Starmer allies reject claims leftwingers blocked from standing for Labour

·6 min read
<span>Photograph: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

Keir Starmer’s allies have rejected claims he is acting to block “anyone to the left of Tony Blair” from standing for the party at the next general election, as his project of reshaping Labour moves to its next stage: parliamentary selections.

Since the swing of more than 12% to Labour in last week’s Wakefield byelection raised the possibility of an outright majority for Starmer at the next general election, the focus on the party’s next wave of MPs has intensified.

A first tranche of 35 seats is in the process of being selected. Allies of the Labour leader dismiss any notion of a purge of leftwingers, insisting the party is merely weeding out individuals who would not be effective MPs, and rebuilding the parliamentary Labour party (PLP) to make it more unified.

“What does Keir really want in government? He wants a PLP that has people who have something to offer the country, but of course it’s natural that he wants a PLP that is united and not engaged in factional war,” said one Labour source.

But it is understood senior party figures have urged the Labour leader to rein in his acolytes in recent days, after several leftwing candidates, some of them sitting councillors with union backing, were excluded from longlists – with some claiming it was without explanation.

Potential candidates are being invited to due diligence meetings with a panel made up of members of Labour’s national executive committee (NEC), sometimes at just a few hours’ notice, and subsequently told they will not be longlisted.

Previous Labour leaders have also tried to remake the parliamentary party in their image: Jeremy Corbyn’s chief of staff, Karie Murphy, took a close personal interest in selections, for example. But longstanding party insiders describe the current operation as the most ruthless they have seen.

“There’s always murky business that happens in selection campaigns, but it’s not at the institutional level that it’s at now,” said one senior Labour source, who added: “The right and the left of the Labour party, for the past few years, have repeatedly tried to copy what the other side tried to do last time, for their own benefit, and each cycle it’s just got more and more extreme.”

Some candidates have been sent a list of historical social media posts flagged as problematic. One such list included liking a tweet by the former Labour policy chief Andrew Fisher, praising an article by the Guardian commentator Owen Jones, which called on Starmer to be bolder. Another included support for Palestinian rights, and for the Occupy movement.

A spokesperson for leftwing Labour campaign group Momentum said: “This is a brazen, systematic attempt to exclude anyone to the left of Tony Blair from the Parliamentary Labour party (PLP), with Keir’s people being parachuted in instead.”

One longstanding party strategist suggested that if such a sweeping approach had been used under Ed Miliband, candidates such as Angela Rayner, Louise Haigh or Clive Lewis might not have made the cut.

That is robustly denied by Starmer’s team, with one aide saying: : “I don’t believe that for a second.”

“Due diligence is about weeding out candidates who could cause electoral damage when the election comes. It’s setting a minimum standard that the public expects,” said a Labour spokesperson, adding: “All candidates have been clearly told why they haven’t been included.”

They pointed to the longlisting of avowedly leftwing commentator Paul Mason for Stretford and Urmston, in Greater Manchester, as proof that candidates from that wing of the party were not all being vetoed.

However, Starmer’s critics claim that the individuals on the NEC and at Labour’s Southside HQ masterminding the selections process are determined to eliminate any remnants of Corbynism. “It is being done by a very small group of people who have personal and political agendas,” said one MP.

And with the biggest affiliated union, Unite, stepping back from internal Labour politics, as its general secretary, Sharon Graham, focuses on workplace campaigns instead, the sway of trade unions in the process has been diminished.

Maya Evans, the deputy leader of Hastings borough council, claimed she was given no reason for the fact that she was not being allowed to proceed to the next stage in the contest to be the candidate for the Hastings and Rye seat, in which local members make the final decision.

“I’ve lived in Hastings for nearly 20 years, I’ve been a member of the Labour party since 2016, and I became a councillor in 2018, so I’ve got a track record of winning elections,” she told the Guardian. “I’ve done a lot of climate change activism, so people know me locally as someone who really understands that. So in terms of my track record it’s really confusing as to why I haven’t been longlisted. I haven’t been given any specific reason or evidence.”

Labour sources insisted the reasons had been explained to her. They cited her involvement with Stop the War, the anti-imperialist peace group Starmer has strongly condemned, as well as her arrest during an anti-Iraq war protest, and Hastings Labour’s decision to strike a cooperation agreement with the Greens on the council.

In Stroud, the local council leader, Doina Cornell, was left off the list. Issues flagged to her included support for Corbyn over antisemitism, in 2019. Starmer stripped Corbyn of the whip, after the former leader appeared to play down the scale of the problem.

At a selection meeting on Thursday evening, members chose local GP Simon Opher, over former MEP Clare Moody. Opher had previously told the Stroud Times he was “surprised and disappointed” Cornell had been excluded. The former Labour MP Lisa Forbes was blocked in Peterborough, presumably over past allegations of antisemitism, for which she says she has apologised. The chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, Mike Katz, welcomed her exclusion.

Backers of these and other rejected candidates argue it should be left up to local members to decide which shade of Labour opinion their prospective MP represents – including support for Corbyn. But with many more selection battles to come in the weeks and months ahead, Starmer’s team are unrepentant about blocking anyone they fear might reopen the party’s bitter civil war.

Asked why sitting councillors elected under Corbyn’s leadership were being ruled out as parliamentary candidates, a Starmer ally said: “Just because they met his standards, doesn’t mean they meet ours.”