Keir Starmer’s Selection ‘Stitch Ups’ Are Causing Division At The Top Of Labour

Keir Starmer's efforts to make the party ready for government a causing division.
Keir Starmer's efforts to make the party ready for government a causing division.

Keir Starmer's efforts to make the party ready for government a causing division.

It has become custom for Keir Starmer to apologise for Labour’s failings under its previous leader, and to highlight how it has changed. He did so again this week, after the equalities watchdog confirmed that it had taken the party out of special measures over its handling of anti-Semitism.

The Labour leader said the changes he had made since the 2019 general election defeat were “permanent, fundamental, irrevocable”.

And in a strong message to his detractors, he said: “We are never going back. If you don’t like it, nobody is forcing you to stay.”

The ultimatum —though superficially aimed at the anti-Semites and conspiracy theorists that damaged the party under Jeremy Corbyn — is also being interpreted as a wider warning to those who may be critical of Starmer’s leadership more generally.

Starmer’s decision to ban Corbyn from running as a Labour candidate is proof that his words are followed by action.

Throughout the past year, the issue that has undoubtedly caused the most internal friction is the process by which Labour selects its candidates for the general election.

Leaders have long used candidate selections as a tool to promote those from their own tribe, but concerns that the process is being overtly exploited for factional purposes are growing louder. And they are no longer just confined to the left.

Critics have accused Starmer’s team, the leader of the opposition’s office, (Loto), of blocking candidates considered to be on the left of the party and certain trade unionists, while promoting a “London clique” of candidates that could broadly be considered Blairite.

Loto justifies barring candidates if they fail so-called “due diligence” checks, designed to weed out anyone who could embarrass the party or damage its reputation.

It says it is committed to ensuring that only “high-quality” candidates make it through to parliament — with the now jailed former MP Jared O’Mara serving as a reminder as to why that is important.

As part of the process, checks are carried out on a candidate’s social media history, past public statements and political affiliations.

A Labour insider who supports the approach to selections said it was “essential” for the party to carry out due diligence to prevent negative stories cropping up during the general election campaign.

“It’s better to have stories now about the selection process than to apply no or lower standards and then have something emerge about a candidate that later leads to them resigning late in the day or causing a media firestorm,” they said.

“We know the Tories have a large team of staff digging up any dirt they can about potential Labour candidates, so it’s essential we do our own vetting.”

However, those at odds with Loto’s approach point out instances in which right-wing candidates have made it through to shortlisting despite concerns about their conduct.

Darren Rodwell, a local council leader who was selected to stand for Barking, apologised after a video emerged in which he made crude remarks at a Black History event.

Two other prospective parliamentary candidates were also forced to resign after damaging past details emerged.

“I don’t think anyone is in any doubt that Keir’s office has a very tight grip over the process,” one Labour source said.

“Everyone is starting to know someone who hasn’t been selected or hasn’t been longlisted, when they should have been.”

The source added that Starmer had been on a “journey” from championing open selections during the Labour leadership race to “handpicking” candidates now.

“It started in the leadership election where he was very much on the Corbynite left, and post-leadership he’s progressively kept moving,” they said.

“The logical extension of that has been the widening definition of ‘the left’, and you can see that with his ‘put up or shut up’ language — it may be welcome in the context of anti-Semitism, but the issue it causes is that some people would say it is becoming the approach we are taking on other issues too.

“There’s an irony that we’re talking about the greatest transfer of power out of Westminster, something that Keir is very much behind, but we’re not practising what we preach.”

In one recent case — described by a separate source as “the most egregious stitch-up so far” — Leigh Drennan, a key ally of Angela Rayner, was blocked from standing to be the Labour candidate for Bolton North East.

Rayner was said to be angry at the blocking, and at the weekend, posted a pointed tweet while campaigning with Drennan, the chair of Labour North West, with the caption: “We are at our best when we are united to win.”

HuffPost UK understands that Drennan was blocked after his name appeared on a petition called ‘Stop the Purge’, which Loto is said to have claimed was in support of a 2017 conference motion about expelling anti-Semites.

