Editorial: The Sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey

The sacking of Long-Bailey requires a drawing of a firm line. Socialist Campaign Group members on Labour's front bench should resign.

Keir Starmer’s decision to sack Rebecca Long-Bailey from the shadow cabinet shatters any pretence that he – or his deputy, Angela Rayner, who can be assumed to have signed off on the order – have a genuine commitment to working alongside left-wing members of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Members of the Socialist Campaign Group who have accepted portfolios – Marsha de Cordova, Andy McDonald, Dan Carden, Imran Hussain and others – should consider their positions or compromise the basic principle of solidarity.

Long-Bailey’s sacking comes following a quote tweet of an interview in the Independent with actor and activist Maxine Peake, in which she described Peake as ‘an absolute diamond’. In the interview, Peake argues that violence by United States police forces should be placed in an international context, because ‘Systemic racism is a global issue’. She then made a more specific claim about Israeli training provided to American police: ‘The tactics used by the police in America, kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, that was learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services.’

New Socialist condemns use of Rebecca Long-Bailey merely retweeting an article with this claim as an excuse to expel her from the shadow cabinet. We have been absolutely clear about the problems with criticisms of Israel which are detached from its role in United States imperialism, whereby the tail is seen as wagging the dog.

This is not what Maxine Peake was engaged in. Rather, as an activist newly returned from Palestine – this is specifically mentioned in the interview – Peake was drawing a connection between one instance of settler violence and another. Whilst there may have been a clumsiness in the specifics of her claim, as to argue that US police “learnt” the technique that murdered George Floyd risks obfuscating the structural and historically grounded racism of the US police, the intention is uncomplicated and correct. Israel was established through acts of incredible violence partly modelled on the same European colonialism which created the United States. In turn, Israel acts as a laboratory in which repressive techniques are experimented with and then sent back into the imperial centre – as documented even by Amnesty USA in their exposé of the link between Israel and US police forces.

Maxine Peake is not unique in making a connection between Black Lives Matter and the Palestinian liberation struggle. In 2016, the Movement for Black Lives correctly described Israel as an apartheid state and called for an end to US military aid. Durham City Council, in North Carolina, has responded to protests by rejecting Israeli military training of its police force. And Palestinians themselves have marched in solidarity with Black Lives Matter protestors. In Bethlehem, a mural was painted of George Floyd on the suggestion of Mahmoud Abiedalla, who stated:

We paint on the apartheid wall, that we are trapped under, as a message of solidarity with them and of solidarity with Black people who are in the United States that are oppressed, and where you can see racial discrimination between white and Black people.

That Keir Starmer would sack somebody for supporting and only by means of a quote tweet such an uncontroversial statement as Peake’s comes as little surprise. In the short time that his leadership has lasted, he has shown nothing but contempt for the Black Lives Matters movement. He has backed plans by Priti Patel to introduce ten-year sentences for defacing monuments. His complete failure to mention the politics of a far-right demonstration several weeks ago was obvious in its ambiguity – his criticism could be applied to Black Lives Matters protestors as readily as the fascists who oppose them. As Malia Bouattia has pointed out, none of this should be shocking when considered in light of Starmer’s record in supporting state repression in particular as Director of Public Prosecutions during the riots of September 2011.

SCG members were right to voice disquiet over Starmer’s description of the Indian occupation of Kashmir as a ‘bilateral issue’. The sacking of Long-Bailey, however, requires a drawing of a firmer line. On one side, a commitment to the basic principles of socialism. On the other, participation within a frontbench team which demonstrably regards black and colonised people as disposable - and as Netanyahu, with the backing of Israeli “centrists”, stands poised to annex the West Bank.

We understand arguments that SCG members wish to retain what little influence they have within that team, but Long-Bailey’s treatment up to this point is already an indication of that strategy’s limits. Shunted into the education brief, her lead on schools policy in response to the coronavirus pandemic has been continually disrespected. Long-Bailey consistently and admirably argued against schools re-opening prematurely, rightly for a socialist representative, representing the needs and interests of teachers expressed through their union. However, this position was consistently undermined whether by Starmer seeking a consensus with the government, in the national interest, for schools to reopen and teachers to be pushed back to work in unsafe conditions, or through various other members of the Shadow Cabinet – most notably Rachel Reeves, about whom concerns over antisemitism in her advocacy of the Nancy Astor statue have been ignored – or senior MPs being given media slots to argue for a different set of policies. The leadership’s indifference to the needs and safety of workers, in the name of building a national consensus, extends beyond schools with Starmer doing nothing to represent the concerns of USDAW over the 2m distancing rule being relaxed for retailers.

SCG members may see themselves as Tony Benns, carving out a niche for left-wing policy within a decidedly non-left-wing (shadow) cabinet, but they would be mistaken. They do not have his stature, his support from vibrant social movements and left-wing trade unions, nor the opportunity to put any of that policy into practice within a Labour government, however compromised. SCG members who remain on the frontbench, who go along with Long-Bailey’s dismissal, cannot pretend to be brave moles – they do not burrow but gnaw.

Solidarity with Palestinians and with Black people in the United States, victims of a single imperial system, is a basic principle for socialists. In sacking Long-Bailey for the flimsiest reasons Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner have shown what they think of this solidarity. It’s time for members of the Socialist Campaign Group to make clear what they think of them.