs is a startling departure from democratic norms and one which should be denounced for the corruption it is.

It isn’t only NEC members who are personally profiting from this undemocratic stitch-up — their factional allies are too. Left-wing MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle was recently deselected as Brighton Kemptown’s candidate following a sexual harassment complaint lodged against him. The complaint apparently refers to an instance that took place seven years ago but was conveniently lodged just as the election was called, leaving no opportunity for investigation or appeal.

Russell-Moyle was replaced by Chris Ward, a former Starmer adviser who has spent the past two years working for Hanbury Strategy, a lobbying firm representing gambling and fossil fuel companies. As if to underline the move’s anti-democratic intention, a local candidate was being interviewed as Russell-Moyle’s potential replacement at the moment Ward was imposed from above.

Another Starmer acolyte, Josh Simons, has been appointed as the candidate for Makerfield. Simons is the chair of Labour Together, the ‘think tank’ which provided the base for Starmer’s 2020 leadership campaign and was later charged by the electoral commission for failing to declare more than £700,000 in donations. He is best known for making recent headlines after suggesting that people smugglers be imprisoned on a barge and sent to Scotland ‘for all I care.’

One of the more surprising cronies imposed last week is Alex Barros-Curtis, Labour’s former director of legal affairs, who will stand in Cardiff West. Like the other candidates, he has no real connection to the area he will soon be representing. Barros-Curtis is notorious for pursuing a legal case against former staffers accused of leaking information that detailed the efforts of right-wing staff to sabotage the party under Corbyn’s leadership. The legal case is expected to fail, potentially costing the party millions of pounds. Nonetheless, Barros-Curtis’ efforts in pursuing factional opponents appear to have been rewarded.

A cursory glance at who has been allowed to stand for Starmer’s Labour should put paid to the claim that the deselection of Shaheen, Russell-Moyle, the abortive deselection of Diane Abbott, and the blocking of almost every single candidate from the left over the past year has anything to do with securing high-quality candidates.

Darren Rodwell, the candidate for Barking, has stayed in place despite cracking a racist joke at a Black History Month event, as well as more recent allegations of ‘inappropriate touching’. Neil Coyle, MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, also avoided deselection despite racially abusing a journalist and having a complaint against sexual assault upheld against him. There are many more similar cases.

The type of factional, corrupt machine politics that Starmer’s ascendency has facilitated — and the outrage and alarm it has generated on the Left — has so far been ignored or celebrated by our media because it represents the exclusion of socialists from public life and shuts the door on the Corbyn years. But with Labour on the verge of a historic majority, their behaviour should concern everyone.

The clique that is now in control of Labour, which lies and cheats without compunction, for whom corruption and cronyism are second nature, is soon to command an unassailable Commons majority. How they behave now, before a general election, is only a taste of what to expect when they wield state power.

In the coming weeks, we can expect to hear Keir Starmer’s ‘country first, party second’ mantra to be repeated ad nauseum. What the naked, overt corruption evident in Labour’s selection process shows is that, in reality, it is faction first, second, and third. Some are wont to defend this conduct, arguing it is the right of a leader to remake a party in their own image. The problem is that the image is venal, dishonest, and contemptuous of democracy.