Well, comrades, nearly a quarter of the way into the century, how’s it going for socialism? Oh dear. Our humourless, uncharismatic party leader has decided to launch a purge, apparently. Anyone defying the official line will be expelled. Voices of dissent will not be tolerated. Among the lifetime party members being frozen out: yeah, that guy. The peevish, talismanic figure who was so good at motivating a crowd, so bad at politics. People used to chant his name at rallies. Now cast into exile, he mutters bitterly to whoever will listen that the party has debased itself through its endless accommodations of the private sector.

All this happened 100 years ago, of course, in 1923, when Stalin’s erasure of factionalism was in full putsch. Poor old Trotsky had been banished, and members of The Workers’ Truth — think Momentum blokes with similar beards but sturdier clothes — were expelled from the party, if they were lucky. Of course, nobody for a second is suggesting Keir Starmer is anything like Joseph Stalin. He’s several inches taller and supports an independent Ukraine, for a start. However, the current Purification of Labour certainly has a Stalinist echo, doesn’t it?

So, why does paranoid android Starmer feel the urge to purge? As Marx didn’t say: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, secondly on Twitter.” There is something both tragic and farcical about Starmer’s war on dissent. All those solemn little Komsomol interns wearing I’m here for Keir! lapel badges, bog-snorkelling through the tides of human effluent on social media, trawling for indiscretions, missteps, wrongthink. He did WHAT? Shared a platform with Ken Loach? Expressed support for the idea of a progressive alliance? “Liked” a “problematic tweet”? Oh, here’s a good one — a Labour MP with a Punjabi Sikh dad tweeted saying Rishi Sunak being prime minister, “isn’t a win for Asian representation. He’s a multi-millionaire who, as chancellor, cut taxes on bank profits while overseeing the biggest drop in living standards since 1956”. No, we can’t have that, Keir’s just been on Sky News telling everyone how he congratulated Rishi “for being a prime minister of British Asian descent, and it’s really, really important that I did that”. Say what you like about Starmer. He really, really admires his own probity.

Yeah, it’s a tough time to be a socialist in the Labour Party. No surprise that the brightest meteor in the sky at the moment is shadow health secretary Wes Streeting, who is clearly being positioned as a man for all factions, in the sense that he’s cheerfully drawing fire from all of them and apparently not giving a shit. His dull but likable memoir has been doing the rounds to generally favourable reviews despite its excruciating title — One Boy, Two Bills and a Fry Up — and prose that’s been ironed flat. It offers an origin story that used to be commonplace among Labour MPs in the days before politicians started going straight into parliament from law, journalism or their gap year.

The Streeting autobiography, like those of Frank Field and Alan Johnson before it, charts a long march from working class poverty to political power. More importantly, here is a young Labour government minister-in-waiting — he’s still only 40 — who understands the acute problems faced by the contemporary poor, not what he calls the imaginary “Hovis working class” beloved of such social scientists as Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nadine Dorries. The only thing his Ilford North constituency has plenty of is deprivation. Streeting knows himself well enough to recognise what he’s lost and gained in the transition to middle-class life. His sense of injustice over the plight of the working poor — a class of people very much associated with the last 13 years of Tory government — is raw, his anger real. We’re a world away from the days of Blair’s public sector spendathon, when John Prescott told everyone, we were “all middle class now”. He might just as well have told us we were all millionaires.

Streeting is certainly showing flair as a self-publicist, and it’s fun to see the fallout. He and his book have been everywhere in the past fortnight, as he relives a Stepney childhood full of stoical women and decent men and a grandfather who was a little bit whee, a little bit whurr, a little bit repeatedly in prison. His media knees-up has already prompted anonymous grumblings among some of his shadow cabinet colleagues, allegedly pissed off that Labour’s policy agenda has been eclipsed by what Trotsky might have called a “cult of personality”. Streeting’s an engaging interviewee. In common with Labour deputy Angela Rayner, he has an ordinary voice. He can be disarmingly frank. He told the Guardian’s Simon Hattenstone: “A great night out is going out with friends and getting absolutely plastered … I’m a bad binge drinker. That’s terrible messaging for the shadow health secretary, but I am a binge drinker.”

The Mail, the Express, the Telegraph, the Sun will all keep that in their back pockets of course, but Streeting’s flawed-Christian everyman candour is at the moment playing very much to his advantage. George W. Bush’s home truth that voters essentially want a candidate they could imagine having a beer with is still a useful guide. I and many party members would much rather have a beer with Streeting than with Starmer. Two beers, tops. If it’s binge drinking, I’d go for vodka jellies with Angela in a heartbeat.

Streeting has made no secret of his ambition to one day be leader of the Labour Party, chiefly by unequivocally denying it, and also by pledging total support for Sir Keir. With his solid reputation as a Labour Right-winger, Streeting even gives notice of how he’d launch a leadership bid: “I’d tack Left. You win the Labour leadership from the Left, as I reminded Tony Blair from time to time. His pitch of 1994 was not the Tony Blair of 2007.” Streeting is clearly an ambitious pragmatist, like Starmer. An infuriated membership beseeches Labour leaders to be bolder. In fact, a huge, roiling majority of the public want to renationalise water, rail and energy, and think nurses and teachers shouldn’t have to use food banks. But Team Starmer simply taps the latest polling screenshot and tells them to calm down. Promising nothing is a strategy now. If you could map the level of fury among fellow Labour members at the perceived inertia of His Majesty’s Opposition, it would look like one of those “hottest day on record” charts.

