Labour on brink of civil war after Keir Starmer bars Jeremy Corbyn from sitting as party MP

Andrew Woodcock

The Independent  /  November 18, 2020

Former leader forced to sit as independent in Commons.

Labour stands on the brink of civil war after a defiant response from the party’s left wing to leader Sir Keir Starmer’s decision to block Jeremy Corbyn from sitting as a Labour MP.

Sir Keir said his predecessor had “undermined” efforts to restore confidence in the party’s ability to tackle antisemitism following a damning report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission last month.

Some 28 MPs – almost one in seven of the parliamentary party – signed a letter demanding the former leader’s reinstatement, while the leader of the Unite union, Len McCluskey, denounced the withholding of the Labour whip as “vindictive and vengeful”.

Describing Mr Corbyn’s treatment as “persecution”, Mr McCluskey, whose union is Labour’s biggest financial donor, told Starmer to “pull back from the brink”.

Meanwhile, a draft motion was being circulated to constituency branches to hold votes calling on the leadership to restore the whip.

And a snap YouGov poll suggested the party’s supporters are split on the issue, with 38 per cent saying Starmer was right, but 32 per cent believing he was wrong not to reinstate Corbyn.

Former party chair Ian Lavery said ordinary members were concerned that the decision might amount to “political persecution of the former leader”, who will now have to sit as an independent MP in the Commons.

But Starmer was pressed to stand firm by MPs and campaigners against antisemitism who were horrified by Tuesday’s decision by a party disciplinary board to end Corbyn’s suspension as a member. It is understood that a number of MPs warned they would resign if the former leader was readmitted to the parliamentary party.

Senior backbencher Dame Margaret Hodge, who was herself subjected to a disciplinary process after branding Corbyn an antisemite, made clear she had considered quitting Labour, declaring that the National Executive Committee decision “made me question my own place in the party”.

And the Board of Deputies of British Jews said the lifting of Mr Corbyn’s suspension showed that Labour’s disciplinary system was “clearly still not fit for purpose”.

Conservative MP Christian Wakefield, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on British Jews, wrote to the EHRC, urging it to instruct Labour to halt all disciplinary proceedings until the introduction of an independent process in the new year.

He suggested that the hearing of the NEC’s disputes panel had been “arbitrarily” rushed through to avoid the case being dealt with under the new arrangements.

Announcing his decision, Sir Keir said: “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’s ability to tackle antisemitism.

“In those circumstances, I have taken the decision not to restore the whip to Jeremy Corbyn. I will keep this situation under review.”

By leaving the door open to a review of Mr Corbyn’s position, Starmer appeared to be seeking to ensure a final decision is made by the independent panel rather than the leadership.

A letter from the Socialist Campaign Group, signed by 28 MPs including former shadow cabinet members John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and Richard Burgon as well as four Labour peers, effectively accused Sir Keir of overruling the NEC decision.

Mr Corbyn’s reinstatement was “correct” and “should be implemented across all levels of the party”, said the letter, warning that withholding the whip would damage Labour and undermine “efforts to unite to defeat antisemitism”.

Former shadow chancellor Mr McDonnell said the action was “just plain wrong” and would cause “more division and disunity in the party”.

Ms Abbott, who served as shadow home secretary under Mr Corbyn, said removing the whip “raises serious questions of due process”.

And Mr Burgon said: “Jeremy should immediately have the whip restored. At a time of national crisis, division in the Labour party serves nobody but the Tory government.”

In a blunt statement on Twitter, Mr McCluskey said that the move “despoils party democracy and due process alike and amounts to overruling the unanimous decision of the NEC panel yesterday to readmit him to the party”.

Warning that the unity of the party was being “recklessly undermined”, the Unite boss said: “The continued persecution of Jeremy Corbyn, a politician who inspired millions, by a leadership capitulating to external pressure on party procedures risks destroying the unity and integrity of the party.

“I urge Keir Starmer in the strongest terms to pull back from the brink.”

The chairman of the Corbyn-supporting grassroots movement Momentum described the decision as a “blatant political attack on the left”.

Recent NEC elections showed there was “a clear socialist majority” among Labour members, said Andrew Scattergood, adding: “Together we will fight for a socialist Labour Party … They can’t remove the whip from our movement.”  

But Dame Margaret said: “As Corbyn has refused to himself accept the findings of the EHRC report, refused to apologise for his actions and refused to take any responsibility, withholding the whip is the right decision.”

And Board of Deputies president Marie van der Zyl said Sir Keir had “taken the appropriate leadership decision not to restore the whip to Jeremy Corbyn”.

Labour Against Antisemitism said Sir Keir’s move was a “welcome gesture” but criticised the “disgraceful events” that saw the former leader’s suspension from the party ended.

And the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism charity told Sir Keir to “get a grip” of the Labour Party, saying that withholding the whip from Mr Corbyn is “offering the Jewish community crumbs”.

Mr Corbyn was suspended as a member of both Labour and the parliamentary party last month after refusing to accept all of the EHRC’s findings in a statement in which he claimed the scale antisemitism had been “dramatically overstated for political reasons” by political opponents.

His reinstatement in the party came after he issued a statement accepting that concerns about antisemitism were neither “exaggerated” nor “overstated”.

Andrew Woodcock – political editor