What is behind Labour’s rightward drift?

At the heart of the story is ‘Labour Together,' a think-tank which maintains a low profile in Westminster but is believed to be quietly guiding Starmer's path to power.

Right-Wing Watch

Rather than being a story about a byelection, the anti-semitism row over Azhar Ali, the Labour candidate for Rochdale who made controversial comments about the October 7 Hamas attacks, also says a lot about the innerworkings of today’s Labour Party. Initially, the Party supported Ali, but changed position and suspended him after it emerged that he had made further contentious remarks about Israel. 

The disciplinary process was markedly different to the action that has been taken against other Labour MPs. Diane Abbott, for example, faced decisive action by Labour which suspended the party whip and launched an investigation after the MP made controversial comments seeming to deny that Jewish people faced racism comparable to other groups. While action may have been swift initially, members like Abbott have been left in a kind of limbo awaiting some final decision on their case. Abbott’s suspension has now lasted more than nine months

In the wake of the Azhar Ali scandal, questions and concerns have surfaced about the ‘disparity of treatment’ of Labour MPs, as Martin Forde, the senior lawyer who compiled a report on culture within the party, described.  

“I’m aware, from discussions with some of the MPs within the party who might be described as more left-leaning, that they feel when it comes to disciplinary action taken against them, things move rather slowly, but if you’re in the right faction of the party, as it were, then things are either dealt with more leniently or more swiftly,” said Forde.  

While clearly there are some who needed to be defenestrated from the party, the inconsistency by the leadership reprimanding some and not others, could be said to be emblematic of the wider workings of the party, which is drifting ever-more to the right.  

In a bid to shore up support in the left of the party and frame himself as the natural heir to Jeremy Corybn, with whom Starmer had worked closely in the shadow cabinet, as leadership candidate, Starmer promised to defend the party’s ‘radical values.’  

“My promise to you, is that I will maintain our radical values and work tirelessly to get Labour in to power. Based on the moral case for socialism, here is where I stand,” he had said during his bid to become leader. 

The shift from the position he adopted in order to win the leadership of a party in the grip of Corbynism was Starmer’s first U-turn, overarching the junking of many of the policies that helped him become the leader in the first place, which are piling up.  

As early as September 2021, Starmer ruled out nationalising the big six energy companies, despite promising to bring public services — name-checking rail, mail, energy, and water — into ‘common ownership.’  

The rolling back of promises to abolish tuition fees, which Starmer had repeatedly pledged during his leadership bid, was followed by reneging on the two-child benefit cap policy. Introduced in 2017, the Tory government’s two-child benefit cap was supposed to incentivise parents into work. Instead, it has plunged a growing number of children into poverty, as research shows. Starmer had promised to scrap the child benefit cap when he ran for leader. Fast-forward to July 2023, and a Labour government will “not change that policy,’ he said.  

Then there was the promise to ‘stop’ the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, which, during the 2020 leadership contest, Starmer said was ‘creating the horrifying humanitarian suffering in Yemen.’ In January, he sounded a lot less certain. “We will review the situation and the review will give us the answers to those questions,” he said when grilled by the BBC about arms sales to the Saudis. 

Bankers may keep their bonuses was one of the latest U-turns. Ditching the bankers’ bonus cap was met with a chorus of contempt from the left. More recently still was the decision to abandon Labour’s £28bn a year green investment. Labour’s axing of its green project spending pledge made it onto many of the front pages the following day, particularly in the Tory press, which of course jumps all over a Labour cock-up. ‘Can you ever believe a word Sir U-turn says?’ asked the Daily Mail. ‘PM vows to call out Starmer’s dirty tricks,’ splashed the Daily Express.  

Some worry that Starmer’s U-turns, inconsistency, and lack of clear views and vision, other than to ‘get the Tories out’ and become PM, may come back to haunt him. “Keir Starmer’s broken promises are a real problem. More of a problem than his strategists will be telling him, I suspect,” warns openDemocracy’s Adam Ramsay.

