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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Opinion – Corbyn’s suspension shows a new future for Labour

Ed Ford reflects on how antisemitism has affected Labour and what Corbyn's suspension means for the party.

TW: antisemitism

Shame. That is the only worthy reaction of every Labour member and supporter to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s recent findings. The report into antisemitism in the party published last week makes for dismal reading, yet depressingly it does not tell us anything we didn’t already know about the party’s treatment of Jewish members and activists. Oxford knows all too well how insidious left-wing antisemitism is. Just four years ago, allegations of antisemitism within Oxford University Labour Club resulted in the Royall Report finding that OULC members engaged in antisemitism and that Jewish members did not feel comfortable attending meetings. OULC has done much to repair damaged relationships, but many sections of the wider party remain unreformed. Even so, the judgement by a body set up by the last Labour government that the party acted unlawfully underlines how bad things have become.

The shock and sadness with which this report has been met by many party members makes the reaction of Jeremy Corbyn all the more baffling. He could have simply accepted the report and expressed regret over what happened on his watch. If he had done so he might still be a Labour MP. Instead, while acknowledging the existence of antisemitism, Corbyn claimed that “the scale of the problem was dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents”. Crucially, he failed to accept the report in full.

With this obfuscation we cannot help but be reminded of the long pattern of denial on the part of many on the left. We only need to remember Corbyn’s comments that objection to left-wing antisemitism is a “pattern of demonising those who dare to stand up and speak out against Zionism”. Or of the opinion from Corbyn’s favourite newspaper(the former Communist Party organ) the Morning Star, that the expulsion of Jackie Walker (a woman who blamed Jewish people for the slave trade and attacked security provision at Jewish schools) was a cynical right wing effort to undermine the leadership.

Corbyn’s suspension from the party is therefore welcome proof that Keir Starmer’s much trumpeted zero-tolerance approach is more than just words. For too long Labour MPs and senior activists have got away with blaming the Tories, Israel or Blairites for something that was entirely our problem. Yet to suspend a former leader is no small feat. The last time the party expelled a former leader was in 1931 when Ramsey MacDonald formed the National Government against many’s wishes. Corbyn has not done anything quite as dramatic, and we shall have to wait and see whether the investigation that follows results in his permanent expulsion from the party.

There’s no doubt that Starmer is taking a risk in consenting to the suspension of a man with whom he sat in the shadow cabinet just seven months ago. Despite his downfall, the Islington Commissar still has powerful friends and committed supporters. Len McClusky, Corbyn’s close ally, still leads Unite, Labour’s biggest financial backer. Momentum, the offshoot of Corbyn’s 2016 leadership campaign, still organises nationally despite a damaging split. Most importantly, Corbyn remains popular with many rank and file party members.

Yet Starmer seems to have pulled it off. The moment of maximum risk to party unity has passed with barely a hiccup. This is not surprising given that the leadership has the support of the PLP, the National Executive, the General Secretary, and the membership. Given how powerful and vocal supporters of Corbyn were very recently, this underlines the success of the current leadership in rebalancing internal power structures. 

The most prominent  leaders of the former Corbynite camp have emphasised peace and unity. Both Momentum and another group of trade unions have expressed their regret and opposition to the decision in letters to the leadership. But the most widely reported statement from Len McClusky has been his appeal that supporters of Corbyn remain in the party. Many trade unions and former cheerleaders for the old regime have not even gone as far as to write to Starmer. Nadia Whittome, the new left wing MP for Nottingham East who recently resigned as a PPS, expressed solidarity with her departed comrade but said that he was wrong not to accept the EHRC report. The only group willing to do any more than this is the extreme fringe organisation calling itself ‘Labour Against the Witchhunt’, led by former members expelled for antisemitism during the Corbyn years. That their supporters are leaving is nothing but good news for the party and the leadership.

Part of the reason for this relative silence is, no doubt, that there are far more important things to be working on. Left wing backbenchers, many more of whom were elected at the 2019 general election,  are quite rightly devoting their time to holding this shambolic government to account. When millions are out of work with little or no support from central government and the pandemic is spiralling out of control, there are more important concerns than Labour infighting.

However, the suspension highlights that Corbyn was never the only hope for socialist politics. In truth, the previous leadership failed  to turn the energy of its campaign (which destroyed many right wing myths about the unpopularity of radical socialist politics) into any meaningful change. This failure put left wing politics back a step and helped enable this damaging Tory administration. Whether or not Jeremy Corbyn is himself an anti-Semite (and I tend to think he is not), his atrocious failure of leadership and judgement on this issue, as well as his friendly comments about foreign dictators and terrorists, lost the leaders of Corbyn’s movement what little political capital they had. If radical wealth redistribution and democratisation of the economy is to have any chance of becoming government policy, these commitments need to come without the deadweight of the previous regime. For the left to come to power, it needs to purge itself of those who accept or excuse left wing antisemitism.

This suspension, then, has proven to have few downsides and many advantages for the leader’s office. It is a signal to voters that Starmer is not beholden to the deeply unpopular former leadership, and is willing to be ruthless towards those in his own party who fail to live up to the values of Labour. If this is successful, the radical policies that polls suggest are popular, together with the personal popularity of the leader, could make Labour an electoral force not seen since the 2000s.

The Labour Party has always been riven with bitter infighting. It was only under Blair that the leadership managed to turn this to their advantage by using internal disputes to signal to the voters the leader’s commitments, however much we may disagree with the commitments. Corbyn’s suspension is evidence that in Starmer we have a leader who can pull off something similar and lead from the front to make the party electable and win a general election. The role of those on the left of Labour now is to rid any trace of antisemitism from their ranks, regain the trust of the Jewish community, and push the party to the left on the economy. This will liberate us to campaign with single-minded determination for a Labour government in 2024.

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