Friday, June 21, 2024

Is the UK’s traditionally left-wing Labour Party on a ‘rightward’ path?

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Glasgow, United Kingdom – It has been beset by bitter resignations, selection disputes and accusations of institutional racism – but Britain’s main opposition party remains on course for a landslide victory in next month’s general election.

After 14 years of playing second fiddle to the ruling right-wing Conservatives, and after four chastening general election defeats, the Labour Party is today on the cusp of power, with some polls suggesting that it could win a 100-plus seat majority on July 4.

However, if Labour, led for the past four years by former Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Keir Starmer, does realise a return to government for the first time since 2010, then it will do so having left a trail of unwelcome headlines in its wake.

Last week, Faiza Shaheen, Labour’s left-wing Muslim candidate for Chingford and Woodford Green in northeast London, revealed that she had been de-selected by the party’s national executive committee (NEC) after it took issue with her social media posts, including one which saw her like a 2014 The Daily Show sketch on the discourse surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Lloyd Russell-Moyle, the left-wing Labour candidate for Brighton Kemptown, was also de-selected last week.

He blamed “a vexatious and politically motivated complaint” on his de-selection by the party which means that he cannot now defend a seat he had held for Labour since 2017. Labour said the decision was down to a complaint it had received on his behaviour.

These dismissals came as left-wing stalwart, Diane Abbott, the UK’s first female Black MP, was reinstated back into the party fold at the eleventh hour after she was suspended from Labour last year, accused of making anti-Semitic comments in a national newspaper.

The party’s treatment of Shaheen and Abbott prompted seven Labour councillors in Slough to resign on Monday after accusing the movement of “institutional racism”.

Several observers have accused the party of deliberately purging the left.

“Starmer’s leadership have committed some unavoidable errors that they may well regret,” said Colm Murphy, a lecturer in British politics at Queen Mary University of London of Labour’s selection disputes. “In the short term, it’s unlikely to matter outside of a few seats. Longer term, it’s a different story.”

Starmer assumed control of Labour in April 2020 pledging to distance himself from his ardent socialist predecessor Jeremy Corbyn, who was repeatedly accused of turning a blind eye to accusations of anti-Semitism in the party.

Four years ago, he suspended Corbyn as a Labour MP; now Corbyn runs as an independent candidate in his long-held Islington North constituency.

Murphy told Al Jazeera that Starmer was potentially storing up trouble for the future by adopting uncompromising vetting procedures.

“Successful party management requires [vetting] processes to be seen as reasonable by most stakeholders – otherwise, the leader’s internal support base can weaken or narrow,” Murphy said.

“If the political environment becomes more difficult for Labour in future, then longstanding grievances like those generated this week could become important.”

Starmer’s reluctance to vociferously condemn Israel’s bloody war on Gaza, where more than 36,000 Palestinians have been killed by the United States-backed Israeli military in just eight months, has also cast a shadow over Labour, a party traditionally of the left.

Dozens of Labour councillors have resigned their roles over Starmer’s stance on Gaza since the war began last October.

The party’s decision to parachute Luke Akehurst, a committed Zionist and staunch defender of Israel’s actions in the Palestinian enclave, into the safe Labour seat of North Durham for July’s election, saw left-leaning voters contend that a Starmer government would rule from the centre-right.

“Where is the ambition for tackling climate change, the greatest challenge of our age? It has been watered down,” said Phil Burton-Cartledge, an academic at the University of Derby.

Burton-Cartledge resigned his membership of Labour in protest at the party’s position on Gaza and its treatment of Abbott, Russell-Moyle and Shaheen, who declared on Wednesday that she was now running as an independent candidate for Chingford and Woodford Green.

Last month, Kamel Hawwash, a British Palestinian, told Al Jazeera he had also quit his Labour Party membership to run as an independent candidate in Selly Oak.

Burton-Cartledge added: “How about tackling child poverty, among the worst in the Western world? Economic growth is shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves’s answer to everything. How is Labour going to tackle the problems in the National Health Service? Apparently, more private sector involvement is the magical cure-all.”

‘I’m really concerned’

Starmer has promised to provide real change for Britain should he succeed Conservative leader Rishi Sunak as prime minister in four weeks’ time.

He has, for instance, pledged to legislate for a “family-friendly” “New Deal” for British workers, including a commitment to “deliver a genuine living wage”, within 100 days of entering office. He has also promised to establish a publicly owned clean energy company, Great British Energy, in a bid to tackle the cost-of-living crisis.

As for the ruling Conservatives, some of the party’s political heavy-hitters are predicted to lose their seats at the election, and many have already decided to step down.

It is unclear what a Conservative opposition would look like.

Laura Moodie, Scottish Green Party candidate for Dumfries and Galloway

But recent history suggests that parties which surrender power in the UK tend to be in the political wilderness for more than a decade.

When Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher defeated the incumbent Labour Party government in 1979, it was 18 years before Labour regained power under the leadership of Tony Blair. This defeat for the Conservatives in 1997 consigned them to 13 years in opposition before they removed Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2010.

But while Starmer is on the precipice of becoming the first UK Labour prime minister in 14 years, many on the left remain to be convinced that the party represents a clean break from the Conservatives, who have taken a hardline approach to immigration and thrown their weight behind Israel’s war on Gaza.

“I’m really concerned that if Labour gets a massive landslide victory, and does so by tacking so far to the right as they have, they will take that as a blank cheque to continue taking the UK on a rightward trajectory,” Laura Moodie, the Scottish Green Party candidate for Dumfries and Galloway, in southwest Scotland, told Al Jazeera. “And I don’t think that’s the answer.”

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