Starmer’s hero is Harold Wilson and on one hand you can understand why. After all, he was head of a Labour government when the Beatles were in power, when the country was redefining itself for a new, optimistic world. We had a roaring economy, equal rights legislation, BBC2 commissioning Monty Python and Kenneth Clark in colour. The Open University. The World Cup. It was the best of times; it was the best of times. But at least Wilson acknowledged the broad church that the party had always been. He was fond of quoting Ian Mikardo’s clunky maxim: “Every bird needs a Left wing and a Right wing and it can’t fly on its Right wing alone.” Perhaps this is why Starmer appears to be in a holding pattern above the political landscape, Labour circling with its single, flapping wing.

One vociferous faction Starmer’s keen to ignore is the young, energised, progressive wing of the party. The Pink News and Canary crowd. The Just Stop Oil, keeping up with the Owen Joneses guys. It’s one thing to dismiss them as smug idealists, out of touch with ordinary people, luxuriating in their bubbly purity whirlpool. It’s quite another to argue against them. This is why Streeting rather than Starmer is emerging as Podcast Left’s bogeyman. Members of the Streeting Tendency share socially conservative views rooted in a traditional, working-class Old Labour, where middle-class issues are treated with some scepticism, and where it’s acceptable to approve of getting on, “bettering” yourself.

While Starmer blanks the party dissenters, Streeting runs straight towards them. His strength as a man for all factions is not that he wants to please everyone but that he’s prepared to be shot by both sides. He upset NHS absolutists by saying he’d use private healthcare to clear waiting lists — a strong echo of Blair’s “whatever works”. He’s also on record recalling with glee how private care turnover “fell off a cliff” under the last Labour administration because the NHS functioned really well, and how he’d love an NHS so strong it would all but kill off the private sector. His views on abortion upset a broad spectrum of people, including secularists (he has sympathy for those opposed on faith grounds) the religious (he votes “in a secular way” because he believes in the diversity of a liberal democracy) and parents of children with Down’s Syndrome — along with Richard Dawkins, he supports late termination of a foetus with Down’s. Sidenote: as the grandparent of a child with DS I am happy to invite him to shove that one right up his moral vacuum. Reinforcing the belief that a child will be a burden to the parents and a drain on society’s resources? Imagine if we had a society that felt an honourable duty to support children with disabilities. Imagine if that was a Labour Party aspiration.

Oh, talking of “existence debating”, Streeting’s even taken multi-faction fire by wading into the Debate That Needn’t Even Speak Its Name. Even more recklessly, he wants to take a centrist position that, according to the rules of social media trench warfare, doesn’t exist. As the former head of education for Stonewall, he has impeccable credentials as a trans ally. Except he insists on recognising and protecting sex-based rights and seems to have no problem with biological framing. In one interview, he subscribed to that framing, before launching an excoriating attack on the gender-critical feminists using ugly, demeaning language to monster trans people. Right after, he got his 15 minutes of hate from both ends, the public forums ablaze.

And while Starmer is content to allow people to infer that he was always in a way slightly allergic to Corbynism, Streeting smacks his empty lager glass down on the table and calls the 2019 Labour Party “a shipwreck”. Starmer’s personality is still at the printer’s; Streeting meanwhile watches his political stock rise as more and more people in the party see him as the enemy within. Very Blair.

And let’s be frank, a plausible answer to the question “why get tough on Labour factionalism now?” is “have you seen the absolute state of the Tory party?” Stalin — him again, what can I say, he’s quotable — said his two greatest generals on the Eastern Front were January and February. Within living memory, the Tory Party boasted that its two greatest political weapons were loyalty and unity. I mean, look at it now. Its last year has been like Game of Thrones Season Nine. Brutal, tribal, full of awful characters. Boris Johnson trashed the Conservative Party, then half-pulled the scenery down with him when he lurched off-stage. Having effectively created several splinter groups through his presence, he caused several more through his absence. Maybe Starmer took one look at what happens when you don’t ruthlessly suppress factionalism and decided to go the other way. The Tory factions have been getting more desperate and less interesting with each incarnation: “Trussite” was actually a word for at least 36 hours last year. The “New Conservatives”: what do they want?

Rishi Sunak is fading from public view by the day. He’s getting asked the same question as Starmer — what do you stand for? Anything? — but it’s hurting him more. At this stage, Sunak is just vapour in a slim-fit shirt, and Starmer can afford to worry less about being upstaged by his tribal enemy. Perhaps his calculation is that now is the time to quash internal opposition, not in the middle of a general election campaign. At the moment, he seems quite content to make every angry brigade on the Left even angrier, and allow his champion to block the backlash of vengeance. It’s Streeting who faces every beating, and he seems to be thriving. Every purge, after all, needs an anti-hero. Especially one who may lead the party in a few years’ time.

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