On Thursday, Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Rebecca Long-Bailey, became the first casualty of Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet. This decision – despite being taken for reasons that are moral – has attracted significant controversy. Indeed, a number of Starmer’s own backbench MPs have condemned the decision to remove Long-Bailey from her position, tweeting in support of her or demanding she be reinstated. At the time of writing, the leadership’s office is yet to comment on this backlash. So, with such outrage in his party, did Starmer make the right decision?
Long-Bailey’s offence was to share an article in a positive light that included an antisemitic conspiracy theory presented as fact. This is clearly not acceptable behavior from someone at the top of a political party in the United Kingdom, and Starmer was right to put a stop to it. Long-Bailey has gone on the record previously to say that she thought Jeremy Corbyn did not handle the antisemitism scandal in Labour very well, which seemed like she was taking the issue seriously. This incident shows that at the very best, she might not see anything wrong with supporting people who believe antisemitic conspiracy theories if they also hold other views that are more in line with her own. It is hard to continue the argument that Long Bailey does indeed take the issue of antisemitism seriously enough with this glaring evidence to the contrary. Keir Starmer promised to have a zero-tolerance policy on the matter when he took office as Labour leader, and he is delivering on that in a powerful way by sacking his former leadership rival.
Many MPs on the left of the Labour Party are outraged that Starmer has sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey. Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell has tweeted a petition calling for her to be reinstated. It has 1,741 signatures at the time of writing. Ian Lavery tweeted his support for Rebecca Long-Bailey, along with several other MPs. Momentum have also tweeted a statement in support of Long-Bailey. Other MPs meanwhile, have stated that they believe Starmer has made the right call. These MPs currently have the backing of the Jewish Labour Movement and the Board of Deputies.
Activists have also taken sides, with many choosing to leave the party over this decision. Quite frankly, if people are willing to leave the party because they are unhappy with antisemitism having consequences, then the Labour Party is not for them anyway. In the coming days it is likely that more MPs and organizations within the Labour Party will take sides on this debate. Holding the party together through this fallout could be the toughest challenge of Starmer’s career so far, but it is clear he is willing to face this challenge when standing up for what is morally right.
Rebecca Long-Bailey, rather than apologizing, doubled down, and attempted to justify her decision to share the article. She claimed that the sentiments expressed in the article “are shared by millions of people” and that her retweet was not “an intention to endorse every part of that article”. Rather extraordinarily, she also claimed that she had agreed the wording of a clarification of this position with the Labour leader’s office, which she then posted, then she was instructed to take both the original tweet and the clarification down, which she said she could not do in good conscience without issuing a press statement of clarification.
Unwilling to comply with the leadership, she was then sacked. Even Maxine Peake, the original author of the antisemitic quote, was more apologetic, stating that she had been made aware that her comments were inaccurate and that she finds antisemitism abhorrent. This of course does not excuse Peake from having made the comments in the first place, but a recognition that it was wrong is more than Rebecca Long-Bailey has been able to offer.
For Starmer, this is now a test of his resolve. Will he hold out against growing criticism in order to eliminate antisemitism in Labour, or will he bow to the will of the left of the party and reverse his decision? Either way, Starmer has made it clear that he will not unite the party if it involves compromising the values, he believes, it should hold. This is why I believe his decision is absolutely the right one.
Jack Harrison is a political blogger, Labour Party member and student at the University of Cambridge. He was the author of the blog Minority 2017 from 2017 to 2019. He can be found on Twitter @JackH1010.