Corbyn row looms large as Labour’s Starmer launches local elections campaign
The Labour leader insists his top team ‘stand full square behind’ the decision to bar Corbyn as an election candidate.
SWINDON, England — Labour’s Keir Starmer insisted his top team is fully behind his decision to exile former leader Jeremy Corbyn, as he launched the party’s local elections drive.
“The shadow cabinet stand full square behind the changes that we’ve made to the Labour Party,” Starmer told POLITICO after rallying party activists in a speech that kicked off the opposition party’s prep for the crucial May test.
The Labour leader launched his campaign at a community hub in the English town of Swindon, alongside his deputy Angela Rayner and Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves. It comes in a week when Starmer has grabbed headlines after moving to stop Corbyn, the left-wing predecessor who led the party for four tumultuous, from running as a Labour candidate at the next general election.
The U.K. opposition — currently riding high in the polls — hopes to make thousands of gains in the local authority vote taking place on May 4. Some 230 councils across England are up for grabs.
Starmer, Reeves and Rayner made short speeches on the theme of a Britain they feel “deserves better” after 13 years of Conservative rule. Starmer even tried out a new nickname for Rishi Sunak — describing the millionaire prime minister as “Mr. One Percent.”
But the speeches were so brief — wrapping up in just over 10 minutes — that two confused activists who arrived barely 15 minutes late asked POLITICO’s reporter if they were still waiting for Starmer and co. — who had already vacated the hall — to speak.
Taking questions from journalists later Thursday, Starmer defended his decision to formally block his predecessor from standing at the next election as a Labour candidate, a move that has been panned by Corbyn allies,
Labour’s ruling NEC body passed a Starmer-proposed motion blocking Corbyn’s candidacy Tuesday. Though the motion made no mention of antisemitism, the former Labour leader lost the Labour whip by Starmer in 2020 after saying the scale of antisemitism cases in the party on his watch had been “dramatically overstated for political reasons.”
The block was criticized by some MPs on Labour’s left — a bloc deputy leader Rayner was once seen as being close to. Rayner did not attend the NEC meeting or vote on Starmer’s motion, although allies of Starmer have said the move is not unusual.
Asked if he was confident his entire shadow cabinet was on board with barring their former leader from running as a Labour candidate, Starmer stood firm.
“There is no issue in the shadow cabinet in relation to this issue,” Starmer said. He took questions from journalists alongside Reeves.
“There’s only one person that is responsible for Jeremy Corbyn not standing at the next election as a Labour candidate, and that is Jeremy Corbyn,” he said.
Council tax ‘pledge’
Starmer used the speech to announce his party’s much-trailed new pledge on council tax. Labour has said that if they were currently in government, they would freeze any rises in the local tax for the next year.
But the promise to freeze council tax would not necessarily apply to the first year of a real-life Labour government. Reeves told broadcasters she would “have to see what the public finances look like going into a general election.”
“They have no plan to introduce this if elected,” Conservative Chairman Greg Hands said. “They’re taking the British people for fools.”
“The idea this is hypothetical misses the point that the government could do this tomorrow if it chose to do so and is choosing not to,” Starmer argued when journalists pressed on why Labour won’t commit to freezing council tax if they win the next election. “We are saying what we would do now.”
The Labour leader also had — literally — nothing positive to say about the election of Humza Yousaf as Scotland’s next first minister. His party hopes to win back seats from Yousaf’s dominant SNP in Scotland at the next election.
“Now you’ve got a first minister who’s been described pretty universally as incompetent in every role he’s ever had,” Starmer said.
“I’m not expecting that to change,” he added.