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Starmer’s Disdain for Democracy Is Dangerous

This week, six members of Labour’s ruling NEC parachuted themselves into safe seats after conducting a purge of left-wing candidates. Their approach is harmful for both party and country, writes NEC member Jess Barnard.

(Hollie Adams / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Starmer has experienced his first defeat in the course of the general election campaign at the hands of Diane Abbott and her supporters. Despite attempts to unseat her, the NEC yesterday confirmed her candidacy for Hackney North, alongside the full list of Labour candidates heading into the general election.

The chaotic and miscalculated moves from Starmer and his team against Abbott dominated headlines for nearly a week, overshadowing policy announcements and causing chaos as frontbenchers refused to appear in the media to defend the leader’s actions. But this furore was only one element of a period that has exposed a very concerning shift towards the weaponisation of disciplinary processes, widespread member disenfranchisement, and ‘jobs for the boys’ selection stitch-ups.

Just days before the headlines about Abbott broke out, a priceless image of Rishi Sunak standing in the rain calling a general election to the sound of ‘things can only get better’ was fresh in the minds of the electorate and the media who should have been putty in Labour’s hands. After 14 years of disastrous Tory government, now was the perfect time to bury the hatchet and move forward with a united party — so why did Starmer choose the short campaign of a general election to self-implode so spectacularly?

To understand the Starmer leadership, we have to look at the way it has conducted itself and structured the Labour Party to reach this point. The Starmerite faction on the NEC last year passed a paper which would enable them to begin bypassing the democratic processes of candidate selection — allowing a small panel of just three people to impose shortlists of just one person on CLPs, resulting, in turn, in the single candidate’s automatic selection.

This change made Starmer’s intentions clear. Regardless of the timeline of the general election, the leadership planned to pack the next Labour government with right-wing allies and those loyal to Starmer, or, if the rumours of his successor are to be believed, to Streeting. With the solo ‘left winger’ PPC, doctor and new mum Faiza Shaheen, unceremoniously barred from fighting for the seat she was set to win, this plan has succeeded. The incoming Labour government is packed to the brim with loyalists, from water lobbyists to journalists.

On the ground, this has resulted in a tidal wave of dismayed and demoralised local constituency Labour Party members up in arms, some resigning their memberships or refusing to campaign for their imposed candidates. The anger felt in Chingford and Woodford Green is replicated across the country. The combination of these non-local candidates and the lack of local choice in the matter feels like a kick in the teeth to those who have worked so hard over decades for the party.

Beth Winter, the former left-wing MP for Cynon Valley, who was deselected last year, called the imposition of candidates in Wales with no connection to the area ‘an insult to Wales.’ It is hard to take Starmer’s comments about ‘highest standard of candidates’ in good faith when candidates with years of experience and a deep understanding of their local area are being frozen out of the process for someone with no connection to the area and no electoral experience. 

The lack of member democracy under this leadership is not new. The party previously came under fire for its attempts to silence CLPs from passing motions on Gaza and for advising CLP executives not to attend demonstrations in support of a ceasefire. It is no surprise, then, that our membership numbers have suffered dramatically, with statistics showing that Labour has lost 200,000 members since the 2019 election. Over 100 councillors have resigned from the party, too, with the leadership making no moves to re-engage with them.

It is easy to see the looming long-term damage these attacks on democratic processes and the demoralisation of members is creating. Decades of campaigning experience are being lost; less than a handful of people are turning out to once bustling canvassing sessions; local CLPs are collapsing. While, for now, Labour are riding high in the polls, there will come a time when Labour needs campaigners once again. The question is this: will they still be there?

On the national stage, the treatment of Diane Abbott, elected as the UK’s first black woman MP in 1987, and the decision to attempt to humiliate her through extended suspensions, press briefings, and double standards, gave the public one of their first glimpses of Starmerism at work. What it showed was apathy at best towards the unfair standards applied to women of colour and a particular hatred of the Labour left — one far greater than the hatred held towards the Tories.

As Labour simultaneously welcomes in far-right Tory MPs like Natalie Elphicke — who used racist rhetoric to divide communities and mocked sexual violence survivors — and quietly ushers through right-wing Labour MPs like Neil Coyle — who was found to have racially abused a journalist in Parliament — it is hard not to be overwhelmed by the injustice of it. But the treatment of Jeremy Corbyn should have served as an indicator that the Starmer project was always willing to go to war to crush the Left. As one elected Starmer supporter once told me: ‘The plan was always to clear out the Left first, focus on our policy position second.’ 

The misguided view that the NEC operates above factionalism has finally been put to bed by this saga. While it once served as a convenient shield behind which Keir could hide his unpopular decisions, his changing narratives about Diane’s future has confirmed that this is party machinery Starmer has been able and willing to weaponise for factional gain.

What socialists have known to be true for some time is now becoming clear to the public. The principles of fairness are not being applied in Starmer’s own house. If the public’s rejection of the Conservatives is anything to go by, they do not take kindly to dishonest politicians. Under the scrutiny of governance, the Labour Right can expect a less easy ride than they have had for the past four years.

Starmer has now expended a huge amount of public goodwill on this unnecessary internal battle. He will have to recalculate. The public response to his showdown with Diane shows that the public do not share the same visceral hatred for democratic socialists, and although it might surprise him, they support the concept of fairness across society something he will need to adopt if he is to deliver a trusted Labour government.