Middle East Eye / February 27, 2023
By waging an all-out war on the left and its ideas, the Labour leader is strangling hope of change in a time of crisis and risks driving voters towards right-wing authoritarians.
There is a reason – and not the one given – why Labour Party leader Keir Starmer has announced that he is banning his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, from standing as a candidate for the party at the next general election.
Corbyn has been sitting as an independent since Starmer exiled him from the Labour benches in late 2020 – after Corbyn observed that it was for “political reasons” he faced years of evidence-free accusations the Labour Party was beset by antisemitism on his watch. He called the accusation “dramatically overstated”.
The official grounds for Corbyn being permanently barred from returning to the parliamentary party are that he has refused to apologize for his comment.
Announcing Corbyn’s exclusion as a candidate, Starmer said Labour would “never again be brought to its knees by racism or bigotry. If you don’t like that, if you don’t like the changes we have made, I say the door is open and you can leave”.
The establishment media – from right to supposed left – are trying to bolster Starmer’s claims about Corbyn and his supporters by continuing to weave a web of misrepresentations about the former leader being depraved and unhinged.
Antisemitism in Labour is apparently being kept at bay only because of Starmer’s vigilance, in contrast to Corbyn’s supposed indulgence. And, were Corbyn to be serving as prime minister today, we are warned, he would be taking “cranky” foreign policy decisions, like encouraging a diplomatic process to end the bloodshed in Ukraine.
No other political leader, not even Tony Blair, has haunted the thoughts of his successor – or the airwaves and pages of the billionaire-owned media – in quite the way Corbyn continues to do so.
Even a disastrous, if brief, prime minister like Liz Truss quickly faded from memory. Boris Johnson stays in the British public’s imagination only because the scandals and dramas he presided over are still playing out, and because in the crisis-plagued Conservative Party, he might yet manage to claw his way back into Downing Street.
So why the perennial concern about Corbyn, even as he languishes on the backbenches, outside the two-party chokehold on British politics, with no evident path back to power? Why does his shadow loom so large?
The reason has nothing to do with antisemitism or Corbyn’s criticisms of the West’s response to the Ukraine war – or rather, not in the sense Starmer and commentators would have you believe.
Like the media, Starmer wants not just the solitary figure of Corbyn gone from British politics. He wants to eradicate something far more dangerous to the establishment: Corbynism, the ideas of a fairer, more equal society the former Labour leader gave life to, as well as the potential grassroots movement he represents.
In his light-on-detail speech last week, Starmer set out his top “five missions”, in which he chiefly sought to present himself as a better steward of neoliberalism than the ruling Tory party.
But even in purdah, Corbyn continues to serve as a symbol.
Starmer’s efforts to disappear his predecessor from the Labour Party – and from British political life – has operated in tandem with his all-out war on a large section of the party’s members, who have been gradually driven from the ranks.
That has very much included Jewish Labour members standing in solidarity with Corbyn. Under Starmer, they have been ousted from the party in disproportionately large numbers.
Notably, that is a fact barely reported by the media because it flies in the face of their phoney narrative: both that antisemitism thrived under Corbyn and only under Corbyn; and that it is Starmer who is eradicating racism from the party.
Even YouGov polling found that already low levels of antisemitism in Labour actually reduced during Corbyn’s tenure as the party drew in huge numbers of new left-wing supporters, attracted by his anti-imperialist, anti-racist, more egalitarian agenda.
A paradox, also unremarked by the establishment media, is that Starmer waited to make his move against Corbyn until immediately after the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) announced it was ending its monitoring of Labour for antisemitism.
It was the EHRC’s 2020 report that paved the way to Corbyn’s removal from the Labour benches, after its conclusions were heavily misrepresented by the media.
Corbyn was judged to have interfered in antisemitism cases, with the implication that his office tried to stop antisemites from being expelled. The truth was the opposite, as the EHRC quietly conceded. His team “interfered” only in the sense that they tried to speed up the handling of disciplinary cases his right-wing opponents in the party bureaucracy stalled in a bid to fuel the antisemitism smears.
Starmer is interfering in disciplinary cases too – and doing so openly and proudly, including overturning a decision in late 2020 by his National Executive Committee to reinstate Corbyn as an MP. But this time the EHRC seems unconcerned.
The EHRC has given Starmer its official stamp of anti-racism approval even as his officials drive out Jewish members in unprecedented numbers. These are Jews whose mistreatment no one in public life seemingly cares about – because they back Corbyn.
Last week, hot on the heels of that stamp of approval, and mocking the idea that Starmer’s party is interested in tackling racism, Labour barred its local constituency parties from affiliating with a range of progressive groups.
Those included Jewish Voice for Labour, which represents Jews highly critical of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the main UK organization representing Palestinian interests, as well as Somalis for Labour, Sikhs for Labour and the All African Women’s Group.
The Equalities watchdog’s “special measures” on Labour are also apparently not needed even though prominent Black party members, such as former shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, also a Corbyn ally, complain that Starmer’s Labour has done nothing to address anti-Black racism exposed in the recent Forde Report.
