Yesterday, the EHRC report into Labour’s antisemitism controversy was released. Contrary to the doomsday predictions on both sides – that it would label the party institutionally antisemitic or personally indict Jeremy Corbyn and his team – it was a sober and earnest document which focused on procedural issues. By lunch time, it seemed likely it would be broadly accepted across the Labour Party.
The report found that Labour’s processes for handling antisemitism complaints were lacking. Its structures were too weak, they were subject to political pressures, under-resourced and lacked proper guidance. Its staff had not had access to appropriate training. The most damning finding – of harassment – related to two cases where representatives of the party, former mayor Ken Livingstone and a Lancashire councillor, had made antisemitic comments. The report criticised the Corbyn leadership for its lack of effectiveness in dealing with these matters, but did not make sweeping claims about their complicity in antisemitism.
Jeremy Corbyn’s response to the report was equally sober. He acknowledged the report’s criticisms, encouraged the swift implementation of its findings and offered an apology to Jewish members whose complaints had been mishandled. “Jewish members of our party and the wider community were right to expect us to deal with it,” he said, “and I regret that it took longer to deliver that change than it should.”
As one would expect, he also defended his record. Many of the processes criticised, Corbyn pointed out, predated his leadership – something which the report itself acknowledges – and were replaced by more robust procedures after 2018. He didn’t accept all of its findings, but that is hardly a surprise for a critical report running to 129 pages which dealt with such a controversial topic.
He also said that “the scale of the problem was dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media.” This is undoubtedly the case – as we know from the leaked report, individual complainants were responsible in some instances for thousands of complaints, the vast majority of which were unfounded.
Even MPs in some cases made statements relating to the number of cases which could not be substantiated. Margaret Hodge, for instance, said she had made 100 antisemitism complaints to the party. It later transpired that 80 of these related to people with no connection whatsoever to Labour – that is to say they weren’t even members let alone office-holders or anyone the EHRC would find the party legally responsible for.
If this might seem like circumstantial evidence, the overall impression given by such pronouncements is far clearer. Last year, Survation ran a poll which asked the public what proportion of Labour Party members had been subject to complaints about antisemitism. The result was that, on average, people thought that 34 percent of Labour members had been embroiled in antisemitism complaints – over 200,000 people. Just 14 percent of respondents believed the figure was below 10 percent of members.
It doesn’t diminish the findings of the EHRC report one iota to note that this public perception about the scale of the problem was inaccurate. The findings about harassment relate to two office-holders but even the “borderline” cases were just eighteen. The Labour Party has a vast array of elected officials and staff across the breadth of the country, taking the full twenty into account the cases would amount to a fraction of one percent.
Importantly, the report itself acknowledges that Labour members should be permitted to engage in this discussion. Article 10 of the ECHR, it says, “will protect Labour Party members who… express their opinions on internal Party matters, such as the scale of antisemitism within the Party, based on their own experience and within the law.”
In its essence, the EHRC report calls for natural justice to be respected. Those who feel they have been subject to abuse or unfair treatment should be able to say that their complaints to the Labour Party will be considered without bias and that they will receive a fair hearing. It is a legitimate demand, especially when it comes to racism.
But the common ground that should exist on these questions has immediately been lost – precisely because Labour leader Keir Starmer and his ally, the party general secretary David Evans, decided that their own internal and factional considerations were more important than building consensus across the party in the wake of the report.
There were no reasonable grounds for suspending Jeremy Corbyn. His response to the report was understated and mild – so much so that it had not even produced much criticism from a notoriously hostile press. Certainly, nothing in its content could be deemed antisemitic. The suspension itself was botched, circumventing the party’s own systems which do not flag Jeremy Corbyn as having been suspended.
At the time of writing, David Evans could not even say what party rule Corbyn was alleged to have broken with his statement – as an appointed member of staff, he refused to clarify this point last night to the party’s elected National Executive Committee. When the post-facto rationale is contrived, it will almost certainly use the catch-all of bringing the party into disrepute.
