Mondoweiss / July 27, 2020
New leader Keir Starmer spurns two chances to clear Jeremy Corbyn’s name, preferring instead to pay damages to former staff.
Jeremy Corbyn, the former left-wing leader of Britain’s Labour party, is once again making headlines over an “antisemitism problem” he supposedly oversaw during his five years at the head of the party.
This time, however, the assault on his reputation is being led not by the usual suspects – pro-Israel lobbyists and a billionaire-owned media – but by Keir Starmer, the man who succeeded him.
Since becoming Labour leader in April, Starmer has helped to bolster the evidence-free narrative of a party plagued by antisemitism under Corbyn. That has included Starmer’s refusal to exploit two major opportunities to challenge that narrative.
Had those chances been grasped, Labour might have been able to demonstrate that Corbyn was the victim of an underhand campaign to prevent him from reaching power.
Starmer, had he chosen to, could have shown that Corbyn’s long history as an anti-racism campaigner was twisted to discredit him. His decades of vocal support for Palestinian rights were publicly recast as a supposed irrational hatred of Israel based on an antipathy to Jews.
But instead Starmer chose to sacrifice his predecessor rather than risk being tarred with the same brush.
As a result, Labour now appears to be on the brink of open war. Competing rumours suggest Corbyn may be preparing to battle former staff through the courts, while Starmer may exile his predecessor from the party.
Corbyn’s troubles were inevitable the moment the mass membership elected him Labour leader in 2015 in defiance of the party bureaucracy and most Labour MPs. Corbyn was determined to revive the party as a vehicle for democratic socialism and end Britain’s role meddling overseas as a junior partner to the global hegemon of the United States.
That required breaking with Labour’s capture decades earlier, under Tony Blair, as a party of neoliberal orthodoxy at home and neoconservative orthodoxy abroad.
Until Corbyn arrived on the scene, Labour had become effectively a second party of capital alongside Britain’s ruling Conservative party, replicating the situation in the US with the Democratic and Republican parties.
His attempts to push the party back towards democratic socialism attracted hundreds of thousands of new members, quickly making Labour the largest party in Europe. But it also ensured a wide-ranging alliance of establishment interests was arrayed against him, including the British military, the corporate media, and the pro-Israel lobby.
Unlike Corbyn, Starmer has not previously shown any inclination to take on the might of the establishment. In fact, he had previously proven himself its willing servant.
As head of Britain’s prosecution service in 2013, for example, his department issued thinly veiled threats to Sweden to continue its legal pursuit of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who had sought political asylum in London’s Ecuadorean embassy, even as Swedish interest in the case waned.
With his background in realpolitik, Starmer appears to have grasped quickly the danger of being seen to share any common ground with Corbyn – not only should he pursue significant elements of his predecessor’s program, but by challenging the carefully crafted establishment narrative around Corbyn.
For this reason, he has refused to seize either of the two chances presented to him to demonstrate that Labour had no more of an antisemitism problem than the relatively marginal one that exists more generally in British society.
That failure is likely to prove all the more significant given that in a matter of weeks Labour is expected to face the findings of an investigation by the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission.
The highly politicized watchdog body, which took on the probe into Labour while refusing to investigate plentiful evidence of an Islamophobia problem in the Conservative party, is expected to shore up the Corbyn-antisemitism narrative.
Labour has said it will readily accept the Commission’s findings, whatever they are. The watchdog body is likely to echo the prevailing narrative that Corbyn attracted left-wingers to the party who were ideologically tainted with antisemitism masquerading as anti-Zionism. As a result, or so the argument goes, Jew hatred flourished on his watch.
Starmer has already declared “zero tolerance” of antisemitism, but he has appeared willing – in line with pro-Israel lobbyists in his party – to conflate Jew hatred with trenchant criticism of Israel.
The barely veiled intention is to drive Corbynite members out of Labour – either actively through suspensions or passively as their growing disillusionment leads to a mass exodus.
By distancing himself from his predecessor, Starmer knows no dirt will stick to him even as the Equality Commission drags Corbyn’s name through the mud.
Sabotaged from within
Starmer rejected the first chance to salvage the reputations of Corbyn and the wider Labour membership days after he became leader.
In mid-April, an 850-page internal party report was leaked, stuffed with the text of lengthy email exchanges and WhatsApp chats by senior party staff. They showed that, as had long been suspected, Corbyn’s own officials worked hard to sabotage his leadership from within.
Staff at headquarters still loyal to the Blair vision of the party even went so far as to actively throw the 2017 general election, when Labour was a hair’s-breadth away from ousting the Conservatives from government. These officials hoped a crushing defeat would lead to Corbyn’s removal from office.
The report described a “hyper-factional atmosphere”, with officials, including then-deputy leader Tom Watson, regularly referring to Corbyn and his supporters as “Trots” – a reference to Leon Trotsky, one of the leaders of a violent Communist revolution in Russia more than a century ago.
Corbynites were thrown out of the party on the flimsiest pretexts, such as describing those like Blair who led the 2003 attack on Iraq as “warmongers”.
