Antisemitism report opens up Labour's fault line all over again

John Crace
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: AP</span>
Photograph: AP

The report into antisemitism in the Labour party was more damning than expected. As well as finding the Labour leadership guilty of political interference in the handling of complaints, the Equality and Human Rights Commission found specific examples of harassment and discrimination.

“But equally of concern,” it added, “was a lack of leadership within the Labour party on these issues, which is hard to reconcile with its stated commitment to a zero-tolerance approach to antisemitism.”

The EHRC concluded that the Labour party could have tackled antisemitism more effectively if the leadership had chosen to do so.

Jeremy Corbyn’s almost instantaneous Facebook response was rather more expected. Much ado about nothing. After acknowledging there had been antisemitism in the Labour party, though no more than in society at large, and that one racist in the party was one too many, came the big “buts”.

But he had been trying to deal with it, but was frustrated by party bureaucracy. But the problem had been grossly overstated by the media and opponents for political advantage. In fact it had been almost entirely down to the media falsely reporting true allegations that he had lost the last election. It was almost as if the only antisemitism he had witnessed during his time as party leader – not that he had personally witnessed any – had been a little, light recreational racism.

You could feel the former Labour leader just itching to mention Boris Johnson’s comments on Muslim women looking like letterboxes and other examples of Tory Islamophobia. Hell, no one had ever done more to fight racism in all its forms than him, but no leader could be expected to keep tabs on everything at the same time as creating a new socialist utopia. Give him a break.

Keir Starmer looked like a man under the cosh as he gave his own press conference. This was by far his worst day since he had become Labour leader. Dealing with Boris and the Tories was child’s play compared with this.

In a short statement, Starmer said this was a day of shame for Labour. He unreservedly accepted all the EHRC findings and would implement them in full. It was what the Labour leader didn’t say that was causing him the most pain.

Because what Starmer was doing his best to avoid was acknowledging that he had served in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet and had backed him at last December’s general election. All of which was, well, potentially embarrassing.

He was more or less in the clear so far as the allegations made against the leader of the opposition’s office were concerned because everyone had always known that Corbyn never consulted Starmer on anything of any sensitivity or importance.

But backing Corbyn to win the last election was rather more problematic, because Starmer couldn’t very well tell the truth and say that he had never shared his values and that the only reason he had pretended to do so was because he knew Corbyn was heading for a big defeat.

And if every centrist MP had bailed out of the Labour party to join the doomed Change UK, then there would have been no one credible left to take over as leader when Corbyn was inevitably forced to stand down. In which case Labour would have been out of power for even longer.

Those were the kind of personal moral compromises that every successful politician had to make but couldn’t be spoken out loud. Especially on a day when the morality of the Labour party itself was under the spotlight.

So Starmer merely stared anxiously into the middle distance and sucked up Labour’s existential guilt while carefully sidestepping any complicity of his own.

Naturally, most questions centred on what Starmer planned to do about Corbyn, and these too were treated with a similar level of evasion. These were matters, he insisted, that should be dealt with after a proper period of reflection and internal investigation.

Except they couldn’t. Corbyn’s refusal to accept the EHRC report in full rather put paid to that, and so by lunchtime Starmer had been forced to withdraw the whip and suspend his predecessor from the party. If Change UK had won any seats, Corbyn would now have been free to sit next to all the MPs he had driven out of the party as an independent.

Within an hour or so, Corbyn had upped the ante once more by posting on Twitter: “I will strongly contest the political intervention to suspend me,” while again insisting there wasn’t a racist bone in his body. He followed this up with a short broadcast clip, urging Labour members not to give up on the fight for social justice – and not to believe everything in the EHRC report.

This was Starmer’s worst nightmare and he could only release another statement insisting the party was right to suspend Corbyn but that the investigation into his actions must be fully independent.

At a time when Labour should be focused on the government’s incompetent handling of the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit, the party was tearing itself apart again. Momentum and other Corbyn supporters were treating their man as a saint, martyred in the pursuit of pure socialism, while the rest of the party was desperately trying to find a way to move on from an issue that had festered for years.

Rather than being an end to the matter, the EHRC report had once again split the party on tribal lines. Boris must be unable to believe his luck.