When Keir Starmer took over as Labour leader in April, it was no secret he was inheriting a party still split down factional lines. But even he might have hoped for more than eight days in the job before the scale and ferocity of the divisions were thrust back into the spotlight.
Ostensibly intended as an annexe to an inquiry into Labour and antisemitism, the report was both broad in scope and clearly intended to present a pro-Corbyn narrative for posterity.
It claimed malcontented staffers in Labour HQ had not just obstructed efforts to combat antisemitism but hampered the leadership, including undermining the 2017 election campaign, potentially depriving Corbyn of a term in Downing Street.
It also reproduced messages from staffers’ WhatsApp groups, a number of which were insulting or derisory about Corbyn allies and aides, and in some cases strayed into apparent racism and misogyny.
Starmer set up an inquiry to examine both the contents of the report and how it was authored and leaked, which is not expected to report back until next year.
While this buys Starmer some time and allows a one-remove distance for any conclusions and consequences, the inquiry has now become the turf for an ongoing proxy war between the opposing wings.
In their joint submission to the process, Corbyn and his former top colleagues spell out their endorsement of the claims made in the leaked report – which most presume was written by the former leader’s allies – including the notion of the undermined election.
The response from the officials, some of whom were named in the initial report, is equally vehement: whatever anyone’s feeling about Corbyn, they say, there is simply no evidence to back up the idea that they frustrated the election campaign.
There is certainly an argument that any evidence of election-scuppering is circumstantial rather than a smoking gun. While the leaked report does show hostility to Corbyn during the 2017 election, and even dismay among some officials when he did better than expected, there is seemingly no proof of active obstruction.
The document does detail occasional confusion as the party debated how ambitious it should be, but the named officials point to other emails showing efforts by the leadership to put resources into seats held by loyalist MPs that then turned out to be safe.
More potentially troublesome for the officials are the WhatsApp messages in the report. In their own submission to the inquiry, the officials said any apparent racism or misogyny was down to malevolent editing by the report’s authors. This argument has not impressed some of Labour’s BAME MPs, who were particularly dismayed to see transcribed messages seemingly insulting Diane Abbott, Corbyn’s shadow home secretary and a routine target of political and racist abuse.
In turn, the officials say the messages were obtained in breach of data protection rules, and they are taking legal action against the party over this, as well as alleged libel and other complaints.
Starmer is no stranger to managing Labour factions. He served as Corbyn’s shadow Brexit secretary for four years and yet still emerged as the anointed leadership candidate of the party’s centre.
But there is no easy way through, however considered the response. Corbyn’s supporters are convinced by the election betrayal; many BAME MPs and members want more than just words from Starmer about tackling toxic attitudes at Labour HQ; and the officials are insistent the law will uphold their belief they have been maligned and defamed.
If there are any compensations for Starmer, it is that this will likely play out amid the political noise of coronavirus and far enough away from an election that many voters will not notice.