02 July 2020
A knife in the dark?
By John Watson
Accident or assassination? That is the division which keeps crime fans on the edge of their seats in the long winter months. A full glass, the curtains drawn, a good fire and a novel by Christie or Sayers or Conan Doyle. Unbeatable! What a luxury, then, to have a real life mystery with a bit of conspiracy theory politics thrown in. Thank you, Starmer and Long-Bailey, what pleasure you have given us.
The broad facts are of course well known. An actress called Maxine Peake had published an article suggesting, mistakenly as it turns out, that the hold which killed George Floyd had been taught to the American police by the Israeli secret service. Ms Peake subsequently withdrew that, but by then the article had been endorsed by Ms Long–Bailey who refused to withdraw her endorsement. “So what?” you might think. Inaccurate information was passed on. Worse things have happened and no doubt Long-Bailey thought it was true. Yes, but it strikes a very unfortunate resonance.
Historically much anti-semitism has hinged on incorrect slanders of the Jewish race, the Blood Libel being an extreme example, and no doubt many of those who passed them on also believed them to be true. But they fuelled pogroms none the less. For someone in an important position in relation to education to endorse a slander is not good, but to refuse to withdraw the endorsement when the error is discovered is worse. For them to do it at the very moment when Labour is trying to recover its position with the Jewish community, and when the world is particularly alive to racist behaviour, is politically suicidal. Bye, bye, Long-Bailey, down a snake on the political board you go.
What we cannot tell is whether it was an accident. Starmer brought Long–Bailey into his shadow-cabinet after defeating her in the leadership campaign. On the face of it that was a generous gesture to an erstwhile opponent. Could it be, and you’ll see from this how infectious conspiracy theories are, that there was a darker motive? Did he calculate that sooner or later she would destroy herself? If so it is a remarkably elegant coup.
Some time ago I was talking to a Conservative insider about a particularly stupid Cabinet minister, suggesting that the leadership should have used a recent reshuffle to remove them from the centre stage. “Why?” he replied. “They will destroy themselves soon enough, so why not just allow them to do it? Wouldn’t that be more sensible politics?”
Executions, whether political or otherwise, come in two sizes. There are those which are public and intended to make a point. When Saladin stepped down from his horse to personally behead Raynald de Châtillon he was sending a stern message to other crusaders not to prey on Muslim caravans. Publicity was the whole point. But there are also deeds which are better done in the dark or at least in ambiguous circumstances where it is uncertain whether any harm was intended. Was Long-Bailey set up for a fall?
That we will never know may be disappointing for those who follow politics but there are also two practical implications. The first is for other shadow cabinet members who will have to check very carefully whether their statements and endorsements can be read as racist or anti-Semitic. The Labour left is particularly vulnerable here because, like the Tory right, it tends to be attractive to those who rigidly follow doctrine – not always the brightest knives in the drawer and often the least fitted for walking a difficult political tightrope. Could appointment to the shadow cabinet be a precursor to a political knock on the head?
The second is what it says about Sir Kier Starmer. If Long-Bailey was set up deliberately this has to go down as an extraordinarily elegant manoeuvre. A potential opponent generously appointed but sadly discredited, relations with the Jewish community improved, and an image of tough fairness presented to the public. We haven’t seen footwork as good as that since Boris and Cummings broke the logjam which prevented an election being called. Could Cummings and Starmer be related?
Alas, probably not. Conspiracy theories are usually wrong and the likelihood must be that Starmer was lucky in how this came out. Still, don’t underrate luck as a political commodity. Sir Kier may one day be prime minister of this country and, if so, the luckier he is the better for all of us.