Jeremy Corbyn was suspended from the Labour Party on 29 October 2020. The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report on antisemitism in the Labour Party, published that morning, had blamed Labour’s difficulties on the party ‘leadership’, meaning Corbyn himself and not the general secretaries who, under the direction of the National Executive Committee, had managed Labour’s investigations into accusations of antisemitism among its members.
The commission found that Labour had never drafted an adequate policy to guide its investigations process. But the party had a perfectly serviceable document for dealing with sexual harassment complaints. The absence of a similar policy for antisemitism proved Corbyn’s negligence: ‘Antisemitism within the Labour Party could have been tackled more effectively if the leadership had chosen to do so.’
It was an unconvincing argument. Between spring 2018 and spring 2020, tens of thousands of pages of grievances about antisemitic behaviour were submitted. They ranged from complaints that should never have been made – for example, that Jewish members had signed letters to the Guardian supporting Corbyn – to reports of behaviour that should never have been tolerated, such as a candidate in a local election reposting material online that called the Holocaust a ‘hoax’. Labour did have a policy, but it collapsed into misuse under factional infighting, press scrutiny and a lack of resources for dealing with complaints in such huge numbers.
Corbyn’s supporters point out that Keir Starmer would not allow him to see the final EHRC report in advance, putting him in the difficult position of having to respond to press inquiries about a document he had had no fair chance to read. They also say that Starmer approved Corbyn’s suspension, which appears to be true, despite the clear finding of the EHRC report that a main form of procedural injustice under Corbyn had been the leadership ‘interfering’ in decisions that should have been left to the NEC.
But Corbyn can also be criticised for his response to the report. ‘One antisemite is one too many,’ he said, ‘but the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media. That combination hurt Jewish people and must never be repeated.’
His statement was released on the day the EHRC report was published. He should instead have accepted the criticism with good grace, giving himself the chance to fight back more effectively once the press lost interest in the story. But as so often on this issue, Corbyn was incapable of bending early towards the media in order to work against them later.
When Corbyn’s suspension was announced, Constituency Labour Parties across Britain passed motions condemning the decision. Corbyn was fighting for his legacy and the future of his movement. Now would have been a good time to tour the country, to call on his supporters to keep meeting and to raise their voices in protest. But Corbyn stayed in London. The Labour general secretary, David Evans, imposed a ban on CLPs tabling motions criticising Corbyn’s suspension. Receiving no steer from their exiled leader, the constituencies reluctantly accepted the decision.
Corbyn negotiated the restoration of his party membership on 18 November, but Starmer said he would not be readmitted as a Labour MP. Here Corbyn, or his legal team, made another mistake. He had the support of Labour members, who had donated funds for him to sue to have the whip restored. And he had a potentially strong argument. According to the standing orders of the Parliamentary Labour Party, when an MP has the whip suspended an investigation must be carried out. But decisions based on the party’s antisemitism policy are reserved strictly to the NEC, which had already investigated Corbyn’s press release and voted to restore his membership. Natural justice, as the courts have held previously in relation to another excluded Labour MP (Chris Williamson), prevents the NEC from investigating the same complaint twice in order to increase the punishment.
But Corbyn instead fought the decision not to restore the whip on the grounds that he had reached an agreement with the leadership for his full reinstatement. The challenge came to court in January as a preliminary argument about the early release of documents (‘disclosure’) to enable him to bring a case. The judge did ‘not accept pre-action disclosure is desirable’. ‘Mr Corbyn,’ he said, ‘has sufficient material to make a decision on the merits of his case and to plead to both arms of the case he wishes to advance.’ (If his case depended on an agreement with the Labour Party, in other words, a record of that agreement should be in his possession, and Corbyn should already have all the documents he needed to describe it.) Defeated on that preliminary issue, Corbyn dropped any plans to sue for his readmission.
After a long period in which the press scrutinised every breach of the Labour rules, those rules appear to be once again only for little people.
Given that Starmer is free to allow Corbyn back or to exclude him, why has he chosen the latter? Possibly because reinstating his predecessor would require a fight with the right-wing press, which the ever-cautious Starmer is not prepared to have – even if it could help rescue Labour’s finances (the departure of thousands of pro-Corbyn members and their subscriptions has compelled the party to sack ninety employees), or narrow its deficit in the polls, by giving the appearance of unity.
In private, shadow ministers will tell you that Starmer is incapable of winning an election against Boris Johnson or even matching Corbyn’s poor showing in 2019. Starmer, they admit, is no Tony Blair but he might be Neil Kinnock. He will hammer the left in order to create the conditions for a Labour revival in the distant future. To make the Kinnock comparison unavoidable, Starmer has even attempted his own rerun of the Militant purge, excluding four groups from the party, one of them a splinter from the 1980s’ Trotskyists.
But Kinnock had a much stronger sense than Starmer of the need to appease his party’s base. He was leader for six years before pressure from the media caused him to resile from his long-held support for nuclear disarmament. Starmer managed to recant his support for Black Lives Matter last summer within three weeks of being photographed taking the knee.
As for Corbyn, under Blair he was a tolerated and ignored backbencher. Today, he is denied even that freedom. And yet his followers have behind them the force of a simple argument. The Labour Party’s last year and a half is a familiar episode in the long decline of social democracy, in which leaders demobilise their supporters and see their vote shrink. But as recently as four years ago Labour was able to increase its support faster than at any time since 1945. Many of Corbyn’s supporters are young, black or Muslim, and these are social constituencies in which the Labour Party is now losing support sharply. If Labour wants to appeal again to those voters, it will need to make some sort of compromise with Corbyn.