Keir Starmer’s decision to suspend Jeremy Corbyn shows a courage so many lacked when the far left ran the party from 2015 until 2019. Do not underestimate the risks he is running.
Starmer might have let Corbyn’s characteristically conspiratorial remark that anti-Semitism in the Labour party had been ‘dramatically overstated for political reasons’ pass. He must have guessed that Corbyn in his arrogance and delusion would reject or choose to ignore the findings of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission that his own staff interfered with investigations into anti-Semitism. It wouldn't be out of character.
Corbyn’s time as party leader, indeed his whole life, has shown him to be willing to dismiss hard facts with paranoid insinuations of a put-up job. And he wasn’t going to change now. Who in his view had ‘overstated’ left-wing racism? In his habitual passive-aggressive style, Corbyn cleverly let the question hang in the air like smog. The Labour right, the actual right, or the ‘Zionists’? His supporters could take their pick as long as they accepted that he was the innocent victim of a conspiracy.
It’s easy for outsiders to condemn Corbyn, But from the point of view of the Labour leadership, the easy course was to avoid a civil war by muttering a few careful words and moving on. Do not allow this shameful fact to escape you, most Labour members would have preferred it if Starmer had taken the easy course.
If you want to know how otherwise respectable people go along with extremism, the history of the British Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is a near perfect case study. No one held a gun to Labour members' heads. No one threatened them or their families. Except in the case of the Labour MPs and councillors the left forced out, no one’s job was on the line. Still hundreds of thousands of people within Labour and other leftish institutions bit their tongues as if they were the oppressed subjects of an appalling tyranny, which would put them against a wall if they showed basic decency.
The only risks to British leftists during the Corbyn years were social. People they once took to be their friends and allies would scream that they were ‘zios,’ or members of a Jewish conspiracy against Palestinians, or playing the right’s game by ‘weaponising’ anti-Semitism and dealing in ‘smears’. More usually, there would be an irritated stare, which announced that racism against Jews was a ‘distraction’ you were not meant to discuss. It was as if dictatorship had come to Britain, and found to its surprise that it did not need guns or dogs and could get by with Twitter and the urge to conform. They are what Donald Trump has used to control the Republican party, after all.
Keir Starmer was one of those who went along with Corbyn. He served in his shadow cabinet when better and braver Labour politicians spoke out. Starmer’s leadership campaign earlier this year did nothing to upset the staggering and shamefully large number of Labour members (71 per cent, according to one poll) who regarded Corbyn with affection.
Starmer’s decision to suspend Corbyn pending an investigation risks a complete break with Unite and other unions under far left control, and the resignation of their allies in the Parliamentary and constituency Labour parties. It illuminates an argument that thousands had with their friends or with themselves during a time when it has never been harder to be a man or woman of honour and remain a part of the British left. Do I make a stand on principle and walk away? Or do I keep my head down and resolve to fight from the inside when the moment comes?
As with all moral dilemmas, there was no right answer. The British electoral system means that Labour is the only viable alternative to a Conservative government. Walk away and you leave Labour in the hands of creeps, who leaving everything else aside – and there is a lot to leave aside – can never win an election. Change can only come from within, you say. So you stay and bide your time as Starmer and most of the shadow cabinet did. Or you refuse to allow your good name to be impugned and fight back, as all those Labour MPs and members who resigned from the party did.
This was not a theoretical debate. Real Jews were harassed and intimidated during the Corbyn years. Real people had their lives ruined. This morning’s Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report on Labour anti-Semitism is a legal document. Quite properly, it does not offer a political analysis of how a racist ideology that developed on the Islamist extreme right and Stalinist remnants of the far left came to dominate Labour. Nor does it discuss why the largest part of the Labour movement stood by while the left targeted Jewish Labour MPs.
Nevertheless, the Commission shows how, contrary to all its denials, Corbyn’s office interfered in complaints about racism to protect its master. They wanted Labour to ignore Corbyn’s defence of a mural in the East End of London whose depiction of greedy, hook-nosed Jewish bankers playing monopoly on the backs of suffering humanity was straight out of fascist iconography. It’s worth dwelling on this episode because it shows there was never the smallest doubt that Corbyn and those around him came from a world steeped in conspiracy theory. Corbyn himself worked for the propaganda station of the Iranian dictatorship. He stood by while Jewish women (and it was nearly always women) were hounded by his friends, when a word from him would have called off the men attacking Luciana Berger, Ruth Smeeth, and Louise Ellman.
I could go on, but my wider point needs emphasising: the majority of people on the left refused to see what was in front of their eyes. Now Starmer is forcing them to look.
My guess is that he will win through. Although suspending Corbyn will cause conflict in the party and trade unions, it will do Labour no harm whatsoever in the country, and popularity for a party so long out of power is worth having.
Keir Starmer’s manner will help him too. He is not launching into the far left with the moral outrage of an ideologue who will further inflame Labour’s factional war, but with the precision and calm you would expect from a former director of public prosecutions.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission has produced a report the Labour party is legally bound to accept, he will say. It is not an opinion or a point of view, but an anti-racist statement that must be heeded. You cannot dismiss it as Jeremy Corbyn did, by saying that anti-Semitism has been ‘dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media’.
Or, rather you can, but you cannot remain a member of the Labour party if you do.