Sunday, 1 November 2020

The EHRC report is conclusive and damning. But with Corbyn suspended, the rebuilding can now start

It was a day of shame for Labour, there is no doubt. Never before had it been criticised so indelibly about racism: something which a decade ago would have seemed to many unthinkable. It is a hurt that will take time and care to undo; a stain that will not be removed any time soon.

But it was also, unexpectedly, the day where an enormous boil seemed to be lanced for Labour and, at last, a road out of the mess of the last decade became clearly visible. That Labour could put itself back onto the road of being a force for good.

Pity the poor commentators up and down the country. All about to file their pieces about the EHRC report and Starmer’s reaction to it, when suddenly the massive news of Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension meant that all bets were off.

The content of the report, it therefore suffices to say at this point, was damning and conclusive: the party had broken equalities law and needed to make amends. Interestingly, although it confirmed that the Leader’s Office had clearly interfered with a large number of complaints, it did not call out Corbyn himself specifically. In fact, although it was pretty obvious that the person at the head of the party at that time needed to carry some responsibility, Corbyn actually got off rather lightly.

This is not, we need to underline, because Corbyn was not responsible. It is because the limited terms of the report addressed the specific question of institutional anti-Semitism, and did not answer the simple question being asked by Jewish activists on Twitter: why was there such a massive upsurge in anti-Semitism on Corbyn’s watch? If that question, to which the answer seems perfectly obvious, had been asked and data sought, Corbyn would have been in a much more sticky situation.

It should therefore be underlined that the suspension of the former party leader was emphatically not because of the contents of the report. No, it was because Keir Starmer had made it abundantly clear during his press conference that the report was to be accepted by the party in full and without reservation. He also reportedly shared the press conference speech with Corbyn the previous evening, so as not to ambush him with the content. And during that same speech, he took pains not to point the finger but to say that “the party” bore responsibility.

In other words, Corbyn brought the whole thing, entirely unnecessarily, on himself.

So when he then started, in an interview which was broadcast the same morning as the big announcement, to make exactly such reservations about the EHRC conclusions and play it down, it seems that the party’s patience finally snapped (the suspension, of course, has to come from the General Secretary’s and not the Leader’s Office, especially in light of EHRC criticism that very day of interference from that office during the Corbyn years).

Corbyn’s predictable mistake was that he made it all about him. He now may well pay a considerable price for that self-regarding stance.

On the report itself, it seems clear now that it would never have been enough to satisfy critics, simply because of its limited terms. The vast majority of recommendations were about how to reform the complaints process; while important, they hardly deal with the root of the problem, nor give any hints as to how to eject a significant but not overwhelming number of renegade activists from the party.

For example, their scope specifically excludes actions by ordinary members (i.e. not officers) and that represents a big part of the problem. For example, a member who did not hold an officer or representative post is not considered an agent of the party and therefore not liable to the charge of institutional anti-Semitism. But such people can certainly cause harm and bring disrepute to the party; one need only wander around some of the party’s unofficial Facebook groups to discover “anti-Zionist”, and downright anti-Semitic, content.

Also the report rightly identified that there were shortcomings in our complaints process before 2015.  But, y’know, perhaps we didn't need an industrial-scale process before, because there wasn't a massive mountain of complaints to manage under previous leaders?

Such details have now faded into insignificance with the prospect looming of internal conflict between those willing to accept Starmer as leader and the diehard Corbynites. Social media last night was ablaze with defenders of poor, maligned Corbyn; a crowdfunder has already raised a considerable sum for him to defend himself.

However, it is difficult to see that Corbyn will undo the suspension. This is not because it is not possible: it is because it would require a sincere and heartfelt apology, and this is something which does not come easily to him, as we have seen over the last half-decade, and before.

He is also talking about fighting the suspension in the courts: but there is also the point that affording the suspension itself, not to mention a legal challenge, due process will take time and money and he is seventy-one. Can he really stay out of trouble for as long as it would take to clear his suspension? The precedent of the last few months does not augur well; he has already reverted to the crank politics that were his pre-leadership trademark. And can he really be bothered with such a big fight, with only a modest chance of success, when it is so much easier to cry “foul” and become a martyr for the hard left? Will anyone even care in a year or two?

But because of EHRC’s limited scope, the real test will be in how Starmer goes above and beyond its recommendations. How we wins back the soul of the party from the stench of anti-Semitism. And that is not about improving the process of complaints, nor could it ever be.

The big issue now, then, is not “what of Corbyn?” but “what of the Corbynites?” The extent to which they choose to leave, or to stay and fight, and how Starmer manages the result, will determine whether he can right this ship before 2024. Even after yesterday, there still remains a huge mountain to climb.

This post first published at Labour Uncut, with slightly different wording

UPDATE 01NOV: On Friday night, there was an online rally held by Momentum, with the aim of reversing the party's decision to suspend Corbyn. Apart from the impossibility of this happening - the ex-leader now needs to go through the same process as all other members and, especially after EHRC, Starmer is powerless to intervene, even if he wanted to - there was a speaker who used the phrase The Jewish Question. She also quoted a classic racist trope from an Austrian Marxist thinker from 1942, that Jews called out anti-Semitism in bad faith to stop "progressive forces". 

Way to prove that Corbyn does not have an anti-Semitism problem, guys. 

(And a hat-tip to the excellent Dan Fox.)

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