Without the backing of the right-wing press, his determination to appeal to the conservative voters may not pay off but instead risks alienating, not only the Labour left but more ‘moderate’ members as well. The current Rochdale fiasco, which was of course first leaked by the Daily Mail, has fed into the hands of right-wing media, and shows how fragile Labour’s project to gravitate to the right has become. A poll out on February 14, the same week the Rochdale scandal was reported, showed Labour’s lead over the Tories had fallen seven percentage points to its lowest since June 2023, down 19 points from a fortnight ago.  

While it is not unusual for political leaders to genuflect towards activists and grassroot members to become party leader or presidential candidate, and then move towards the centre to pick up voters, the Starmer case feels especially unprincipled. Joe Guinan, president of the US think-tank, the Democracy Collaborative, described Starmer as a ‘Manchurian Candidate, a sleeper agent for entirely other interests than was made to appear at the time,’ for his radically different position during the 2020 leadership contest.  

So, how did Keir Starmer go from a leftie in his youth, writing articles for the Socialist Alternatives and Socialist Lawyer magazines; from a respected human rights lawyer with a good reputation; from a principled politician upholding traditional Labour values; to overseeing a shift some say is to the right? 

A ‘right-wing illiberal’ faction

Jon Cruddas, Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham, claims Keir Starmer’s party has fallen under the control of a ‘right-wing illiberal’ faction that is embarking on a ‘witch-hunt,’ not only against the Corbynite left but also anyone with an independent voice. The comments were made in July, when Neal Lawson, a party member for 44 years, former speechwriter for Gordon Brown and now head of the pressure group Compass, faced disciplinary action and possible expulsion for a tweet he made in 2021, which Labour claimed had expressed support for Green Party candidates in local elections.  

“Labour is now kicking out people like Neal for upholding the democratic, pluralist traditions that created the party and lie deep within its history. It is a disgrace,” Cruddas had told the Observer.

But who are the alleged ‘right-wing illiberal’ factions penetrating the party?

Labour Together 

At the heart of the story is a think-tank known as ‘Labour Together’ and, specifically, Morgan McSweeney.  The strategy started in 2017 in the heat of ‘Corbynmania.’ It claimed to set out how to oust Corbyn as party leader, alongside policies needed to change the structure of Labour’s membership and a focus on a “voter-first” approach. Morgan McSweeny, now Starmer’s chief election strategy, took over as Labour Together director.  

The group believed that a successful successor to Corbyn would need to have served under and backed him to win over membership. Keir Starmer was the perfect candidate and the group set its sights on him as leader of their reconstructed vision of the Labour Party.

McSweeney’s tactic of Starmer playing the ‘soft left’ candidate in the leadership contest in 2020 did of course pay off. But the then obscure organisation’s work had only just begun.  

With Labour Together behind the steering wheel insisting that Labour had to win support of Tory voters rather than worry about losing votes to the Lib Dems and Greens, Starmer began rolling back on leadership policy pledges. While some Labour MPs and members of the shadow cabinet seem to have accepted the party’s change of direction (recent speeches by both Yvette Cooper and David Lammy notably focused on ‘security,’ a key emphasis of Labour Together) others are not convinced.  

In the summer of 2023, Jon Cruddas left the group. It was Cruddas who had helped found Labour Together in 2015 to gather like-minded MPs together, including Steve Reed and Lisa Nandy, to prevent the party from fracturing. It was then that he expressed fears about the factional control of the party.

“There’s been a lot of ‘boasting’ on Labour Together’s work within the party. Many are reinterpreting history for their own purposes,” Cruddas said, reflecting on the group’s influence.  

And, like most influential political think-tanks, this right-wing faction of the Labour Party is not short of funds. A report in the Times spoke of the ‘secretive guru’ McSweeney, who ‘plotted Keir Starmer’s path to power with undeclared cash.’ Between 2017 and 2020 McSweeney failed to declare £730,000 in donations from a slew of millionaire venture capitalists and businessmen, and misreported and underreported other payments, the report claimed. In 2021, the Electoral Commission launched an investigation. Labour Together’s lawyers blamed “human error”  and did not mention McSweeney, said the Times.  

As of October 2023, Labour Together had received more than £1.8 million in donations after Starmer became leader. The three biggest donors being hedge fund manager Martin Taylor, financier Trevor Chinn, and glass repair tycoon Gary Lubner.  

