The purge of hard left candidates will be shocking to many in the party but it shows Starmer’s operation understands the reality of modern politics

by Atul Hatwal

The first rule of politics is to learn to count.  Reports of the last minute purge of four hard left candidates suggest that Keir Starmer’s team have fully taken on board Lyndon Johnson’s most important lesson.

Many in the party will be shocked and uncomfortable at the developments. Few would think that Labour splits dominating news coverage, to the exclusion of the central message on the economy, is desirable. But there is a logic to what is being done, beyond spite or pure factionalism. It is a rationale that recognises the limitations of party whipping in an age of social media and one that makes Lyndon Johnson’s rule all the more important.

Boris Johnson won the 2019 election with a majority of 77 but he faced multiple rebellions and was ultimately brought down because his whips could not maintain discipline across the parliamentary party. Clearly he played a leading role in his own demise but twenty or thirty years ago, there’s a reasonable chance he could have survived. What has changed since the 1990s and early 2000s is the size of the bubble in which politics is conducted and the pace at which the news cycle turns.

In a pre-online, pre-social media age, politics was the preserve of the individuals within the physical environs of Westminster, largely the MPs and the lobby journalists. It was a small world, one in which personal relationships, a trading of favours and the odd grabbing of lapels could maintain party discipline. News was slow, there were a limited number of broadcast channels, and the daily papers took twenty-four hours to publish.

But now, it is different.

The bubble has grown and extends from Westminster into the online world of commentators and activists. The news cycle has accelerated beyond all recognition. In the 1990s, when an event occurred, the next day’s reporting would normally be factual on the event and comment pieces would tend to follow 48 to 72 hours later. Today when a newsworthy event occurs, the factual turn of the cycle is complete within minutes and multiple rotations of comment and reaction begin within the hour.

The result is that stories run faster, harder and are much more difficult to control. Comment dominates, engaging and energising online activists. Social media means all backbenchers have the potential for the endorphin high of a viral comment criticising some aspect of their party’s policy. There are permanent caucuses of commentariat, reflecting each ideological position, calling for decisive action, framing every issue as a critical for the future of party and country.

This is the world in which the next Labour government will take office.

It is one where the ability of whips to enforce discipline on backbenchers who have little prospect of advancement is limited compared to the allure of retweets, likes and online praise. Where the drudgery of junior Ministerial office will likely pale, for many, compared to a life of easy online celebrity among their chosen faction’s activists and influencers. A world where there will be a voluble and organised hard left online movement decrying Keir Starmer’s government as betraying Labour principles from its first moments, fomenting rebellion and attempting to bend his agenda to theirs.

To his credit, Owen Jones has said quite plainly that this is what is to come, a future in which he intends to play his full part. Fair enough. But then the rational response of Labour party managers, who know that any majority below triple figures will be vulnerable, that a nexus of hard left commentators and activists will be committed to bringing down Keir Starmer, that their power to whip MPs will be constrained, is also clear.

When the furore subsides over the suspension of the candidates, the next Labour government will face four less opposition votes on the inevitable knife-edge votes and have secured four more in favour of the government programme. Labour backbenchers most susceptible to the call of rebellion will be mindful of the fate of those suspended ahead of the election. Keir Starmer’s team have shown they can count and that they understand the reality of modern politics.

Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut


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