Corbyn’s Suspension

David Renton

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.


  • 31 August 2021 at 8:50pm
    staberinde says:
    Once again, we see why Labour is, unfortunately, utterly irrelevant.

    Corbyn increased Labour's membership and got beaten by a party with a much smaller membership. And a much more geriatric one.

    Corbyn increased Labour's appeal to young people, who don't vote, and minorities, who are largely pointless in securing parliamentary majorities. They're also city voters - people who can increase the majorities of sitting Labour MPs more easily than increase the number of Labour MPs.

    Corbyn did, however, alienate the Jewish minority constituency, because he preferred to waste his movement's precious oxygen on Palestine instead of the 50 other issues voters believe are more important.

    Labour must recognise the imperative of gaming Britain's broken electoral system, particularly with the SNP locking so many seats away from its grasp.

    If it wishes to create a more just and egalitarian society, it cannot do so without power and possessed of a visceral loathing for centrists and Tory voters. Or, indeed, the attitudes and values of working class people who, lacking a university education, are racists in denial.

    Automation is destroying the world of work and the party of working people is destroying itself. I wish it wouldn't.

  • 1 September 2021 at 10:09am
    Peterson_the man with no name says:
    This article assumes that an alliance between Corbynites and Labour moderates is both possible and desirable. But some of us were attracted to Corbyn, not out of any attachment to the Labour party or even, particularly, to left-wing politics (at least, not to what passes for left-wing politics nowadays), but for precisely the same reasons that the establishment hated him: he was someone who had never sought to be leader, who had got there by chance, and who was too old and too inflexible to play the media game.

    We knew all along that the gamble was very unlikely to work. The pro-Corbyn forces were always much weaker than those ranged against them, and even if by some massive stroke of luck they had taken power, they probably wouldn't have held on to it. But the British political elite has now sunk so deeply into self-absorbed mediocrity that even a slight chance of blowing the whole thing apart was better than nothing. Some on the right supported Brexit for much the same reasons.

    Those who think this way were always going to leave the field once Corbyn fell. We have no more interest in an alliance with Starmer and his shower of snowflakes than we do with Johnson and his gang of grabbers. Labour will get back into power; if not at the next election, then sooner or later. But it won't mean anything: it will just be another turn in the game. For me, the Corbyn era now stands out as a brief interruption in the long withering of my interest in electoral politics.

  • 1 September 2021 at 12:17pm
    Graucho says:
    Having condemned Labour to electoral defeat with his ill thought through Brexit policy, Starmer now proceeds by ramming a wedge into a party split. One despairs. The view that the election result was a matter of being too far to the left is wide of the mark. The perception of Corbin as incompetent and vacillating combined with telling northern voters that they voted the wrong way in the referendum and that the question was going to be put again was what did for Labour party.

  • 1 September 2021 at 1:03pm
    cwritesstuff says:
    What an odd article. We had our worst showing in decade in 2019 yet Renton wants to heark back to 2017 when we still lost, but managed to lose less badly to the worst Conservative campaign in my life, in circumstances where our Brexit message was so confusing it could appeal to Leave and Remain alike. That was not a sustainable message.

    The reason that Labour is continuing to do poorly is not because of the BAME, Muslim or young vote. The red wall was lost because Labour's traditional vote left it, and middle class Corbyn supporters (including barristers who went to Eton) didn't fill the gaps.

  • 1 September 2021 at 1:03pm
    cwritesstuff says:
    I should also add - why should hard left groups, including Trots be part of the Labour Party? It is not a communist party.

    • 10 September 2021 at 4:17am
      Amit Pandya says: @ cwritesstuff
      This displays ignorance of the history and current composition of the party. It has always brought together marxists, liberals, people of religious faith and other reformists in a broad alliance devoted to social democratic practice, which is to say the creation of a more humane society by gradual and incremental means. The groups ejected were not hard left; they were professedly socialist. I remember that in the 1960s "socialist" was the common colloquialism to describe the Labour Party as "tory" was and remains to describe the Conservative Party.

  • 1 September 2021 at 7:16pm
    William Large says:
    This blog is full of very weak arguments.

    1) We know objectively what the scale of antisemitism was in the Labour party. It has been published in peer reviewed academic research. In the first NEC report it was 0.6% of the membership. In the second it was 0.24%. Only 0.01% were actually expelled because of it. Nobody has disputed this figures or come up with their own. The figure for the general population by the way, according to the Pew Research Group, the expert research centre on antisemitism, is 6%.

    2) I read the the EHRC report. This author hasn't, or best misinterprets it (the report is extremely flawed legally, you can read about that here: Its criticism of LOTO was that it intervened in antisemitism cases to expedite them. It was the previous regime that sat on them, either through incompetence or malice.

    3) Nobody denies the objective truth of Corbyn's statement. Nor does this author. The EHRC report, for all its faults, at least has the honesty to so that people should be able to discuss the scale of actual antisemitism in the Labour party without censure. As for 'bending towards the media', has this author existed in some alternative reality. The scale of media hostility to Corbyn has probably never been witnessed in recent history. I suggest he has a look at the research of Loughborough University from the last election, to judge for himself.

    4) There was never any intention to sue for 'readmission', which would have failed in the court. The point of the case was to get the Labour party to reveal what actually went on behind the decision to deny Corbyn the whip.