Without any clear, coherent vision, Starmer has been easy for elements of Labour Together to capture. The irony is that the group was founded for a space within the Labour movement where people from all sides could come together to engage with each other, and to build bridges when divisions in the country, and party, seemed insurmountable. Instead, it has created the opposite, a culture that has alienated the grassroots, and left people unsure of what the party really stands for.  

Successful Labour leaders, namely Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson, and Tony Blair, worked hard to unite the party, despite having some tough internal battles to deal with. Stamer and his acolytes don’t seem to share such quest for unity. 

McSweeney and co., with their tight control of the party machinery, alongside policies and positioning that makes it tough for the Tories and media to attack Labour (though the Rochdale fiasco has made a mockery of that strategy), seem to be banking on people being so tired of the current government that they will vote for any half-plausible alternative to the Tories. And, as the Conservatives have proven, you can win without much grassroots organisation as long as you have lots of money, which Labour is managing to pull in reasonably successfully.

Under Corbyn, unions provided more than half of the party’s funding. Under Starmer, that proportion has dropped to 30 percent. Instead, after three years of wooing business leaders and wealthy philanthropists, Labour has been raking in private donations from wealthy individuals. Several New Labour-era donors have returned to the fold, optimistic that Starmer has turned the party’s fortunes around. David Sainsbury, a Labour peer since 1997 and former chairman of the supermarket chain, donated a couple of million pounds a year to Labour during the New Labour era. Under Corbyn, his donations largely stopped. With Starmer at the helm, Lord Sainsbury has firmly become a Labour donor again, having given £2m in October 2022 and then £3m in April 2023. But his association with Blair makes him a controversial figure with Labour left-wing MPs. It rouses the suspicion that Starmer could revert the party to the New Labour era, when Peter Mandelson, the prominent cabinet figure famously said he was “intensely relaxed about getting people filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes.”  On the party’s current donors, Corbyn’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell said: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Trade union funding is on the basis of its members and members determine how they want their funds used. The overriding concern about donations and offers of support in kind is: what are the donors and corporations selling?” 

The real question remains is how it all will pan out, if Labour get into power. How will a party with a demoralised grassroots and which some believe does not really stand for anything, get along when faced with the real challenges and crises of running the country? Whatever you thought of New Labour, it was pretty coherent and had a vision. Blair’s famous ‘education, education, education’ might not have meant much but it was better to stand behind than Rachel Reeves’ ‘fiscal rules, fiscal rules, fiscal rules.’

Right-Wing Media Watch – Faithful Tory press elates over Shapps’ ‘woke leftists’ have taken over the army comments, while completely missing the point

Bishops last week, the army this week. Anyone would think the Tories hadn’t been in charge for 14 years! In what was clearly a diversionary tactic so that people might have not noticed the complete fiasco of the $3.7bn HMS Queen Elizabeth having to pull out of the largest NATO naval exercises since the Cold War when a problem was discovered with its propeller, both the Telegraph and the Express focused their front pages on comments made by defence secretary Grant Shapps, that ‘woke’ and ‘extremist culture’ has infiltrated the Army.  

‘Shapps: Woke culture is poisoning common sense,’ splashed the Express. In its ‘exclusive,’ the newspaper spoke of how the cabinet minister warned ‘the drumbeat of those who despise Britain’ is failing the Army and the public.’ 

The Telegraph went on the same attack, sensationalising how Shapps had ‘raised concerns’ with military leaders about their plans to relax security checks to increase diversity in the armed forces. The article quotes the defence secretary saying it was ‘inconceivable’ that he would allow that amid the threat from Russia and the conflict in the Middle East. 

You would have thought that the recent breaking down of, not one but two, aircraft carriers set for NATO exercises, and the fact that the Tories have run down the armed forces so we are virtually defenceless, might have been an important story for our national newspapers.  

But no, there was nothing about the £90bn that has been slashed from defence spending under the Tories. No mention of how the Army has shrunk from 82,000 troops to just 72,500 amid years of government austerity, or how tanks have been scrapped and fighter jets stripped for parts?  And nothing on how the high-profile failure of our flagship aircraft carrier has shown how Britain is struggling to keep up with first-rate navies around the world? Nope, for Shapps and his obedient and faithful press, the ‘gradual indoctrination of ‘controversial leftist thinking’ in the armed forces that threatens to ‘distract’ from its main job of protecting the country from its enemies’ is to blame.  