Keir Starmer – who, despite weak protestations to the contrary, was party to the decision to suspend – has been more forthcoming about the reasoning. In his view, Corbyn’s statement cast antisemitism as a factional issue and downplayed its significance. But who could seriously claim that the issue had not been factionalised? The EHRC report itself indicates this. And it expressly allows for discussion over the scale of the problem – this, it says, is not antisemitic and should be protected speech for all Labour members.
Corbyn’s suspension is entirely consistent with Starmer’s approach to leadership since his victory earlier this year. He has sought at every turn to marginalise the Left, and this offered the latest opportunity. Starmer saw a chance to receive a slap on the back from the Murdoch press for his statesmanship, to demonstrate his own power within the party, and to provide a public display of the degree to which Labour was “under new leadership.”
And in order to do this, he only needed to ensure that the party’s civil war would continue in perpetuity, its mass membership would depart in their thousands, its trade union affiliates would feel betrayed and the very promises of unity he was elected upon would be rendered meaningless. That is the trade-off he has made – and everyone inside the Labour Party should know it.
Today, on his rounds to the TV studios, Starmer portrayed this as a sensible decision. He claimed that he did not want to see a civil war – but he has very clearly been waging one: by omitting the Left from senior positions; by expelling Rebecca Long-Bailey from his shadow cabinet; by supporting the appointment of a brazenly factional general secretary; by enforcing a three-line whip on the Overseas Operations and Spy Cops Bills; by threatening MPs who dared to vote with their conscience; by abandoning commitments to the policy positions which were the basis for his mandate from members just months ago. From the beginning, it has been a war on the Left.
Labour is, indeed, in a civil war. But only one side is fighting. The Left has thus far remained largely disorganised and timid. This must change. The reality is that Jeremy Corbyn still enjoys widespread respect and admiration across much of the party. The vast majority of its members – including many thousands who voted for Keir Starmer – were brought into its ranks under his leadership.
They were inspired by Corbyn’s vision of a society where millions of people would not have to suffer the indignations of grinding poverty, a vision which has rarely been evoked by the Starmer leadership even as this enormous crisis and the government’s response to it has pushed so many more towards the edge.
They were convinced, too, that there was another way of doing politics – one which could be more participatory, more democratic and more engaged with social movements outside of Westminster. This is an approach which Starmer and his team have set out dismantle in the Labour Party, reducing it again to a narrow electoral vehicle which sees its own membership as an inconvenience. Soon, they will put the final nail in this coffin by shutting down the Community Organising Unit.
Trade unions, too, supported Jeremy Corbyn – not because of the man as an individual, but because he offered the prospect of a party which would genuinely represent the interests of workers in parliament. No more would Labour be a party which refused to repeal anti-trade union laws in government and condemned striking workers in the national press. Keir Starmer promised that this vision of the party would endure under his leadership. As with so many of his promises, it is clearer by the day that it was a lie.
This alliance – of members and trade unions – must now stand up and insist that the attempt to erase the past five years, expressed most clearly in the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn from the party, is halted. Between them, they have funded the party machine. They have built it too, from door to door, often in miserable conditions, giving of their own time and effort with little appreciation. They must now throw a spanner in its works.
In the context of a government which is driving millions towards penury, and many towards death, by its handling of the pandemic, and against the backdrop of a political arena which is increasingly shaped by individuals who are unashamed in their aspirations to demolish the meagre remnants of equality and democracy which have survived recent decades, the Labour leadership has decided to wage war against the Left. That cannot be allowed to stand.
If it is, it guarantees that the coming years will see little if any meaningful opposition to the march towards the right socially, culturally and economically. Labour’s members and supporters, instead of being active in fighting for their values, will be told simply to wait for an election that takes place years down the road, in god knows what kind of wasteland the Tory government has left behind.
Be in no doubt: if Jeremy Corbyn is driven out of the Labour Party, it will be socialism that is expelled from British politics for the foreseeable future. We must build the strongest possible alliance to ensure that this suspension is overturned.