However, Drennan’s supporters say the petition appeared prior to that and was about the 2016 leadership election. They say he had no knowledge of how his name appeared on it.

The Drennan blocking comes just months after Rayner’s partner, Sam Tarry, was deselected as the MP for Ilford South.

Drennan’s exclusion has been widely interpreted as an attack on Rayner and her power base. The impression left is that she has become increasingly isolated in the party and that the latest incident with her ally is a deliberate attempt to provoke her into retaliating.

A local source with knowledge of the selection process in Bolton North East said the Drennan case was a “sign that people in Loto have so much control that even the deputy leader can’t exercise power over them”.

“Unaccountable individuals are undermining unity at the top of the leadership,” they said.

“Because Keir hasn’t come up as leader through the traditional way of the trade unions, or through Labour movement structures, he isn’t as focused on the party. As a result, others are operating in the vacuum.

“Leigh was backed by Unite, Unison, GMB and CWU. The support of the trade unions traditionally gave you much more leverage and a degree of power, whereas now they want to remove that altogether.”

Rayner was not the only shadow cabinet member to be irked by Loto’s decision to keep Drennan off the candidate longlist. One other shadow cabinet member is also understood to have lobbied in his favour.

Charlotte Nichols, the MP for Warrington North, also branded Drennan’s exclusion “one of the most blatantly factional examples of abuse of the process I’ve seen in the 15 years or so I’ve been a party member”.

“Loto were well aware of political implications of blocking Leigh,” a senior Labour source said.

“Concerns are growing about the activities of a small group of party officials. I hope they are prepared to be under the same level of microscope that they have others under.”

The source said that following Drennan’s exclusion, there was a meeting of the Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Organisation [Tulo] in which “alarm spread across the entire spectrum of the room” — even Community, which is openly Blairite in its politics”.

Other examples that have caused consternation include the barring of Matt Kerr — who ran against Jackie Baillie for Scottish Labour deputy leader — in Glasgow South East, as well as two candidates in Stockton North.

According to the journalist Michel Crick, Clare Gamble and Lewis Young were not invited to a longlisting interview, despite the fact that Gamble is a Stockton councillor and Young works for the Labour MP Alex Cunningham. Cunningham announced in 2021 that he was standing down from the seat.

“Other MPs will be very jumpy about this,” one source said, citing fears that they could not be confident their successor would be their preferred candidate.

“A couple have said that they now definitely will not retire this time around.”

Starmer’s aides also got their fingers burned when they were forced to U-Turn over plans to impose elements of its candidate selection process on Scotland and Wales, without first informing leaders Anas Sarwar and Mark Drakeford.

For his supporters, the control Starmer’s office is exerting over parliamentary selections is a well-trodden — and, given past scandals — justified path to take. They claim that every Labour leader — from Corbyn to Tony Blair — has sought to reshape the party in their own image so it is united when in government.

For his detractors, it is little more than an attempt to narrow Labour’s broad church and to create a parliamentary party that is not just loyal, but beholden, to the current leader and his successor — whoever that may be.

“This whole thing has just gone too far,” one Labour insider said. “And it’s not just the ‘mad left’ that think it.

“It’s creating timid candidates who are afraid to say anything after selection, and as a result a bank of resentment builds up.

“Loto might have ‘control’ now, but they don’t have good will. If these polls narrow and they have a small majority, they will need to rely on people not shafting them. They’re going to have a rocky ride.”

A Labour Party spokesperson said that “thanks to Keir Starmer’s leadership, Labour is now a serious, credible government in waiting and our candidates reflect that”.

“Robust due diligence processes have been put in place to make sure everyone selected is of the highest calibre and for that we’ll make no apologies,” the spokesperson added.

“Labour has changed. Keir believes that politics can be a force for good, and that his government can restore the faith in it that 13 years of Tory government has carelessly eroded.

“The public rightly expect anyone asking to hold office is of the highest standard, and with Labour they can. We’re really pleased that outstanding Labour candidates have already been selected in constituencies across Britain, and that work continues.”

Ironically, the desire to create a uniform, united, party may end up creating yet more division in Labour’s ranks.