    5) Corbyn's 'poor showing' in 2019? As though the constant undermining of the Labour party by its own PLP, Labour HQ and Regional Offices never existed. As though 2017 was a figment of imagination that we can just erase from history. As though Starmer's statement that Labour was now a 'Remain party' at the 2019 conference, against the shadow cabinet line, didn't lead to Labour losing 52 Leave voting seats. Again, as though Corbyn existed in some media vacuum and the Tories didn't even have to bother to campaign.

    6) Kinnock lost two elections. If Starmer is worse than Kinnock, then that is a new nadir.

  • 4 September 2021 at 10:20am
    joel says:
    Angry Labour members should look at themselves before pointing the finger at Starmer, Mandelson and Co. They elected Starmer in a landslide despite knowing that:

    1) in purely electoral terms, there was no Labour figure less likely to win back the Brexit seats lost in 2019 than Sir Second Referendum.

    2) Starmer was endorsed wholeheartedly during the leadership campaign by Osborne, Blair and the entire political and media class.

    Still, Labour members discounted that and here we are again, back to the politics of the noughties, probably forever.

  • 4 September 2021 at 2:16pm
    ianbrowne says:
    To add a slight addendum to William Large's excellent post it is worth pointing out that Starmer's Labour Party has been accused of systematic anti-semitism, something which has attracted little attention from the mainstream press. The accusations of anti-semitism which have been levelled against some Jewish members of the Labour Party seem to stem from Starmer’s unwillingness to recognise the diversity of opinion within the Jewish community on questions relating to Israel and Palestine, and to the current incarnation of the Labour Party regarding any Jewish member who deviates from the received party line as being an anti-semitic Jew.
    A report published by Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL) which was submitted to both the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and the Forde inquiry into Labour’s handling of anti-semitism gives evidence of the disproportionate targeting of Jewish socialist members by party probes into anti-semitism. JVL’s report claims that four times more Jewish than non-Jewish Labour Party members have faced actioned complaints of anti-semitism.
    The co-chair of JVL, Jenny Manson, said: “JVL members are increasingly experiencing our Jewishness being scoffed at and denied. There is nothing as grave for a Jew than to be themselves accused of anti-semitism. By stepping up its attack on us, accusing more and more of us of anti-semitism, the Labour Party is becoming unsafe for Jews and many are leaving partly to avoid this feeling of persecution. “By charging us with undermining the party’s ability to campaign against racism the Labour Party is buying into the vicious allegation that we are ‘denying anti-semitism.’. In my own case I explained on a Newsnight programme that the claims of anti-semitism have been exaggerated, not anti-semitism itself, of course, which can never be overstated. This has been indicted as both anti-semitism and undermining the campaign against racism. This is ludicrous and deeply insulting to me as a Jew.”
    Perhaps there is nothing unsurprising in this as in an interview with Jewish News on February 14, 2020, Starmer said “I said it loud and clear – and meant it – that I support Zionism without qualification.”
    The problem may be that Jewish members of the Labour Party who do not support Zionism, and most certainly do not support Zionism without qualification, are at risk of being identified by the Labour party as anti-semites.

  • 6 September 2021 at 12:14pm
    frmurphy98 says:
    "If Labour wants to appeal again to [young, black and Muslim] voters, it will need to make some sort of compromise with Corbyn".

    Sadly there is no indication whatsoever it wants anything to do with such voters. Quite the opposite in fact. The party is now being puppeted by a cosy chum of Jeffrey Epstein, oriented obsessively toward reactionary pensioners and the Daily Mail. Lord Peter (still hailed in Westminster and media circles as a genius) adheres to the old Blairite fallacy that young voters, working class voters, and minority voters have no other option than his reserve party of the Establishment (just as .Scottish voters hadn't). PASOKification is but a breath away.

  • 7 September 2021 at 9:10pm
    Simon Wood says:
    Oh, Lord, "sadly". Left-of-centre have gone into moral capitalism big time, looking for the next opportunity to grab even more moral capital. Everything is "sadly".

    It will be many years before there is a Labour when people can say, "This is good, this is fun, they're good-looking, let's vote for them!"

    That's what Labour is, fun and good-looking, when they get in. They don't very often - 1945, 1964 and when Tony Blair won, that year. But it will happen one year.

    Won't it?

  • 7 September 2021 at 10:12pm
    eeffock says:
    Progressives and leftists should bolt and form a legitimate left party. Labour has long been a shill for liberalism and now neoliberalism (Blair, for instance), and the many disaffected demonstrated their feelings about that by their abstinence from the last election.

  • 11 September 2021 at 12:03pm
    Clive says:
    "...Corbyn was incapable of bending early towards the media in order to work against them later."

    It is exactly his inability to do this that makes Corbyn so popular with folk who want a real person, rather than a lizard like Blair, to run the country.

    The fact that the expectation is that one has to "play along" with the media, and that commentators like the author here apparently see nothing wrong with that, reveals much about what we continue to get wrong in our society.

    The Labour Party under Keir Starmer, so willing to show that it *will* "play along", has seen a mass exodus of regular people who are fed up to the back teeth with the prevailing philistinism. And what does Labour say? "Good riddance"

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