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The Corbyn problem

By Luke Chafer

Luke Chafer considers the aftermath of the Corbyn investigation, as he discusses antisemitism in the party and the impending civil war within Labour.

The rapturous chants of “Oh Jeremy Corbyn” that became synonymous with the summers of his pomp seem just a faint memory in the week that Keir Starmer, the incumbent Labour leader, sought to sever ties with the old regime by refusing to restore the party whip to Corbyn despite him being reinstated as a Labour party member. 

The fallout has come as a result of Corbyn’s response, rather than the findings, to the Equality and Human Rights Commission report that investigated antisemitism in the Labour Party during his tenure. In his official statement released on Twitter, he failed to “accept all findings of the report” but that he “trusts its recommendations would be implemented”. This was met with an immediate suspension from the Labour party as well as the parliamentary party. Following a consultation by the National Executive Committee (NEC) decided to reinstate Corbyn’s membership just 19 days after the initial suspension. The move was not reciprocated by Keir Starmer who also took to Twitter to state that “Jeremy Corbyn’s actions in response to the EHRC report undermined and set back our work in restoring trust and confidence in the Labour party” and as such he would not have the party whip returned.  This lead to Corbyn announcing that he will take legal action against the decision.

The ruptures that the two contradicting decisions have caused has been great; Starmer has effectively voluntarily plunged his party into a civil war. Corbyn loyalists fronted by Unite leader Len McClusky supported by large swathes of grassroots activists, sections of the NEC and 27 MP’s on the left of the party versus the new leadership of the parliamentary party supported by the majority of MP’s as well as the Labour Jewish groups. These divisions are not new but longstanding, which is why the threat is so great. On top of that, the Corbyn loyalists have not been afraid to flex their might, with the Bakers Union and Unite both threatening a funding cut, demonstrating this crisis is not going away. 

This is not to say that a tough stance from Keir Starmer antisemitism is unjustified. The EHRC report was damning. It concluded that there was a culture that at “best [the Labour party] did not do enough to prevent anti-semitism and at worst could be seen to accept it”. In addition, the party was found in breach of the Equality Act 2010 on three separate counts: unlawful harassment, indirect discrimination and political interference when handling complaints due to a lack of structure. Whilst Corbyn was not explicitly named, his office was repeatedly. It was found that the leaders of the opposition office were politically interfering in the complaints process in 23 out of 70 sample cases, including the allegation against Corbyn for posting an overtly antisemitic cartoon on social media. This wasn’t merely incompetence but acquiescence; the report highlights this by pointing to the success of the sexual harassment complaints procedure implemented under the same period – the leadership was not unable to act but unwilling. 

Yet, Starmer and the NEC didn’t act based on these findings, but instead on Corbyn’s response to them. This was a clever political manoeuvre by Starmer that demonstrated his commitment to implementing the findings, which included removing the culture of denial, and punished Corbyn without implicating the former shadow cabinet. What the current fallout has shown is that the deep divisions within the party both as to what constitutes antisemitism and the scale of the problem are yet to be resolved.

The issue of how pervasive antisemitism is within the party was one that came up in Corbyn’s Twitter response when he stated: “the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party and the media”. Whilst this received great backlash and has since been deleted, the evidence would suggest that he is, in fact, correct. A study conducted by Professor Greg Philo, of the University of Glasgow, for his book Bad News for Labour: Antisemitism, the party and belief, showed through extrapolation of the 2019 figures that across Corbyn’s tenure, 0.3% of the membership had an antisemitism case against them compared to a public belief of 30%. Whilst the book is well worth a read (particularly the focus group evidence), its use in this context misses the point, as the EHRC report was about how problems were dealt with, as opposed to the extent. This has been neglected by Corbyn’s loyalists, and unless Starmer can tackle this “us versus them” narrative that became prominent in the party under the previous leadership, he will be unable to unify.

What does this crisis mean for the future of the Labour party? Crucially, does this make the Labour party more electable? The removal of Corbyn himself will undoubtedly provide an electoral boost, signalling a break from a tenure which in many regards was seen as toxic by the electorate. He went into the election with the worst individual net satisfaction since any leader of the opposition since the 1970s and anecdotally MPs were quick to point to antisemitism claims and links to Irish Republicans as voters key concerns on the doorsteps.   Yet there is a key distinction between Corbyn and Corbynism, which is key to Starmer establishing unity to his party.

In many regards, Corbynism was seen as success changing the narrative on many policy issues, which to the rebel group is more important than the man himself. Corbynism which saw the party further to the left, with grand plans of state ownership of key industries as well as increased taxes on higher earners, however, didn’t lead to electoral success – returning just 202 MPs in the 2019 general election. The left will argue that the red wall voted blue just to get Brexit through and that this should not result in a return to the soft left. It’s hard to determine Starmer’s stance on this as there has been a lack of policy commitments, most notably in his conference speech. The only indication that Starmer will continue Corbyn’s policy legacy came during his leadership bid,  where he pledged to “keep the radical socialist tradition of the labour party”, yet without the policy to back this up, it’s hard not to see the statement as an attempt to appease groups such as Momentum. 

The radical left agenda that Corbyn promoted had a great impact on reinvigorating the youth vote. In the 2019 general election, 56% of voters aged between 18-24 voted for the Labour party. On the question regarding the electoral future of the Labour party, this is a key consideration. However, whilst the enthusiasm may not be as great for Starmer, in the current electoral system there is not another viable party on the left for these voters to turn to unless a breakaway party is formed by the rebel MPs. So Starmer will rightfully assume that although this is a risk as Corbyn is a cult figure, he has more important groups to appease if wants to gain the keys to number 10.

This is the crisis that will define the electoral future of the Labour party, the divisions were brewing under Corbyn but have exploded under Starmer. If the parliamentary party holds firm, they may do damage to the party but will ultimately heal the wounds which were so fatal for them at the last election. The crucial difference, which holds the party in good stead is that Starmer, unlike his predecessor, has the political nous to deal with the crisis afoot.


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