The Sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey

By Mike Phipps

“Keir Starmer has sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey as shadow education secretary after she tweeted praise for an interview in which the actor Maxine Peake said the US police tactic of kneeling on someone’s neck was taught by the Israeli secret service,” reports The Guardian.

“The Board of Deputies of British Jews had condemned Long-Bailey’s actions and called for her to delete the tweet and apologise. Long-Bailey sent a second tweet saying her praise was not ‘intended to be an endorsement of all aspects of the article’.” But that was not enough.

Keir Starmer’s office claim she was sacked for retweeting “an antisemitic conspiracy theory”. Long-Bailey said her second tweet was based on “wording agreed in advance by the Labour party leader’s office”, but then Starmer’s  office told her delete both tweets. Her attempts to get a meeting with Starmer to discuss this were rebuffed.

The original article, re-tweeted by Long-Bailey, was a wide-ranging interview in The Independent, with TV actor Maxine Peake, who made her name in Dinnerladies and Shameless, and who was an ardent supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.  In the interview, she addressed the international character of current struggles. “Systemic racism is a global issue,” she said. “The tactics used by the police in America, kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, that was learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services.”

The Board of Deputies praised Starmer’s actions and the Jewish Labour Movement welcomed the sacking. But former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell defended Long-Bailey: “Throughout discussion of antisemitism it’s always been said criticism of practices of Israeli state is not antisemitic. I don’t believe therefore that this article is or R Long-Bailey should’ve been sacked. I stand in solidarity with her.”

The sacking produced an explosion of condemnation on social media. Matt Zarb-Cousin, who worked as a media adviser under Corbyn and led Long-Bailey’s communications team during her leadership bid, tweeted: “Apparently we’re now more willing to sack our own frontbenchers than call for the sacking of government frontbenchers” – a reference to Starmer’s decision to not call openly for Robert Jenrick to lose his job as communities secretary .

Barnaby Raine was even more biting: “Imagine caring so little about Jews that you casually equate opposition to global police violence with hating us, just so you have an excuse to sack an old political opponent.”

The radical Jewish group Jewdas said,” Today has seen Jews reduced to a political football (again) to attack the left (again).” Momentum founder Jon Lansman called on Starmer to reconsider his decision.

Israeli Defence Force training of US police forces is a matter of public record. In any case, Long-Bailey clarified her original tweet, saying she was not endorsing every aspect of Peake’s interview – as agreed with Starmer’s office. So what really lies behind her sacking?

On one level, this was an opportunity for Starmer to look tough and decisive in contrast with Boris Johnson’s protection of his advisor Dominic Cummings and his beleaguered Communities Secretary Jenrick. A bonus for Starmer is that it removes a left wing rival and further distances his leadership from the Corbyn wing of the Party. This may improve his personal poll ratings.

There were also differences between Starmer and Long-Bailey over coronavirus policy. As shadow education secretary, Long-Bailey supported the National Education Union’s criteria for when it was safe for children to return to school. Starmer, on the other hand, has been pushing for schools to reopen and allowed others in his team to contradict Long-Bailey on this.

Socialists will be alarmed if the new leadership of the Party decides that public criticism of Israel opens them to charges of antisemitism. But there is also a double standard here: when Shadow Cabinet moderate Rachel Reeves called Nancy Astor, the first female MP to take her seat in Parliament, “one of her heroes”, there was little concern shown either by Labour’s leadership or the media. Astor was a notorious anti-Semite who once told African-Americans they should be grateful for slavery.

After the 2019 general election defeat, the right wing resurrected their long-standing narrative that left was to blame for all the Party’s failings and needs to be purged. Tony Blair went so far as to suggest that the membership needs to be replaced. While the left may see Labour’s mass membership as its greatest asset and the best defence of radical, progressive policies, the right would prefer a smaller, more manageable party with fewer troublemakers, making it easier to overturn the policy achievements of recent years. To expedite this, members need to be demoralised and demotivated. Many already are, following the 2019 defeat. Actions like Starmer’s today will hasten that process.

Whatever the precise motive, the sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey reeks of political calculation. It should produce an outcry in the Party in her support.