Over the last few days, there have been fresh developments in Labour’s antisemitism rows — developments that shine a light on the different approaches taken by former party leader Jeremy Corbyn and his successor Keir Starmer. There are a few strands to follow here, and we need to go back a bit to pick these up in a way that makes sense now.
In July 2019, the BBC aired a Panorama documentary made by John Ware, entitled ‘Is Labour Antisemitic?’, which featured whistleblowers from the party talking about their experiences of the complaints process. Immediately after the broadcast, the Labour party issued a statement describing the whistleblowers and Ware as motivated by factionalism — of using the documentary to undermine Corbynism.
There are certainly warring factions in the party; there have been for decades. The rows between the different wings of the party (let’s simplify them a bit and call them the liberals and the progressives, so that it translates a bit more easily) have often become heated, toxic and vicious. No-one is denying that these factions exist. Corbyn represented a shift to the progressive side after a long period of liberals running the show.
Jump ahead to December 2019, when Corbyn announces that he is stepping down as party leader once a new leader is elected. His preferred candidate is Rebecca Long Bailey. Keir Starmer wins, but places Long Bailey in a key role in his shadow cabinet, in an attempt to smooth over factional divisions. Starmer is on the liberal side of the party, though he wasn’t an overt enemy of Corbyn like some of the other liberals who had refused to work in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet. Starmer vowed to act more decisively on antisemitism within the party.
During all of this, the Labour party was under investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. In April 2020, a report was leaked to the press; it had been commissioned by Jennie Formby, the party’s then General Secretary, and it was intended to be submitted to the EHRC as evidence that “Jeremy Corbyn’s attempts to tackle antisemitism were hampered by factional hostility”.
This 860-page report made for grim reading and certainly indicated that there was significant factionalism in play within the party, and that outside of Team Corbyn, there were a lot of key party figures who were keen for him to fail. It didn’t, however, prove that the accusations of antisemitism were baseless. Labour’s lawyers blocked it from being submitted to the EHRC, but it was leaked anyway. For Corbynites, it was a smoking gun that proved Corbyn was the victim of a smear campaign. For the liberals, it was another instance of the progressives missing the point — well done, you spent 860 pages showing that people post awful messages about their colleagues on Whatsapp; that doesn’t really answer the question at hand. Even the shocking revelation that key figures wanted Corbyn to lose hard in 2017 so that he could be replaced by someone more on the liberal side feels a bit limp when you remember that Corbyn did a lot better than predicted in 2017. Still, there were clear issues of misconduct detailed in the leaked report, and although it wasn’t submitted to the EHRC, Starmer ordered an independent investigation into both the content of it and the circumstances behind its existence.
And so, the arguments about antisemitism have become almost irrevocably linked to rows about factionalism, and it’s increasingly hard to unravel them. Take the issue with Rebecca Long Bailey last month, for example. Long Bailey was fired from her shadow cabinet post after retweeting a Maxine Peake interview that contained an antisemitic conspiracy theory. For Starmer, this was how he showed that the party really was “under new management”, but for Corbynites, it was evidence of a purging of the progressives.
But let’s finally get up to date. Last week, the Panorama defamation legal dispute reached a financial settlement, and the party released a statement offering an unreserved apology to Ware and the whistleblowers featured in the documentary.
Breaking: Labour apologises unreservedly to whistleblowers and BBC journalist involved in Panorama investigation in anti-semitism. Full statements: pic.twitter.com/30mSrO6uc3— Matt Honeycombe-Foster (@matt_hfoster) July 22, 2020
Corbyn voiced his objections to this with a statement on Facebook:
Labour Party members have a right to accountability and transparency of decisions taken in their name, and an effective commitment from the party to combat antisemitism and racism in all their forms.
The Party’s decision to apologise today and make substantial payments to former staff who sued the party in relation to last year’s Panorama programme is a political decision, not a legal one.
Our legal advice was that the party had a strong defence, and the evidence in the leaked Labour report that is now the subject of an NEC inquiry led by Martin Forde QC strengthened concerns about the role played by some of those who took part in the programme.
The decision to settle these claims in this way is disappointing, and risks giving credibility to misleading and inaccurate allegations about action taken to tackle antisemitism in the Labour Party in recent years.
To give our members the answers and justice they deserve, the inquiry led by Martin Forde must now fully address the evidence the internal report uncovered of racism, sexism, factionalism and obstruction of Labour’s 2017 General Election campaign.
There are rumours that Corbyn and his allies are seeking legal advice to challenge the settlement, feeling that they had a stronger legal case against the defamation accusations. Starmer, a lawyer by trade, evidently disagreed. It is also worth pointing out here that Starmer has seen a draft copy of the EHRC report, though its contents remain confidential until it is officially published.
John Ware is now rumoured to be considering legal action against Corbyn himself, for defamation, following the Facebook post. In response, Corbyn’s fans have set up a GoFundMe page to help Corbyn out. Some people have been making donations in the names of Corbyn’s critics, including those who have complained of antisemitism, which is particularly ghoulish.
After the settlement was announced, more people are coming forward to say they will take legal action against the party due to antisemitism and defamation — unless Corbyn is expelled from the party.
Over the weekend, UK rapper and Corbyn supporter Wiley spent hours tweeting antisemitic comments, and as a result, a number of high profile users are currently involved in a 48 hour social media boycott to call for faster and more robust reporting procedures for hate speech. (In November last year, Corbyn tweeted his thanks to Wiley for supporting him, but Corbyn deleted the tweet on Saturday.)
In conclusion, this row isn’t going away any time soon, and in the meantime, when arguments about antisemitism are ignored in favour of in-house squabbles about factionalism, this just gives antisemitism space to fester and grow. Whether you are part of Starmer’s faction or not, it’s evident that he is addressing the issue head-on, decisively and with a willingness to apologise unreservedly for his party’s record, unlike Corbyn — who, in the most generous reading of his conduct that I can imagine, is only making things worse.
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