When the Labour leadership election first kicked off, Rebecca Long-Bailey was thought to have a good chance of winning it. She didn’t win – instead members chose Keir Starmer, who campaigned on the promise of more competence and less factionalism, to replace Jeremy Corbyn. He promised to give the runner-up a top job in his shadow cabinet, and did so. But today Long-Bailey was fired from the Labour frontbench just three months after the election.
The sacking represents the moment that Starmer decisively broke with the Corbyn era. Both because she was Starmer’s Corbynite opponent in the leadership and one of the very few Corbynites appointed to the frontbench by Starmer, and because it was about antisemitism, an issue that dominated the Corbyn leadership. Long-Bailey shared an article in which Maxine Peake said Israel’s security services had taught the US police to kneel on people’s necks, described as an “antisemitic conspiracy theory” by Starmer’s spokesperson.
For Jewish organisations such as the Board of Deputies, the move signals a clear shift towards zero tolerance of antisemitism by the Labour leadership. Starmer has not been found flawless in his dealing with antisemitism issues since he took over: in welcoming the sacking, the Campaign Against Antisemitism pointed out that they had criticised his “early handling of incidents” and his lack of timetable for reforming the complaints process. But this decision will be taken as evidence that Starmer is willing to sacrifice party unity for cracking down on antisemitism.
For many on the Labour left, this sacking backs up claims that there are double standards in the way that racism is dealt with in the party. It is often pointed out that Rachel Reeves posted a lengthy and uncritical thread about Nazi sympathiser Nancy Astor without consequences. This is frequently held up on social media as proof that the response to MPs behaving badly is overall based on factional priorities and conveniences.
The picture is also complicated by the fact that there were clearly tensions in the party over education policy during the coronavirus crisis. Long-Bailey welcomed the news at the start of the month that schools would not be able to reopen for all children before the summer, whereas Starmer has said “the sooner, the better”. She has been notably absent from the airwaves despite the importance of the issue.
Starmer’s decision to stand down Long-Bailey today will undoubtedly entrench party disunity. Already, Long-Bailey has tweeted a thread that is critical of the leader’s office in the situation and John McDonnell has expressed solidarity with her. What we can be certain of is that the new leadership is no longer politely appealing for everyone in Labour to just get along nicely.