18 November 2020

Starmer is right to remove the whip from Corbyn, but the damage is done


It was all going so well for Keir Starmer. Just three weeks ago he gave an impassioned response to the EHRC’s damning report, promising “zero tolerance” of anti-Semitism. Just a few hours later, Jeremy Corbyn himself had been suspended from the party for downplaying the findings of that report. The leader looked decisive, the message was clear: here was a party under new management.

Fast-forward to today and Corbyn is, to the bafflement of many, back in the fold. That he has been readmitted to the party without a proper apology for the original infraction – or, indeed, for what happened to the party under his leadership – beggars belief.

Starmer has at least done the right thing by refusing to return the Labour whip to Corbyn, forcing him to sit as an independent MP. Given the furious response of other Labour MPs to Corbyn’s reinstatement, the new leader had little choice, though in truth he has locked the stable door when the straggly old horse has long bolted. ‘Expelled from Labour’ would have had far more resonance than ‘had the whip removed’ will.

The president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Marie van der Zyl, spoke for many when she called the decision to reinstate Corbyn’s party membership “an absolute sham”. She’s right on two fronts: in the narrow sense that Corbyn broke the party’s rules with his original statement, but also in the broader one that someone with such a long charge sheet of palling about with avowed anti-Semites, and whose leadership led to such strong condemnation from the EHRC, should still have a membership card.

Starmer finds himself boxed in not so much through a lack of will or sincerity, but of tactical foresight. There were two big, related mistakes. First, on the part of general secretary David Evans, who should have delayed the disciplinary process until 2021, when a new, independent process will have been implemented. The second error was Starmer taking ownership of Corbyn’s suspension and giving the strong impression that he approved of it, even though the decision over whether to expel Corbyn was out of his hands.

With that in mind, Starmer ought to have been much clearer at the time that this was a separate process being conducted by a sub-committee of Labour’s National Executive Committee. By not doing so, those who rejoiced at Corbyn’s suspension and fully expected his expulsion feel they have been led up the garden path.

For Starmer, who was so clear that those downplaying anti-Semitism should be “nowhere near the Labour party”, this is a deeply damaging turn of events that has the potential to permanently tarnish his leadership. Not only does it make him look weak, but it ensures the Corbyn sideshow will continue to play out in the wings. As the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush notes:

“The reality is that not only is Starmer’s struggle to tackle the problem of Labour antisemitism not over, this specific row has not been resolved either. The EHRC’s statutory powers mean that rule changes will be made and a roster of complaints by the Campaign Against Antisemitism and others against Corbyn and 13 other sitting Labour MPs will once again go through the party’s processes.”

Most important is the message Corbyn’s reinstatement sends to British Jews – that after everything that has happened, the Labour Party as an institution still refuses to take their concerns seriously.

Starmer’s milquetoast response yesterday does not help either: his promise of that new, independent complaints system is all well and good, but it comes across as a bureaucratic response to what many see as an issue of basic morality. Voters, the vast majority of whom don’t give two hoots about internal processes, will also question why someone who won a thumping majority in the party’s leadership election now appears unable to control his own organisation.

Added to all this is a key question about party unity. Put simply, should Starmer try to unite Labour by appeasing the hard left, or by trying to drive them out altogether?

For those outside looking in, the latter option seems the obvious one. Not only are the crank left a constant embarrassment to a party with pretensions to government, but the Corbynite brand of Old Trot socialism has no place in Labour’s traditions, whatever their sanctimonious claims to be the authentic soul of the party.

Starmer should rediscover his ruthlessness and remove the whip from any other MPs who follow Corbyn’s lead, not only reducing their numbers but encouraging their noxious fellow travellers to leave the party of their own volition. And if they complain, he can always repeat the Corbynites’ favourite line about his massive mandate from the party membership.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.