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Somewhat overshadowed yesterday was the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s declaration that, after 839 days in purgatory, the Labour Party has now exited the special measures it was placed into over antisemitism allegations. The context of this highlights Keir Starmer’s ongoing battle with his party’s Left – and particularly Jeremy Corbyn, his exiled predecessor.
In 2019, Labour became the second British political party after the BNP to be investigated by our human rights watchdog. In 2020, the EHRC produced a decidedly critical report on the party’s handling of complaints. It charged the party as having unlawfully discriminated against individuals and proposed a reform agenda.
Fast forward two years and Starmer has successfully satisfied the scrutineers that his party has made amends. Throughout his leadership, he has been clear that “the most pressing and urgent change” required by Labour is in dealing with antisemitism. As he put it in The Times, welcoming the EHRC’s decision, “antisemitism is an evil” – and his party had “become an incubator for this poison”.
It is welcome that His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition is no longer considered to harbour anti-Jewish prejudice, it was not this that led the headlines. Instead, the focus was on Starmer’s comments to journalists. “Let me very clear,” he intoned. “Jeremy Corbyn will not stand for Labour at the next general election.”
Magic Grandpa was not pleased. Corbyn remains a Labour member, but had the whip removed in October 2020, after suggesting in response to the ECHR’s report that antisemitism allegations had been hyped up for political reasons. He protests his semi-detached status and considers efforts to prevent his candidacy “a denial of due process” that should abhor “anybody who believes…in democracy”.
Readers will not be surprised that I’m unsympathetic to his plight. His situation is the consequence of his own pig-headed arrogance; the dismissal of his clique from Labour’s leadership was one of the many benefits of the 2019 election result. His absence from the House of Commons would be no loss.
Nevertheless, Starmer’s dismal of his predecessor to Siberia comes just as Labour attempt to take five Corbyn supporters to court. They have been blamed for leaking what the BBC calls a “controversial internal party document”, including private emails and messages, which have been used by Corbynistas – holding out like Hiroo Onoda in the jungles of leftie Twitter – to exonerate the Corbyn leadership.
Unfortunately for Starmer, the Information Commissioner has decided not to prosecute three of the supporters due to “insufficient evidence” information had been obtained unlawfully. This will likely hamper Labour’s case – and the lawyers of the five have said they will aim to recoup their costs. Since there has been some suggestion that these could run to £3-4 million, this is a headache for Labour with a general election approaching.
Naturally, some on the Left have suggested Labour drop the case as a partisan mistake distracting – sigh – from ‘taking the fight to the Tories’. So why is Starmer pursuing it? Sunk cost fallacy, one imagines, and a lawyerly faith in their case’s merits. But as with Corbyn’s expulsion from the parliamentary party, this move is designed for the voters as much as his own party.
Starmer wants his Clause IV moment, his orchestrated face-off with Militant. Corbyn took Labour to its worst election result since 1935. To go from opposition to government in a single election requires Starmer to move on from the Corbyn era as quickly as possible. Driving his predecessor and his acolytes out of the party – even via the courts – is the fastest way to do that.
Furthermore, by burying Corbyn, Starmer aims to bury his own inconvenient past. He served in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet and bounced his leader into backing his disastrous second referendum policy. Nine months before he kicked Corbyn out of the parliamentary party, he labelled him a “friend”, and promised continuity with his policies. He did not aim to distance himself from a man he supported.
But Starmer is a simple man: he wants be in Downing Street, and will do what it takes to get there. He has surrounded himself with New Labour types who have hauled Labour back from the Left once before. So Starmer is wrapping himself in the flag, accepting Brexit, and telling his opponents to shut up or go away. The student republican becomes a knight and eulogises Elizabeth II; the ex-Corbynista becomes Prime Minister.
Will the voters be convinced? I’ve always been more sceptical of claims of ‘long Corbyn’ than most. Starmer makes an unconvincing Wolfie Smith, and, if the Tories are sufficiently dire, no memory of Magic Grandpa will keep the Red Wall from going, erm, red. So Starmer might be making a very expensive bet – especially if those rumours of a Corbyn run for London Mayor are true.
As I have written before, a Corbyn cut lose from the Labour Party could be a dangerous prospect for Starmer, and a potential roadblock to a third Sadiq Khan term. For the time being, rejoice, rejoice, rejoice in the news that the Opposition is no longer – officially, at least – incubating the horrors of antisemitism.