The suspension of Jeremy Corbyn from the Labour Party comes as no surprise to those who have been watching developments over the past few years, writes Roger Benjamin. This was always the aim of the witchhunters, who have been waging a war against Corbyn for several years. But this is not the end of their campaign, as the letter from the misnamed Campaign Against Antisemitism to Starmer shows. They are now demanding action against dozens of MPs and other leading party members, including Diane Abbott, Rebecca Long Bailey, Angela Rayner and Zarah Sultana – and the surprise will be if this demand is ignored.
It is clear that this step was planned and intended. As with the demotion of Rebecca Long Bailey, Starmer took the first opportunity he could to find a specious excuse for what he would inevitably done sooner or later. He has learnt from Corbyn’s failure to defeat the plots against him that ruthlessness is necessary, and pays off. It was always an error to make any concessions to this campaign, and Corbyn is now paying the price for this forlorn attempt to appease the attackers.
There is no good outcome to this now. If Starmer relents and lifts the suspension, or if the NEC refuses to act on it and not expel Corbyn, then the relentless attack will continue, with Starmer himself as the next target. If Corbyn is expelled, then thousands will surely leave the party in solidarity – almost certainly including several MPs. And the witchhunt will still continue. The worst possible (and unlikeliest) outcome would be if Corbyn himself recanted and apologised – thus legitimising further attacks on those of us who continue to advocate for Palestinian rights and against Israel and Zionism.
We now have to fight this politically. Even if Corbyn is forced to take legal action in defence of his rights (and the defence fund now stands at over £350,000), a legal victory will amount to nothing if the same people remain in control of the party.
Although the action against Corbyn was predictable, it is still salutary to note that the Labour Party’s first response to a report critical of its lack of due process, transparency and fairness in its disciplinary procedures was to suspend the party’s former leader with a complete lack of fairness, transparency and due process.
The report by the Equality and Human rights Commission (EHRC) into “antisemitism in the Labour Party” was designed to reach its pre-ordained conclusions. But even so, the report’s conclusions do not reflect the evidence that they cite. After noting example after example of unfair treatment of the subjects of complaints, after specifically noting that the procedures employed against targets such as Jackie Walker and Chris Williamson were irregular, after holding the Labour Party itself responsible for acts of people in the party office who were working overtime to sabotage Corbyn’s leadership (as established by the leaked internal enquiry, which the LP refused to submit to the EHRC), the report finds that the party “committed unlawful harassment of its members, contrary to section 101(4)(a) of the Equality Act 2010, related to race (Jewish ethnicity)” on just two occasions.
Both of these were acts by individuals held by the EHRC to be acting as agents of the party. One of these incidents was Ken Livingstone’s statement in support of the MP Naz Shah, who was facing disciplinary charges for sharing a Facebook post by the New York Jewish scholar Norman Finkelstein. It is a serious stretch to discern anything antisemitic in this, and even harder to see how this can constitute unlawful behaviour by the party itself. The other case was a series of dubious Facebook posts by a councillor, which led to her expulsion from the party. Whether or not one accepts these as antisemitic, it is surely exaggerated to hold the Labour Party legally responsible for them, since they led directly to her expulsion.
When considering the responsibility for acts carried out by Labour Party staff detrimental to the fair conduct of investigations, the report finds that “It does not matter for our analysis whether the formal process was instigated by LOTO [leader of the opposition] staff or by GLU [Governance and Legal Unit] staff. They were all Labour Party employees acting in the course of their employment when they set up this system, therefore the Labour Party is responsible for their actions” i.e., the Labour Party itself is held legally accountable for the actions of people consciously acting to undermine the leadership.
The EHRC is hardly a neutral body. It has been criticised by a former commissioner for not having a single Black or Muslim member, and for its repeated refusal to investigate hundreds of complaints about Islamophobia in the Conservative Party. It has also been accused of “unfairly targeting black and minority ethnic employees for compulsory redundancies”. One of its ten commissioners is a financial donor to the Conservative Party, while another is married to a donor to the Campaign Against Antisemitism, which submitted the original complaint. A further two are employed by a law firm which represents the Conservative Party. Given these biases and conflicts of interest, the commission’s conclusions were hardly surprising.
Corbyn’s “offence” appears to have been his statement in response to the report that “One antisemite is one too many, but the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media”. This is perfectly true, as Roland Rance has previously noted. It is deplorable that such an innocuous comment has been used in order to marginalise the former, and still highly popular, leader of the party. What is equally shocking is the failure of most of the so-called Labour left to defend Corbyn’s statement. Although there have been many calls for his reinstatement, these have generally been based on his past record, rather than on the specific reason for his suspension. No Labour MP has explicitly endorsed Corbyn’s assessment, and some, while calling for his reinstatement, have criticised him and called on him to apologise.
But there is no room for concessions or compromise here. The witchhunters will not be satisfied until Corbyn has been humiliated and driven out of the party, together with anyone who stands by him. In the face of this attack, calls for “party unity” are misplaced calls for the left to capitulate. At the same time, calls to leave the party in disgust are a different form of surrender – as well as giving the witch hunters some of what they want. Labour Party members should remain in the party, and fight for the immediate and unconditional restoration of Jeremy Corbyn’s membership, and that of all those unjustly disciplined over the past few years. There will be attempts to proscribe such a fight, which must be resisted. And there will doubtless be further suspensions and expulsions. But for as long as possible, this fight must continue.
And meanwhile, both inside and outside the Labour Party, activists must continue to speak and act in support of the Palestinian people’s struggle for liberation, and against Zionist racism and the Israeli apartheid state.