I guess it’s all giving Putin a good laugh.  

Smear of the Week – Guido accused of racism over Islamophobic slur, as right-wing media ramps up (hypocritical) anti-Semitic campaigns to demonise Labour 

The right-wing political website Guido Fawkes is facing accusations of racism after it accused Labour of seeking ‘unsophisticated Muslim community support’ at the expense of ‘sophisticated Jewish support.’  

In a now-deleted post on X, Guido wrote: “The thing that nobody says yet we all know, is that the Labour Party have chosen to seek unsophisticated Muslim community support for numerical reasons at the expense of sophisticated Jewish support.” 

The post was made after Guido obtained a leaked recording of a Labour parliamentary candidate using the words ‘f**king Israel’ and allegedly saying that Britons who volunteer to fight for the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) “should be locked up”. The leak resulted in the Hyndburn candidate being administratively suspended from the party, pending an investigation.  

Essentially saying the Jews are smart and Muslims are thick, is the latest example of the right-wing media’s long history of vilifying and demonising Muslim communities through harmful stereotypes, inflammatory language, and misleading headlines.  

Research by the Centre of Media Monitoring found that almost 60 percent of 48,000 online articles and 5,500 broadcast clips, associated Islam with negative behaviours. More than one in five articles attached Islam to extremism and terrorism.  

One of the most alarming examples of the Daily Mail’s penchant to peddle negative tropes against Muslims was when it sought to attack Penny Mordaunt for meeting Zara Mohammed, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain in 2021. The uncontroversial meeting took place following the election of the first woman as head of the country’s largest Muslim umbrella body. Yet the Mail engaged in its own ‘cancel culture’ by citing unnamed sources who said that the government ‘boycotted’ engagement with the Muslim Council of Britain. 

Another appalling example of overt and dangerous racism was in 2021, when a MailOnline story claimed there are British towns that are no-go areas for white people.  

It is interesting how a media with a long history of stirring up racism and hatred has suddenly become ardent campaigners against anti-Semitism. No doubt, they instinctively see it as a way of censuring Labour. Gravely hypocritical really when you consider the dark and deep depths of the Mail’s own anti-Semitic past. In the 1930s, Harold Harmsworth, the First Viscount Rothermere, who had launched the Mail in 1896, and great grandfather of Jonathan Harmsworth, Fourth Viscount Rothermere, and the newspaper’s current proprietor, adopted an overtly sympathetic attitude towards Hitler. As the Times of Israelreports, Lord Rothermere, who, alongside Daily Express proprietor Lord Beaverbrook was the most powerful press baron during the interwar years, was a staunch admirer of Hitler and Mussolini.   

“[The Nazis] represent the rebirth of Germany as a nation,” Rothermere wrote in the Mail in 1930.  

Grateful for this unusual support from the foreign press, the Mail was rewarded with exclusive access to Hitler, and published several interviews with the Nazi leader.   

The Times of Israel describes Rothermere’s ‘naked anti-Semitism’ and how in its report of the boycott of Jewish businesses in April 1933, the newspaper quoted a statement from Hitler’s spokesman arguing that allegations of “the mishandling of Jews” were “barefaced lies.” 

Today, the Mail, still a high-circulation right-wing tabloid, has, as far as I know, never apologised for its disreputable anti-Semitic past. Instead, it takes the moral high ground on stories involving anti-Semitism and Labour, no doubt for attempted political gain.

Concurrently, the newspaper has no shame in demonising Muslim communities through Islamophobic slurs. A tactic shared by other right-wing media, and none so less than Guido Fawkes. 

But then that’s not surprising. What did Jo Maugham, director of the Good Law Project, say aboutGuido Fawkes following the ‘unsophisticated Muslim support’ at the expense of ‘sophisticated Jewish support’ comment? Oh yes, that he is a ‘straight up racist.’   

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is author of Right-Wing Watch

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