But one early, favoured tactic by staff in the disciplinary unit was to publicize antisemitism cases and then drag out their resolution to create the impression that the party under Corbyn was not taking the issue seriously.
These officials also loosened the definition of antisemitism to pursue cases against Corbyn’s supporters who, like him, were vocal in defending Palestinian rights or critical of Israeli policies.
This led to the preposterous situation where Labour was suspending and expelling anti-Zionist Jews who supported Corbyn on the grounds that they were supposedly antisemites, while action was delayed on dealing with a Holocaust denier.
The narrative against Corbyn being crafted by his own officials was eagerly picked up and amplified by the strong contingent of Blairites among Labour legislators in the parliament, as well as by the corporate media and by Israel lobbyists both inside and outside Labour.
Effort to bury report
The parties responsible for leaking the report in April did so because Labour, now led by Starmer, had no intention of publicizing it.
In fact, the report had been originally compiled as part of Labour’s submission to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, effectively giving Corbyn’s side of the story against his opponents.
But once Corbyn stepped down, the party bureaucracy under Starmer preferred to shelve it. That decision meant there would be no case for the defense, and Corbyn’s opponents’ claims would go unchallenged.
Once leaked, Starmer stuck to his position. Rather than use the report as an opportunity to expose the ugly campaign against Corbyn and thereby question the antisemitism narrative, Starmer did his level best to bury it from sight.
He vowed to investigate “the circumstances in which the report was put into the public domain”. That sounded ominously like a threat to hound those who had tried to bring to light the party’s betrayal of its previous leader.
Rather than accept the evidence presented in the leaked report of internal corruption and the misuse of party funds, Starmer set up an inquiry under QC Martin Forde to investigate the earlier investigation.
The Forde inquiry looked like Starmer’s effort to kick the damaging revelations into the long grass.
The British media gave the leaked report – despite its earth-shattering revelations of Labour officials sabotaging an election campaign – little more than perfunctory coverage.
A second, related chance to challenge the Corbyn-antisemitism narrative reached its conclusion last week. And again, Starmer threw in Labour’s hand.
In July last year – long before the report had been leaked – the BBC’s prestige news investigation show Panorama set out to answer a question it posed in the episode’s title: “Is Labour Antisemitic?”
The program presented eight former staff as “whistleblowers”, their testimonies supposedly exposing Corbyn’s indulgence of antisemitism. They included those who would soon be revealed in the leaked report as intractable ideological enemies of the Corbyn project and others who oversaw the dysfunctional complaints process that dragged its heels on resolving antisemitism cases.
The Panorama program was dismal even by the low standards of political reporting set by the BBC in the Corbyn era.
The show made much of the testimony of pro-Israel lobbyists inside the Labour party belonging to a group called the Jewish Labour Movement. They were not identified – either by name or by affiliation – despite being given the freedom to make anecdotal and unspecified claims of antisemitism against Corbyn and his supporters.
The BBC’s decision not to name these participants had nothing to do with protecting their identities, even though that was doubtless the impression conveyed to the audience.
Most were already known as Israel partisans because they had been exposed in a 2017 four-part Al-Jazeera undercover documentary called The Lobby. They were filmed colluding with an Israeli embassy official, Shai Masot, to bring down Corbyn. The BBC did not identify these pro-Israel activists presumably because they had zero credibility as witnesses.
Nonetheless, a seemingly stronger case – at least, at the time – was made by the eight former Labour staff. Their testimonies to the BBC suggested they had been hampered and bullied by Corbyn’s team as they tried to stamp out antisemitism.
Panorama allowed these claims to go unchallenged, even though with a little digging it could have tapped sources inside Labour who were already compiling what would become the leaked report, presenting a very different view of these self-styled “whistleblowers”.
The BBC also failed to talk to Jewish Voice for Labour, a group of Labour party members supportive of Corbyn who challenged the way the Jewish Labour Movement had manipulated the definition of antisemitism in the party to harm Palestinian solidarity activists.
And the BBC did not call as counter-witnesses any of the anti-Zionist Jews who were among the earliest victims of the purge of supposed antisemites by Labour’s apparent “whistleblowers”.
Instead, it selectively quoted from an email by Seumas Milne, Corbyn’s chief adviser, to suggest that he had interfered in the disciplinary process to help antisemites avoid suspension.
Proper context from the BBC would have revealed that Milne had simply expressed concern at how the rule book was being interpreted when several Jews had been suspended for antisemitism – and that he had proffered his view only because a staff member now claiming to be a whistleblower had asked for it.
This section of the Panorama show looked suspiciously like entrapment of Milne by Labour staff, followed by collusion from the BBC in promoting their false narrative.
Despite these and many other serious flaws in the Panorama episode, it set the tone for subsequent discussion of the “antisemitism problem” in Labour.
The program aired a few months before a general election, last December, that Corbyn lost to Boris Johnson and the ruling Conservative party.
One of the key damaging, “gotcha” moments of the campaign was an interview with the veteran BBC interviewer Andrew Neil in which he repeatedly asked Corbyn to apologize for antisemitism in the party, as had been supposedly exposed by Panorama. Corbyn’s refusal to respond directly to the question left him looking evasive and guilty.
