At the Labour party conference this month, Keir Starmer has an opportunity to turn things around. So far, his leadership has been a tale of opportunities wasted. He squandered the goodwill that greeted his arrival as Labour leader, opting for internal war rather than unity. Unwilling to look outwards and give a clear message to the country, his poll ratings crumbled.
Starmer’s response to his party’s poor position has been as wrongheaded as it is dishonourable: he has signalled that he may ditch the 10 radical policy pledges he made to Labour and trade union members, on which he was elected to his job. If he is not careful, he risks becoming fixed in the public’s mind as someone who can’t be trusted.
Sadly, my own experience of dealing with Starmer – as leader of Labour’s largest trade union affiliate until last month – offers nothing to dispel this image. My successor as Unite’s general secretary Sharon Graham – the most formidable campaigning force in the labour movement – will have her own approach to Labour and its leader. But here is what I learned.
When Starmer took over, I hoped for good relations between us. To begin with, that’s how they were. Contrary to what might be expected, I spoke to Starmer far more than I ever did Jeremy Corbyn. But that all changed after Starmer’s destructive decision to suspend his predecessor from the party in October last year.
As I explain in greater depth in my book, Always Red, the final breakdown came not over the suspension itself – although I thought that a hot-headed act – but when Starmer chose to break an honest deal agreed between us for Corbyn’s readmission to the party.
It all followed the publication of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report into antisemitism in the Labour party on 29 October last year. I expected Starmer to welcome the report and take the opportunity to move on from a painful saga, which was the aim of a speech he delivered that morning. His words were fine, in the main, and he resisted journalists’ attempts to goad him into attacking his predecessor.
Then, about an hour later, Starmer called to tell me he had suspended Corbyn. I had to pinch myself to make sure it wasn’t a bad dream.
Now, it’s important to get something straight. Later that day, Labour briefed journalists that Starmer hadn’t personally suspended Corbyn; the party’s general secretary, David Evans, had. This mattered because one of the EHRC’s main lessons was that there must be no political interference in disciplinary cases – that such interference could be unlawful. Starmer was careful to tell the BBC Today programme the following morning: “Appropriate action was taken yesterday by the general secretary in suspending Jeremy Corbyn.”
But that’s not what he told me on the phone. His words were: “He put me in an impossible position and I had no choice.”
Starmer had been enraged by a statement Corbyn had put out on the morning of the EHRC report. In it, Corbyn had been clear that “anyone claiming there is no antisemitism in the Labour party is wrong” and that “one antisemite is one too many”, but he had also said that the scale of the problem had been “dramatically overstated” by opponents and the media. Corbyn sought to substantiate his claim in a broadcast interview, pointing to polling that suggested a vast gap between the perception of the extent of antisemitism in the party (the public thought complaints had been made against a third of members) and what the former leader said was “the reality” that 0.3% of members had actually been subject to disciplinary investigations.
Starmer, in his speech, had said that anyone saying antisemitism was “all exaggerated” was part of the problem. Corbyn, of course, hadn’t said it was all exaggerated, but Starmer now raised the bar. He told me on the phone that Corbyn had deliberately undermined him. “It’s as if he’s gone out of his way to contradict that line in my speech,” he said. “I’m beyond angry with Jeremy.”
I could not believe what had happened. I genuinely thought Starmer had lost his temper and made a mistake; I didn’t want to think such a damaging move had been premeditated. I phoned him back and left an answerphone message. “I think it’s been a kneejerk reaction,” I said, “I’ve got to be honest with you.” I suggested he take a step back, meet Jeremy personally and try to sort this out. “If not, this will spiral completely out of control, the total opposite of what you wanted to do,” I warned.
That evening, in a Zoom call between leading figures on the left, it was agreed that before mobilising the membership against the suspension – and potentially splitting the party – we should see if a negotiated solution could be reached. As it turned out, the leadership was keen to talk. The following afternoon, Jon Trickett MP and I went to parliament for a meeting with Starmer, his chief of staff Morgan McSweeney, and deputy leader Angela Rayner. Rayner began by requesting our discussion be confidential. Given what happened subsequently, I no longer feel bound by that.
Trickett and I asked if there was a way to negotiate a settlement to avoid an internal war. Starmer replied that he didn’t want a war and was happy to talk about ways to reach a solution. He indicated that a clarification statement by Corbyn could be a way of resolving the issue. “Are you saying that if we could reach an agreed form of words that both Jeremy and you, Keir, are happy with, then the suspension could be lifted?” I asked.
“Yes,” Starmer said. The others also agreed.
By the following afternoon Trickett and Starmer’s senior adviser Simon Fletcher had worked up a draft statement. I joined a conference call with McSweeney. I said: “As far as we are concerned it is our expectation that if Jeremy agrees to the statement then that is the end of the matter and the suspension will be lifted, after due process, and Jeremy will be back to normal.”
McSweeney’s response was: “Yes, that is our expectation, also.”
“And you speak on behalf of Keir?” I asked.
“Yes,” came his reply.
That was the deal for Corbyn’s reinstatement. A month and a half later, in response to questions from Sky News journalist Tom Rayner, Starmer’s spokesperson would say: “There was no deal on reinstatement, no.” When pressed on whether senior Labour staff had advance sight of Corbyn’s statement (which they had in fact co-written), the spokesperson would respond: “We are not going to comment on private conversations.” Well, I am perfectly prepared to comment. In fact, I am so confident of my account that I have submitted it for use in Jeremy Corbyn’s legal challenge to the withdrawal of the whip and will stand by it in court.
The formalities around Corbyn’s readmission were handled by a panel of Labour’s national executive committee, which met on 17 November. Corbyn published the agreed statement that morning. “To be clear, concerns about antisemitism are neither ‘exaggerated’ nor ‘overstated,’” read the key passage. “The point I wished to make was that the vast majority of Labour party members were and remain committed antiracists deeply opposed to antisemitism.”
The five-person panel (only two of whom could be described as pro-Corbyn) decided unanimously to readmit Corbyn to the party. It was greeted with rage. Margaret Hodge tweeted that it was “a broken outcome from a broken system”. The Jewish Labour Movement blamed a “factionally aligned political committee”.
I don’t know if Starmer was taken by surprise by the backlash, but it soon became clear he was going to crumble. It was reported he was given an ultimatum by Hodge: she would resign from the party if Corbyn remained a Labour MP. Starmer was also apparently “infuriated” by a tweet claiming the leadership had climbed down.
The result? Starmer reneged on our deal. He withdrew the Labour whip from Corbyn, leaving him in the absurd situation of being an MP and a Labour member, but not a Labour MP. At no time in my discussions had this eventuality been mentioned. The objective of both sides had been to bring matters back to normal. Yet Corbyn was now told that if he wanted the whip restored he would have to make an apology – which prompted the question: if an apology was so important to the leadership, why didn’t they include one in the statement they co-wrote?
I’m a trade unionist. The one thing you never do is renege on a deal you’ve negotiated. Livid, I released what one Guardian journalist called an “absolutely blistering” statement. “This is a vindictive and vengeful action which … shows marked bad faith,” I said. That was when I lost my personal relationship with Starmer. I could no longer trust him. He was not a man of his word.
If this was an isolated example perhaps it could be dismissed. But it increasingly looks like a pattern that extends to policy as well as politics – Labour’s 2017 manifesto has gone from being Starmer’s “foundational document” to something he is “not interested in”. I still hope for a Labour government at the next election. But if Starmer continues on the course he is presently charting, I fear for the party’s chances. Starmer needs to understand that the public are neither interested nor impressed by internal wrangling. They want answers to the problems they face every day from a leader who they believe will do what he says.