Keir Starmer has been accused of threatening freedom of expression with Tony Blair-style "control freakery" amid growing anger in Labour ranks at a ban on discussing the suspension of former party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Left-wing members of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC), fresh from a victory in last week's elections, staged a virtual walkout from a meeting on Tuesday morning, accusing the leadership of trying to “censor debate and ignore our processes”.
On Monday, the newly elected leader of the party’s youth wing said that officials from party head office had demanded the removal of a statement criticising Sir Keir's suspension of Mr Corbyn from the parliamentary party.
Jess Barnard, who won 71 per cent of the vote last week, said “unelected officials” had ordered the removal of a statement agreed by the Young Labour National Committee, criticising the leadership on the matter.
“Rather than trying to silence young people, unelected officials in the leader’s office should consider the massive sense of betrayal that many young voters and Labour members feel about this decision,” she said.
“This is a far bigger issue than interference from the leader’s office or individual policy stances. The actions we have seen in recent weeks undermine members' democratic rights and free expression, and are a threat to the fabric of our party.”
Labour suspended several members last week after their local party passed a motion in support of Mr Corbyn, and has warned others not to discuss the matter, which it says is not legitimate constituency-party business. More local groups are expected to break ranks and discuss the issue this week, daring the leadership to suspend them.
Mr Corbyn was readmitted to Labour by an NEC panel after the party was unable to say what rule he had broken, but he was immediately banned by Sir Keir from sitting in the parliamentary party, following criticism in the media and from Jewish community groups.
The former leader had been suspended in the wake of his response to a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission into antisemitism in the Labour Party. He had said that while antisemitism was abhorrent and had no place in the party, the scale of the problem in Labour had been overstated by political opponents.
The latest round of internal strife came on Tuesday morning, with an NEC bust-up between the party’s left and right over who should chair the party’s ruling body.
Thirteen left-wingers on the NEC left the meeting in protest over a decision to install Margaret Beckett, a veteran New Labour cabinet minister, as chair. The chair had been expected to pass to a trade union representative on a rotating basis, but the system was changed to instead confer the role on the longest-serving member of the NEC, in this case Ms Beckett.
Former MP and current NEC member Laura Pidcock, who reportedly intervened during the meeting to criticise the party leadership, said: “The left grouping were just forced to walk out of NEC meeting.
“The disrespect for the left is something we will not put up with. The leadership undermine governance of the NEC, censor debate and ignore our processes by doubling down on the removal of the whip from Jeremy Corbyn.”
NEC member Mish Rahman, of Momentum, said the incident “fits a worrying pattern of control-freakery reminiscent of the New Labour years”.
“There can be no party unity until Starmer fully understands the need to work with the labour movement and the many tens of thousands of grassroots members who can help deliver a Labour government,” he said.
“Our walkout today was to remind him of this, and to send a message that we will not put up with petty and repeated attacks on trade unions and members.”
Following the incident, the 13 NEC members who walked out wrote a joint letter to Labour’s general secretary, David Evans. They said that the withdrawal of the whip from Mr Corbyn after his reinstatement as a member “directly undermined the legitimacy of the NEC decision to reinstate Jeremy Corbyn’s membership” and “was made worse by Keir Starmer subsequently permitting his shadow cabinet members to make commentary on media that was clearly intended to undermine the legitimacy of the NEC process”.
The NEC members said they believed the reason for the change in chair allocation was to ensure that an NEC member who had endorsed Mr Corbyn’s reinstatement would not become chair of the body.
“The leader’s decision to again promote factionalism comes at a time when the historic relationship with trade unions is under tremendous strain,” they said.
“Already we know that the Bakers’ Union are balloting their membership as to affiliation, and the decision of the leader to lobby and brief against the president of the FBU [Fire Brigades Union] taking the chair, as would be protocol, must be seen in this context.
“As the general secretary of the Labour Party you should be stepping in to uphold the rulebook, maintain protocol, remind the leader that he is an officer of the NEC and prevent factionalism.”
Sir Keir's office and the Labour Party did not immediately respond to a request for comment.