When Keir Starmer made his statement to the public yesterday, it sounded fairly reasonable. “I will not allow a focus on one individual,” he said, “to prevent us from doing the vital work of tackling antisemitism.”
It might sound reasonable, but it fundamentally misses the point. Labour antisemitism was never simply about one man in the same way that any instance of institutional racism isn’t simply about one person: for an institution to be overrun by racism, it requires the complicity of many lay people, acting alongside those in positions of power. One bad apple does not create a monster of these gargantuan proportions. Despots and bigots the world over count on people’s fears, desire to belong, and thirst for power, to carry out their actions. Mob bosses are powerless without the mob.
In Labour, just as in other organisations, one person alone is not enough to generate systemic injustice on a large scale. But in reality, Keir Starmer’s statement is wrong: Labour antisemitism was really about one man. Jeremy Corbyn enabled antisemitism in the Labour Party. He did this through his incompetence in dealing with complaints, through his endorsement of an ideology that appealed to antisemites, and in his direct interference in the complaints process. It is impossible to tackle Labour antisemitism without tackling the man who allowed it to happen. There is a reason that the Equality and Human Rights Commission dedicated an entire chapter of its report to Corbyn’s failures of leadership: it was clear that the rot began at the top. Corbyn’s office was found guilty of intervening in the complaints process, ostensibly to prevent racists being held to account. They even ensured that Corbyn himself was not subject to a disciplinary hearing when complaints were made against him.
Yesterday’s NEC decision to readmit Corbyn is a symptom of the old, dirty politics his faction of the Labour Party encouraged. It shrieks of factional politics, decided in smoke-filled rooms behind closed doors. It is a far cry from the transparent, independent complaints process Starmer claimed to advocate a month ago. Rumours that Len McCluskey, head of the large Unite union, had threatened to defund the Labour Party unless Corbyn’s case was fixed in his favour, abound on social media. Whether they are true or not is beside the point. It’s easy to see how they could be stuff of fact: that is bad enough.
When the Labour Party’s disciplinary body met to decide Corbyn’s fate yesterday, it wasn’t basing its decision on Corbyn’s complicity in Labour antisemitism, but on the personal statement he made after the EHRC published its findings. Corbyn yesterday published a non-apology for his earlier comments – in which he failed to denounce them – on various social media platforms, which presumably was enough to placate the disciplinary panel. This non-apology did not, if social media is anything to go by, placate the countless Jewish people and anti-racism campaigners who have dedicated years of their lives to tackling the problem. Those are, crucially, the people Labour should really care about. The victims of racism should matter more than factional politics, and reinstating Corbyn sends entirely the wrong message.
Keir Starmer’s position isn’t to be envied. He cannot himself intervene in the disciplinary process without contravening his commitment to implement the EHRC’s recommendations. The very problem at the heart of Labour antisemitism was that the complaints process had become politicised – and could there be anything more political than him standing against a decision made by Labour’s disciplinary panel?
But if Starmer really means to depoliticise the complaints process, as he said after the EHRC published its findings, yesterday’s case demonstrates he has a long way to go. It’s hard to spin yesterday’s decision in Labour’s favour, and they’re bound to take a hit at the polls as a result. Mere weeks after Corbyn’s suspension from the party, his case was decided by a political panel of hyper-partisan NEC members, who presumably have not yet been given the requisite antisemitism training recommended in the EHRC report. The best solution to this problem would have been to delay Corbyn’s case, so it could be decided by an external, independent body – just as the EHRC recommended. The question really remains as to why this didn’t happen. Who made the decision to rush this crucial case?
And so we arrive at Keir Starmer’s statement. He is stuck between a rock and a hard place: unable to intervene in the unlawful processes that have continued in spite of the EHRC report’s damning verdict. It’s old, grubby, politics as usual, and Starmer has found himself neutered. His statement seems reasonable given the circumstances: it is measured, even thoughtful. It acknowledges the victims who should be – yet clearly aren’t – at the centre of Labour’s considerations when processing complaints. And so Starmer is left with nothing to say – nothing he can say – other than a cry of “this is all a bit rubbish – isn’t it?”. The most he can do is ensure Corbyn’s whip remains removed – which, to his credit, he has done. Bar these few anaemic statements I picture him locking himself in his office, away from the pitchforks, praying this will all die down.
And to those of us who have spent years dedicated to fighting antisemitism in Labour, we find the decision to readmit Corbyn spreads beyond the man. Even if the problem started with him, it won’t end there. Wherever you stand on the subject of Labour antisemitism, this decision allows bitter factional disputes to resurface, and the intractable war in Labour to continue. The bullies and racists of social media have been emboldened – their guy just proved that he is unimpeachable. And this is the problem. This isn’t really Corbyn’s day, but theirs.