Yves here. At the risk of revealing ignorance about UK politics, I was under the impression that Labour purging, or at least marginalizing, the left, has been going on since at least the days of Tony Blair’s “Third Way”. That branding even at the great remove of the US looked designed to distance Labour from socialists like Tony Benn.
If that very simplified history is nevertheless crudely accurate, it begs the question of what changed under Starmer so as to merit comment. This post suggests that the methods for enforcing a narrower (as in more centrist) Labour positioning have become more open and thuggish. As you will see, the post argues that the purges are so widespread that they amount to (trying to impose) the biggest ideological change in Labour’s history, and they are being implemented in a profoundly anti-democratic manner.
So the questions to UK readers are: why are these changes occurring now? And are they as extreme as this post indicates?
By Ruby Lott-Lavigna is the news and politics reporter for openDemocracy specialising in housing and inequalities. Originally published at openDemocracy
It was midnight when Maurice Mcleod received the email. Mcleod, a councillor in south London, racial justice activist and former journalist, had found out he would not be allowed to run as a parliamentary candidate for Labour.
“I can’t lie, I was absolutely devastated,” he said. “Not because I think: ‘Oh, I’m brilliant, I should be an MP,’ but I felt that – maybe naively – they would look at me and go: ‘He’s been active in the Black Lives Matter stuff. He brings an audience that we’re not very good at connecting with. He’s worked with Starmer on race policy.’
“But it feels like they just looked at me and went: ‘Yeah, lefty, Corbyn. Blocking you.’”
Labour is predicted to benefit from a huge swing in the UK’s next general election, with scores if not hundreds of potential new seats on the cards. But in its process to select who will stand as potential MPs, accusations of purges, blockings and factionalism continue to arise.
openDemocracy has heard claims about outsiders being asked to stand in seats they have no connection to, members’ contact details being given early to selected candidates, and direct instructions from Keir Starmer to tighten vetting processes. Some applaud the new rigour applied to potential MPs, or see it as no different from what happened under other leaders. Others say candidate lists are being fixed – something the party has denied. What’s happening inside Labour?
For Mcleod, the decision to exclude him from the Labour longlist felt explicitly factional. One reason given by the National Executive Committee (NEC), which decided the longlist, was that Mcleod had liked a tweet by former Green Party leader Caroline Lucas a few years ago.
“I think they were determined not to allow me to stand,” he said.
The NEC, Labour’s governing body, later told Mcleod that he had been excluded because he had been absent from a council vote on the definition of antisemitism. He says this was a mixup, and that he had left the room assuming (wrongly) he could return.
Is the party purging the left? “Absolutely. I don’t know how anyone would pretend that that’s not what’s happening.”
Selection processes differ from party to party, and leader to leader. They are both important to political makeup and slightly tedious. Currently, individuals who have been a member of Labour for longer than a year can apply to become parliamentary candidates, collecting endorsements from the likes of unions and MPs. They then go through a national panel, a “due diligence” check of social media and any internal complaints, and finally a local panel. At every stage, there are diversity requirements. Up until recently, there was no way to appeal the final decision.
It’s the second stage of this, the “due diligence” check introduced under Starmer, that has resulted in the most pushback over excluded candidates. It has seen numerous applicants on the left of the party removed from longlists for what some see as minor transgressions.
One reason given for the exclusion of would-be Milton Keynes candidate Lauren Townsend was that she had liked a tweet by Nicola Sturgeon. Townsend had been endorsed by six trade unions. Former postal worker Matt Kerr, who had previously run for deputy leader of Scottish Labour, was blocked in Glasgow South West after due diligence found he had tweeted in support of Jeremy Corbyn.
Leigh Drennan – the chair of Labour North West, with endorsements from three unions and nine years as a Labour councillor under her belt – was blocked from standing in Bolton North East after a due diligence process, allegedly for signing a petition. Greg Marshall, who had previously stood as a parliamentary candidate for Boxtowe in 2017 and 2019, was blocked from standing again, despite being the only local candidate and receiving eight union endorsements. (Marshall told the Guardian he had not even been properly informed about the decision to block him, which prompted the entire executive committee of his local CLP to resign in protest, as well as earning the party a public rebuke from former shadow chancellor John McDonnell.)
In Stroud, Labour even blocked its own council leader, Doina Cornell, from the local parliamentary longlist. At the time, Cornell said she was given “spurious and partisan reasons”, with some reports suggesting it had been down to social media posts. She and two other councillors then quit the party, costing Labour its control of the town hall.