With the rest of the media amplifying the Panorama claims rather than testing them, it has become the accepted benchmark for judging the Corbyn era. The show has even been nominated for a Bafta award, the British equivalent to an Oscar.
Shortly after the program aired, Corbyn’s team disputed the Panorama narrative, saying it had contained “deliberate and malicious misrepresentations designed to mislead the public”. They also described the “whistleblowers” as disaffected former staff with “political axes to grind”.
Ware and seven of the former staff members who appeared in the program launched a defamation action against the Labour party.
After the internal report was leaked in April, the legal scales tipped decisively in Labour’s favour. Starmer was reportedly advised by lawyers that the party would be well-positioned to defeat the legal action and clear Corbyn and the party’s name.
But again Starmer preferred to fold. Before the case could be tested in court, Starmer issued an apology last week to the ex-staff members and Ware, and paid them a six-figure sum in damages.
Admitting that “antisemitism has been a stain on the Labour Party in recent years”, the statement accepted the claims of the ex-staff to be “whistleblowers”, even capitalizing the word to aggrandize their status.
It said: “We acknowledge the many years of dedicated and committed service that the Whistleblowers have given to the Labour Party … We unreservedly withdraw all allegations of bad faith, malice and lying.”
Threat of bankruptcy
With typical understatement, Corbyn said he was “disappointed” at the settlement, calling it a “political decision, not a legal one”. He added that it “risks giving credibility to misleading and inaccurate allegations about action taken to tackle antisemitism in the Labour party in recent years.”
Starmer’s decision also pre-empted – and effectively nullified – the Forde inquiry, which was due to submit its own findings on antisemitism in Labour later in the year.
Many in the party were infuriated that their membership dues had been used to pay off a group of ex-staff who, according to the leaked report, had undermined the party’s elected leader and helped to throw a general election.
But in what looked disturbingly like a move to silence Corbyn, Ware said he was consulting lawyers once again about launching a legal battle, personally against the former Labour leader, over his criticism of the settlement.
Mark Lewis, the solicitor acting for Ware and the whistleblowers, has said he is also preparing an action for damages against Labour on behalf of 32 individuals named in the leaked report. Among them is Lord Iain McNichol, who served as the party’s general secretary at the time.
Lewis reportedly intends to focus on staff privacy breaches under the Data Protection Act, disclosure of private information and alleged violations of employment law.
Conversely, Mark Howell, a Labour party member, has initiated an action against Labour and McNichol seeking damages for “breach of contract”. He demands that those named in the leaked report be expelled from the party.
He is also reported to be considering referring named staff members to the Crown Prosecution Service under the 2006 Fraud Act for their failure to uphold the interests of party members who paid staff salaries.
This spate of cases threatens to haemorrhage money from the party. There have been warnings that financial settlements, as well as members deserting the party in droves, could ultimately bankrupt Labour.
Corbyn to be expelled?
Within days of the apology, a crowdfunding campaign raised more than £280,000 for Corbyn to clear his name in any future legal actions.
Given his own self-serving strategy, Starmer would doubtless be embarrassed by such a move. There are already rumours that he is considering withdrawing the party whip from Corbyn – a form of exile from the party.
Pressure on him to do so is mounting. At the weekend it was reported that ex-staff might drop the threatened case over the embarrassing revelations contained in the leaked report should Starmer expel Corbyn.
Quoting someone it described as a “well-placed source”, the Mail on Sunday newspaper set out the new stakes. “Labour says they have zero tolerance to anti-Semitism. Zero tolerance means no Corbyn and no Corbynistas,” the source said.
There are already reports of what amounts to a purge of left-wing members from Labour.
Starmer has committed to upholding “10 Pledges” produced by the Board of Deputies – a conservative Jewish leadership organization hostile to Corbyn and the left – that places it and the pro-Israel lobbyists of the Jewish Labour Movement in charge of deciding what constitutes antisemitism in the party.
Starmer’s decision about who can serve in his shadow cabinet is a reminder that the storm over Corbyn was never about real antisemitism – the kind that targets Jews for being Jews. It was a pretext to be rid of the Corbyn project and democratic socialism.
By contrast, he has happily indulged the kind of antisemitism that harms Jews as long as it comes from members of his shadow cabinet who are not associated with Corbyn.
And Steve Reed is still the shadow communities secretary, even though this month he referred to a Jewish newspaper tycoon, Richard Desmond, as a “puppet master” – the very definition of an antisemitic trope.
Starmer’s “zero tolerance” appears to be highly selective – more concerned about harsh criticism of a state, Israel, than the othering of Jews. Tellingly, Starmer has been under no serious pressure from the Jewish Labour Movement, or from the media or from Jewish leadership organizations such as the Board of Deputies to take any action against either Reeves or Reed.
He has moved swiftly against leftists in his party who criticize Israel but has shrugged his shoulders at supposed “moderates” who, it could be argued, have encouraged or glorified hatred and suspicion of Jews.
But then the antisemitism furore was never about safeguarding Jews. It was about creating a cover story as the establishment protected itself from democratic socialism.
Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism; his latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books)