On Thursday Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party from 2015 until 2020, was sensationally suspended from the Labour Party and had the Labour Whip withdrawn. The MP for Islington North now sits in the House of Commons as an independent.
So why has he been suspended and what is the potential significance of this?
The Growth of Anti-Semitism since 2010
For a number of years the Labour Party has had a problem with anti-Semitism in its ranks. At a basic level, there has always been a tendency for the strongly anti-capitalist left-wing to see Jews as synonymous with capitalism. The kindred relationship between the United States and Israel since 1948 only served to amplify this point.
For a number of years the Labour Party has been criticised for not doing enough to deal with Anti-Semitism within the party. For example, in 2010 Ed Miliband (ironically Labour’s first Jewish Leader) was rebuked for criticism of Israel’s military incursion in the Gaza Strip. As the world’s only Jewish State, criticism of Israel is often conflated with Anti-Semitism, although the two things are separate. However, the traditional anti-Zionist political positions of many of the Labour left have undoubtedly spilt over into anti-Semitism.
When Jeremy Corbyn dramatically became Labour Leader in 2015, there was always a danger that anti-Semitism would raise its head more clearly in the Labour Party. There are two key reasons for this:
- Jeremy Corbyn is a prominent supporter of Palestine.
Jeremy Corbyn has long been a passionate supporter of Palestinian rights and, as such, has been a strong critic of Israeli policy. As part of this, he has shared platforms with supporters and members of extremist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah who deny the very right of Israel to exist. In August 2015 the Jewish Chronicle, the oldest Jewish newspaper in the would, published an article on its front page questioning Corbyn’s associations with what it called “Holocaust deniers” and “outright anti-Semites”.
These concerns about Jeremy Corbyn were significant. However, there is little substantial evidence to suggest he was personally anti-Semitic. As a constituency MP for Islington North, he had an impressive record of anti-racist activism across the different groups in his community. However, because of the platforms he has shared, he indisputably open to the charges of guilt by association.
2. Jeremy Corbyn’s election saw a surge in leftist activism in the Labour Party
The election of Jeremy Corbyn saw an influx of far-left activists return to the Labour Party after their exile that had begun with the inception of New Labour in 1994. In 2014 the Labour Party had approximately 190,000 members. It currently has 550,000 members. The vast majority of these joiners have been from the far-left. Within the party, they have formed activist factions like Momentum which currently has 40,000 members. Undoubtedly, within these far-left groups Anti-Semitism is far more prominent than in the centrist elements of the party and this led to a growth in Anti-Semitism under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
Prominent Examples of Anti-Semitism in the Labour Party since 2015
Since 2015 there have been a number of prominent examples of Anti-Semitism within the Labour Party. These include:
Naz Shah: In April 2016 it was revealed that a year before becoming a Labour MP Naz Shah had shared an image that suggested that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be to relocate Israel to the United States.
Ken Livingstone: The former Labour Mayor of London suggested that Hitler was a Zionist before “he went made and ended up killing six million Jews”. Livingstone was suspended from the party for a year, before resigning in 2017.
In total, between 2015 and 2020 0.3% of Labour Party members were investigated for antisemitism.
Criticisms of Labour’s dealing with Anti-Semitism
Alongside the existence of these examples of Anti-Semitism, there was critcism of the way that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership handled complaints about Anti-Semitism.
As a response to growing criticisms, Labour commissioned a report by Shami Chkrabati into Anti-Semitism and racism in the Labour Party. The report said that there was “no evidence” of systematic Anti-Semitism in the Labour Party.
In October 2018 the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee was critical of the Chakrabati report and said the Labour Party had consistently failed to deal with Anti-Semitism appropriately.
What did the EHRC Report into Anti-Semitism and the Labour Party say?
In May 2019 the Equality and Human Rights Commission announced it would be conducting and investigation into the Labour Party and the party’s response to claims of Anti-Semitism within its ranks.
On Thursday, the long-awaited report was published. It made some damning criticsms of the Labour Party, including that the Labour Party had breached the Equality Act (2010) in three areas:
- Political Interference in antisemtism complaints.
- Failure to provide adequate training for those handling antisemtism complaints.
- Harassment of Labour Party members who had complained about antisemitism.
How did Labour Party members react to the report?
Prior to the reports publication, Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, committed to accepting its findings and carrying out its recommendations in full.
When the report was published, Jeremy Corbyn said that although he accepted Anti-Semitism was a problem in the Labour Party, the report had been over-exaggerated.
Starmer had already discussed what he would do if Corbyn failed to accept the report in full and this resulted in him being suspended immediately by Keir Starmer.
What has the reaction been to Corbyn’s suspension?
Jeremy Corbyn immediately vowed to challenge his suspension that he said was politically motivated:
Prominent Corbyn supporters came out in his defence including John McDonnell and Diane Abbot:
Perhaps even more importantly, Len McCluskey, General Secretary of the Unite union, has strongly criticised the decision to suspend Corbyn. Unite is the largest financial supporter of Labour and their financial backing is vital to their success.
What will happen and next and how significant will this be?
Jeremy Corbyn has confirmed that he will challenge the suspension. First, this is likely to be a challenge within the party structure. However, it could also extend into legal action. As of Saturday night, a GoFund me page for Corbyn’s legal costs has reached £368,000. Beyond this, the wider impact is much debated. But a number of outcomes are conceivable:
- There is a mass desertion of left-wingers from the party
Many of those left-wing activists who found their home back in Labour following Corbyn’s leadership victory will be questioning their position in the party. It seems inevitable that many Labour members will leave.
2. A credible left-wing party is set up
During the 1990s and 2000s left-wingers tended to join minor parties like the Socialist Workers Party. None of these provided a credible electoral threat to Labour. However, such is the movement created by Jeremy Corbyn (who made democratic socialism mainstream again) it may be considered that a new breakaway party can now be electorally credible.
3. The relationship between Labour and Trade Unions is put under threat
This decision and its wider political ramifications may lead to Trade Unions beginning to question their close relationship with the Labour Party, This would be very damaging as the majority of Labour’s funding comes from Trade Unions. Unlike New Labour from 1997-2010, it is unlikely that Starmer’s Labour are going to be able meet this deficit with funding from private business in the near future.
Despite these potentially damaging scenarios, it is also possible that:
4. This turns into Keir Starmer’s ‘Clause IV’ moment
There is a distinct danger of a civil war within Labour. However, this will happen at grassroots level. The vast majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party are centrists and there will be no challenge to Starmer’s leadership over this. If left-wingers leave the party, it will allow Starmer to consolidate Labour’s position as the moderate centre-left alternative to the Conservatives. In doing so, they may also win back members who have defected on Labour to the Liberal Democrats.
Just as Neil Kinnock had dealt with the far-left in the 1980s and Tony Blair had reformed Clause IV in the 1990s, this might be his moment to fundamentally change his party to be more inline with his political vision.
It will be fascinating to watch how this issue unfolds for the Labour Party. It is unlikely to be pretty, but it may well be defining for Keir Starmer’s leadership.