Many of those deselected or blocked from standing had previously been backed by the socialist campaign group Momentum. But critics of Labour’s current selection process say the same kind of scrutiny isn’t being applied to those who do not identify with the left of the party.
Barking and Dagenham Council leader Darren Rodwell joked at a Black history event that, as a white man, he had the “worst tan possible for a Black man”. He was allowed to stand for a parliamentary candidate by the party after apologising. Frank McAveety, a former Labour MSP who described a 15-year-old girl as “very attractive”, “dark” and “dusky”, and “very nice and very slim” during a Holyrood committee meeting in 2010 made it onto Labour’s parliamentary shortlist for Glasgow Shettleston.
Sitting Labour MPs also can be removed from standing again – something that was made easier under Corbyn’s leadership, but which ended up taking place under Starmer. In October 2022, Sam Tarry was the first sitting Labour MP to be deselected since Anne Moffat in 2010, a process whereby local members and affiliates can vote not to automatically reselect their MP. Tarry, after losing the selection process, disputed the veracity of a voting system and called for an audit. Zarah Sultana, part of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs, faced a trigger ballot process in Coventry, where constituency members were required to vote in order to allow Sultana to stand again in her seat. The 29-year-old eventually won in all branches of her CLP.
At the time, Sultana tweeted: “When the Labour trigger ballot process began, a so-called ‘Labour source’ said ‘every branch is ready to press the button’ to deselect me.”
While there are concerns the left are being cut out, there are also worries about who takes their place. A charity worker who spoke to openDemocracy for this feature was approached by a senior Labour figure to stand for a particular seat – even though he had absolutely no connection to the area and was not even a member of the party at the time.
There is no perfect mould for an MP, and local ties to an area – while important – aren’t always a marker of political rigour or compassion. But the sense that people are being parachuted into seats, cutting out those who have been local councillors or activists for years, has ruffled feathers.
For those who don’t win, or who get excluded from the longlist, the emotional toll can be intense. Townsend – the councillor and trade unionist from Milton Keynes – came to politics after ten years of working as a waitress. She eventually became involved in trade unionism after organising a strike at TGI Fridays. In October 2022, Townsend was left off the longlist after a due diligence process picked out various tweets she had liked. One was by Novara journalist Aaron Bastani calling Starmer a “prat”. Another was by Nicola Sturgeon, saying she had recovered from Covid.
When it happened, Townsend’s mental health took a hit. She had given birth 5 weeks earlier, and was recovering from a traumatic operation and caring for a young baby while campaigning.
“When it first happened, I had a bit of a breakdown. I actually just went to stay with my mum and the baby for a few days because I just couldn’t stop crying. It was not a good time,” she tells openDemocracy. “It was the fact that it was so underhanded. It was so predetermined, and it was because they were trying to fix the decision for how they wanted the decision to be fixed. I was extremely low for a while.”
Townsend believes she was blocked from running because she was not the leadership’s chosen candidate. openDemocracy has seen messages sent to her by a senior Labour figure alleging that the candidate who went on to defeat her had been given early access to party members’ personal details before being selected, giving them a campaigning advantage – which would have been a breach of current selection rules. We asked Labour about these allegations but had not received a response at the time of publication.
“When Starmer stood for leader, I was literally next to him holding a McDonald’s banner [during a protest of striking McDonald’s workers],” said a disbelieving Townsend. “I was in his campaign video next to him where he’s in the middle of the picket line.”
She added: “Since when does being a trade unionist, and working for workers’ rights and wanting better for disadvantaged people, make you – whatever they want to call you – the ‘loony left’?… I just feel sad.”
This month, after calls from affiliated unions, Labour agreed to introduce an appeals process for those excluded from the longlist, following accusations of unfair longlist fixing. The appeal has to take place shortly after the decision is made, and a separate panel will be allowed to interview the candidate. This will only apply going forward, meaning Mcleod and Townsend won’t be covered. Critics say this change is proof that, so far, Labour’s process of choosing candidates has been too selective.
“Labour’s new appeals process is confirmation that the selection of MP candidates has been unjustly rigged by the party leadership,” a spokesperson for Momentum told openDemocracy.
“Across the country, the Labour machine has blocked popular local champions and trade unionists from being considered by local Labour members, all to clear the way for Starmer loyalists. The upshot is not just an unprecedented attack on democracy and pluralism. Worse, it risks producing a cohort of Labour MPs dominated by the professional political classes, further alienating Westminster from the communities it is supposed to serve. The blockings must now end.”