The truth is that Starmer and the establishment media will not be satisfied until they have driven a stake through the heart of Corbynism, and its genuine commitment to anti-racism and a more egalitarian approach to the economy. That is why they have never sounded more desperate to vilify him and his supporters.
An outburst on BBC TV last week by Guardian columnist Rafael Behr skated exceptionally close to libeling not only Corbyn but the entire British left as frothing-at-the-mouth Jew haters.
As the saying goes, you can’t kill an idea. And the ideas Corbyn gave life to are even harder to kill when the country’s current leaders look not just inept but concerned only to asset-strip the ship before it goes down – while the best promised by Starmer, the opposition leader, is to slow down the looting.
Even to many of its admirers, capitalism, especially of today’s turbo-charged variety, increasingly looks mired in crisis. Bereft of solutions, its architects have to constantly peddle distractions and exploit emergencies, from the Ukraine war and growing tensions with China to the cost-of-living crisis and the pandemic.
In an age of climate breakdown, resulting from an over-consumption model impossible for our profit-driven corporations to wean themselves off, socialism’s appeal may quickly resurface – or, at least, that appears to be the establishment’s concern.
Karl Marx, the now unfashionable 19th-century political economist, observed that capitalism “sowed the seeds of its own destruction”. And sure enough, capitalism looks like it is being strangled by its own internal contradictions, forcing a stark choice between continuing wealth accumulation and our species’ survival on a finite planet.
The job of Britain’s politicians is not, of course, to air these contradictions or highlight their parties’ lack of solutions. It is to keep the ship on course, heading towards the iceberg. It is to keep underscoring threats from overseas “madmen”. It is to be in lockstep with NATO and its expansion through resource wars that further enrich the wealthy while justifying austerity for everyone else. And most fundamentally of all, it is to remain piously in thrall to the City and the euphemism of “economic growth”.
Any leader who refuses to abide by these stipulations faces a campaign of demonization, as Corbyn found to his cost.
Over the past three years, Starmer has been busy setting out his conditions for remaining in the Labour Party tent – parameters that just so happen to mirror precisely the British establishment’s requirements for legitimacy in public life.
Starmer demands simple-minded patriotism and an unwavering commitment to the West’s NATO military alliance and its aggressive posturing and expansion. He ostentatiously prioritizes the needs of big business and demurs about the right of those abused by neoliberalism to strike. He describes himself as a proud Zionist and decries any but the softest criticism of Israel as proof of antisemitism.
Alongside the anti-racist groups, Starmer has banned local constituency parties from affiliating with the Stop the War Coalition, which campaigns against the West’s endless military “interventions”, the Labour Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Corbyn’s Peace & Justice Project, and the Campaign Against Climate Change Trades Union Group.
In other words, in a system rigged to allow only two parties to contend for power, those who want Labour to serve as a vehicle for meaningful change are not welcome. Labour will not tolerate the struggle against imperialism, or efforts to stop endless resource wars, or trenchant opposition to Israel’s subjugation of the Palestinian people, or Britain’s further militarization, or anything more than tinkering with gross wealth disparities.
And it is not even ideological differences being cited as the grounds for expelling members from the country’s only major “socialist” party. It is based on smears: that they are racists, antisemites, and stooges of Vladimir Putin.
Even as he denied Corbyn the right to stand as a Labour candidate, Starmer gaslit members, telling them Labour “will never again be a party captured by narrow interests. It will never again lose sight of its purpose or its morals”.
But Corbyn’s effective expulsion bluntly sends exactly the opposite message: that Labour has been fully captured by the boss class and will not permit any dissent.
Coup de grace
One might have expected a little pushback, if only from Britain’s self-declared liberal-left daily newspaper, The Guardian. But its columnists have been largely reveling in Starmer delivering the coup de grace against Corbyn.
Sonia Sodha called the decision “morally correct” and “to Starmer’s credit”, while Polly Toynbee averred that excluding Corbyn was “inevitable” because the Labour Party could not afford to be even “a little bit racist”.
Those who suggest Starmer is the broom needed to clean out Labour’s stables will doubtless get the outcome they predict. Running against a ruling Conservative Party in disarray and led by stale, colourless leaders reeking of privilege in a party mired in cronyism, Starmer is almost certain to win the next election – if only by default.
And that is as far as most pundits wish to look. But politics has long-term trends too. Capitalism’s crises, just like climate breakdown, are not going away. They will intensify, as will popular alienation, frustration and anger.
That means those offering a program of radical change are going to prosper, and those clinging to a discredited status quo will face steady decline and marginalization. Voters will increasingly be drawn to figures promising decisive action over inaction.
In blocking the left from a visible political presence, in stifling its ideas and creativity in a time of crisis, Starmer is leaving the field open to the far right. They will be only too eager to highlight and exploit the deficiencies of a soulless Labour Party, one that pays no more than lip service to resolving Britain’s problems.
And they will doubtless also scapegoat the usual suspects – not the rich, not those in power, but immigrants, Jews and “communists” – who will be blamed for bringing the UK to its knees.
Ultimately, the smearing of Corbyn and the Labour left will bring about the very things the Labour right and the establishment media claim they seek to avert: Britain will become a darker, more racist, more authoritarian place.
Jonathan Cook is the author of three books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism