By Deborah Clarke
If reports are to be believed, Keir Starmer and Rebecca Long-Bailey had been squaring up for a fight for the last few weeks. In the red corner was RLB, the left’s candidate for the Leadership, who was widely admired for prioritising the safety and wellbeing of children, teachers and parents when it came to the pace of the full re-opening of schools.
In the blue corner was the new party leader Sir Keir Starmer, who clearly sympathised with Boris Johnson’s stress on getting the economy moving as soon as possible to limit the squeeze on profits. The Tory PM had resorted to the old predictable jibes about Labour being in the “pocket of the unions”, but the Shadow Education Secretary had stood her ground and worked shoulder-to-shoulder with those insisting on avoiding any premature return to classroom teaching before it was safe.
This shows a clear difference in political outlook. Clearly, Starmer was disturbed. In this context, it is seems likely that his objection to Long Bailey’s support for Maxine Peak’s interview in the Independent was not simply due an single controversial reference to the Israeli security forces, but to the whole political tenor of the argument Peake was making.
Let’s deal with the apparent reason for the sacking – the implicit support for an allegedly antisemitic conspiracy theory. There’s no doubt that Peake’s claim can be paraphrased to sound like a conspiracist trope – as though the responsibility for the killing of George Flloyd somehow lies with Israel (allegedly used as synonymous with “Jews”). Clearly, were this to be the case it would be an act of hate speech, and ought to be condemned.
However, is this a fair and legitimate reading of Peake’s claim? The attempt to universalise the demand that “black lives matter” beyond the US to include global instances of the oppression of dark skinned people is entirely legitimate, and hardly unique to Peake. Legendary black civil rights activist and theorists Angela Davis, for example, has told BLM protestors, ““Black solidarity with Palestine allows us to understand the nature of contemporary racism more deeply.”
The connection is certainly not arbitrary, and someone as politically aware as Peake is unlikely to be ignorant of this. True, the specific claims that Israeli security forces taught the US police how to kill black people by kneeling on their necks is unevidenced, and very possibly overstated. But the existence of a training programme in “counter-terror” and security measures between the Israeli state and the US law enforcement is both real and well-documented by Amnesty International amongst others.
In any case, Peake’s reference to this alleged link is a small part of her overall argument, and it’s entirely plausible that Long-Bailey might not have supported this particular claim but nevertheless wished to endorse the overall nature of the argument being made. Indeed, she had prepared a clarification of her comments to be cleared by the Leader’s office, but was sacked before she was able to publish it. Instead, she was faced with a blanket demand to delete her praise for Peake, an award-winning and widely respected figure based in her own constituency and active within the Labour Party.
What was Peake’s wider argument? It had several components.
- She explicitly questioned the impact of capitalism on our lives, and in determining the nature of the response to the COVID-19 crisis: “ We’ve got to the point where protecting capital is much more important than anybody’s life. How do we dig out of that? How do we change? […]We’ve not got leadership, we’re in a mess. Look at Covid. What an absolute shambles. People voted for this. The mind boggles. But it doesn’t surprise me. Sadly. I’m not going, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe this has been dealt with so badly.’ I can believe it. It’s dark times ahead.”
- She explicitly spoke about the cultural and political erasure of the working class in British society, and opposed the “gatekeepers” who get to determine what kinds of representation we are allowed.
- She is unrepentant about her support for Jeremy Corbyn and her criticism of those who turned away from Labour because he was the leader.
- She ‘s clear that the priority is to kick out the Tories, and therefore socialists should not walk way from the Labour Party.
Each of these is a problem for Starmer, who wants Labour to be unambiguously “pro business” and therefore supports Johnson’s general thrust of getting people back to work before it’s safe. He has no interest in giving real expression to the voice of the working class, and indeed wanted to ignore the voice of many when it came to the Brexit vote. He clearly wants to be seen to have “turned a corner” on the Corbyn years, and accept the consensus that a candidate of the radical left was inherently “unelectable”. It is likely he also wants socialist activists to purge themselves from the party and drift off to the sectarian fringes rather than hold him to account at every step.
In endorsing Peake’s overall argument, it seems Long-Bailey was too much of a socialist to have a place at Starmer’s table. But in sacking her with so little justification, he might have made Rebecca the Shadow Leader of the Opposition. The battle is not over.