Business as Usual?
But perhaps this is all business as usual. Starmer is by far not the first leader to be accused of controlling incoming MPs in his political image and with the rise of social media, a rigorous checking process is essential for future candidates. Luke Akehurst, director of We Believe In Israel, secretary of Labour ‘moderate’ group Labour First and a member of Labour’s NEC told openDemocracy that the process was essential to ensure candidates aren’t later excluded over controversial comments.
“There have been some disastrous candidates in recent elections when there wasn’t good enough vetting done,” said Akehurst. “So there was a very strong push from Keir [Starmer] and other stakeholders who said we’ve got to vet people properly. We can’t have this situation where we select people and then discover afterwards that they are a disaster that really embarrasses us.”
If Labour doesn’t do it, added Akehurst, the Tories will.
“Our understanding is that the Tories have an attack research unit with about six people in it whose only job is to put together dossiers on everything that any potential Labour candidate has said… So yes, maybe it’s controversial, but it’s an important political process.”
Akehurst concedes that some of the vetting processes seem to focus on the left of the party, although he claimed this was because people accused of making antisemitic statements “tend to be more concentrated on one wing of the party”.
Warrington North MP Charlotte Nichols, a former shadow cabinet member under Corbyn and one of the few ‘red wall’ Labour MPs to survive the 2019 election, says what’s happening during the selection process isn’t necessarily new, but risks homogenising the party.
“It’s gone on forever and whichever leader it is, everyone always tries to use the mechanisms of selection to recast the parliamentary party in their own image,” Nichols told openDemocracy.
But, she adds, the current Labour selection process seems to be excluding potentially good candidates.
“There seems to be a much narrower range of professional backgrounds – a lot of people from local government, a lot of people who have been involved in public affairs and roles like this, like politicians almost,” she said. “We don’t seem to be having many people coming through from formal trade unions, we don’t see many people coming through who are teachers, with a more varied professional background.
“For all of the stuff about making it fairer, whathaveyou, whatever criteria they’re using seems to be more people that look and sound like Starmer. In and of itself, you want that in the mix. But you want a broad church and a pretty large spread of people selected, and that doesn’t seem to be what we’re getting at the moment.”
Labour HQ declined to speak to openDemocracy for this piece. But former leader Jeremy Corbyn, who was blocked from running again as a Labour MP in March, claimed members were being denied “the right to fair and democratic selection processes”. “As millions are plunged into poverty,” he said, “we should be offering a more hopeful alternative. Instead, Keir Starmer has chosen to attack those in his own party.”
Other Labour MPs who aren’t supportive of the party’s selection process fear putting their name to criticism, lest they be next. One told openDemocracy they did not believe the deselections were ideological because Starmer barely stands for anything: “It doesn’t feel like it’s casting the copy in his ideological image because I don’t think he has particularly clearly definable political ideology. Certainly, not one that he’s bothered expressing.” Still more fear it will only get worse. “The purge hasn’t even begun,” another Labour MP told openDemocracy. One MP close to the selection process said: “This is the most fundamental attempt to change the DNA of the Labour Party in its entire history.”
Akehurst agrees the process is not watertight. “It’s never perfect,” he said. “It’s always an iterative process. It’s kind of impossible to design an absolutely perfect process. I think it’s pretty good. But there’s always going to be things that we can tweak and improve.”
Since Townsend was excluded, she has tried to put the process behind her, focusing on local politics and enjoying time with her son. Like others excluded, she does wonder what space is left for them in the Labour Party, and for those who have a different vision from the current leadership at a time it comes under fire for its political ads, approach to trans rights and policing strategy.
“People are miserable,” said Townsend. “People are living crap lives, because they’re working their arses off for minimum to no reward. You can’t get doctor’s appointments; you can’t register with an NHS dentist. Everything just feels crap. People really do want something positive – they want a positive vision. And I just feel like, at the moment, we’re being offered the same watery vision by everybody. It also feels like we’re running out of time.”
But without the potential to stand for an MP in the next election, there’s a limit on what Townsend can reform: “I guess we’re all going to have to just carry on doing what we can to make changes in our own way.”
Correction 19/04/23: This article previously stated that Lauren Townsend had given birth 12 weeks before the selection decision. It was in fact five weeks.