Starmer sacks Long-Bailey in row over left-wing actor's 'antisemitic' comments

Frontbencher praised Maxine Peake on Twitter after Independent interview revealed actor’s views

Lizzy Buchan
Political Correspondent
,Ashley Cowburn
Thursday 25 June 2020 16:10 BST
Keir Starmer asks Rebecca Long-Bailey to step down after sharing article containing antisemitic conspiracy theory

Labour leader Keir Starmer has sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey from his shadow cabinet, in a move that risks igniting civil war within the party.

Ms Long-Bailey described Maxine Peake as a “diamond” on Twitter and shared an interview with The Independent that revealed the left-wing actor’s “antisemitic” view relating to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, stating that the US police responsible had learned their tactics from Israeli forces.

Starmer described the claim as an “antisemitic conspiracy theory”, and Ms Peake later accepted that it was “inaccurate”.

The Salford and Eccles MP – widely viewed as the candidate of the left when she lost this year’s Labour leadership battle to Starmer – said she was removed despite issuing a message making clear she did not endorse all the views expressed by Ms Peake in her interview with The Independent, and before she could discuss the issue with Sir Keir.

Her dismissal was hailed by Jewish groups and centrist Labour MPs as a sign that Starmer was determined to root antisemitism out of the party. But left-wing allies of Long-Bailey voiced outrage, with former shadow chancellor John McDonnell declaring “solidarity” with the ousted frontbencher and Momentum founder Jon Lansman denouncing a “reckless overreaction”.

Speaking shortly after Ms Long-Bailey’s removal, Sir Keir said: “The sharing of that article was wrong, because the article contained antisemitic conspiracy theories.

“I have therefore stood Rebecca Long-Bailey down from the shadow cabinet. I’ve made it my first priority to tackle antisemitism and rebuilding trust with the Jewish community is a number one priority for me.”

During the interview, prominent Corbyn supporter Ms Peake described his successor Starmer as “a more acceptable face of the Labour Party for a lot of people who are not really left wing”, but said she would continue to back the party as the best way of “getting the Tories out”.

And when asked about the Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the world, she said that “systemic racism is a global issue”, adding: “The tactics used by the police in America, kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, that was learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services.”

While US law enforcement officials have received training from the Israeli military, there has been no suggestion that this training involved the tactics of kneeling on an individual’s neck.

Ms Long-Bailey’s sharing of the article on Twitter with the comment that Peake was “an absolute diamond” sparked a wave of outrage on the social media site and calls for her resignation from antisemitism campaigners.

She later tweeted to say that her message “wasn’t intended to be an endorsement of all aspects of the article”.

Ms Long-Bailey said she had agreed the wording of the clarification with Sir Keir’s office but was then ordered to take both tweets down.

She said: “I could not do this in good conscience without the issuing of a press statement of clarification. I had asked to discuss these matters with Keir before agreeing what further action to take, but sadly he had already made his decision.”

Keir Starmer accuses Rebecca Long-Bailey of not speaking out about antisemitism in shadow cabinet meetings

Ms Long-Bailey said she never intended to “endorse every part of that article”, instead meaning to show support for Ms Peake’s criticism of the Tory government’s handling of coronavirus.

However sources said the frontbencher was repeatedly asked to delete her original tweet praising Ms Peake but refused.

In an apparent sign that she does not intend to be a thorn in the leader’s side from the backbenches, Ms Long-Bailey said: “I am clear that I shall continue to support the Labour Party in parliament under Keir Starmer’s leadership, to represent the people of Salford and Eccles and work towards a more equal, peaceful and sustainable world.”

Ms Peake later tweeted: “I feel it’s important for me to clarify that, when talking to The Independent, I was inaccurate in my assumption of American police training and its sources. I find racism and antisemitism abhorrent and I in no way wished, nor intended, to add fodder to any views of the contrary.”

Marie van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, praised the Labour leader for taking ”swift action” over the row.

She said: “I would like to thank Keir Starmer for backing his words with actions on antisemitism. After Rebecca Long-Bailey shared a conspiracy theory, we and others gave her the opportunity to retract and apologise.

“To our surprise and dismay, her response was pathetic. Her position as shadow education secretary was therefore untenable.

“There can be no space for this sort of action in any party and it is right that after so many challenging years Labour is now making this clear under its new leader.”

Dame Margaret Hodge, a prominent Jewish Labour MP, said: “This is what a change in culture looks like. This is what zero tolerance looks like.

“This is what rebuilding trust with the Jewish community looks like.”

Dame Louise Ellmann, the veteran Labour MP who quit the party last year in protest at Corbyn’s failure to tackle antisemitism, said Starmer’s willingness to discipline such a senior colleague was “a very encouraging sign”.

And Labour MP Neil Coyle, another vocal critic of Mr Corbyn, said: “Keir Starmer promised leadership in tackling this problem. Today he delivered it.

“After so long with a leader complicit in the problem this is an amazing and massive relief.”

The co-chairs of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism, Labour’s Catherine McKinnell and Conservative Andrew Percy, said: “We welcome Sir Keir Starmer’s zero tolerance approach and decisive action. Members of Parliament have a duty to challenge antisemitic conspiracy theories, not share them.”

Sir Keir’s action underlines his desire to stamp out the row over antisemitism which dogged the party under Mr Corbyn’s leadership.

Ms Long-Bailey was seen by many as Mr Corbyn’s heir apparent, but she lost out to Sir Keir in the leadership election in April.

Her dramatic sacking is likely to explode the fragile truce within Labour’s different groups.

Keir Starmer says ‘I’ve made it my first priority to tackle antisemitism’ as he sacks Rebecca Long Bailey

Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell was among members of the party’s left wing offering their support for Ms Long-Bailey

He said: “Throughout discussion of antisemitism it’s always been said criticism of practices of Israeli state is not antisemitic.

“I don’t believe therefore that this article is or Rebecca Long-Bailey should’ve been sacked. I stand in solidarity with her.”

Matt Zarb-Cousin, who directed Ms Long-Bailey’s communications strategy during the Labour leadership contest, said: “Apparently we’re now more willing to sack our own frontbenchers than call for the sacking of government frontbenchers.”

Jon Lansman, the founder of the left-wing grassroots activist network Momentum, said the move was a “reckless overreaction”.

He said: “I’m a Jewish member of Labour’s National Executive Committee who has sat on countless panels adjudicating antisemitism complaints and has often been criticised for my tough approach to antisemitism on the left.

“I don’t believe there is anything antisemitic in the interview and sacking Rebecca is a reckless overreaction by Keir Starmer.”

Mr Lansman praised Ms Long-Bailey’s commitment to fighting anti-Jewish hate during the leadership campaign.

He added: “More than 135,000 Labour members voted for Rebecca in the leadership election. Keir says he wants party unity, yet sacks her from the front bench for no good reason.

“I stand in absolute solidarity with Rebecca Long-Bailey, as does the rest of Momentum.”

A spokesperson for The Independent said: “As the article makes clear, the views of Maxine Peake are not the views of The Independent.”

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