The furore in the UK Labour Party is unlikely to subside in the near future, now that leader Sir Keir Starmer has seemingly pitted himself against the Labour Party itself, denying former leader Jeremy Corbyn the party whip even after Corbyn was reinstated as a party member.
Corbyn had been suspended from the party following the publication of a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) that was heavily critical of Labour’s approach to dealing with anti-Semitism within its ranks. While the report did not actually blame Corbyn for what went on during his watch, the censure was implicit and Corbyn was suspended.
However, on Tuesday of this week, Corbyn wrote a lengthy Facebook post in which he appeared to apologize for what had happened during the period in which he was party leader, insisting that most Labour members are staunch anti-racists, and reversing from his previously stated position to admit that “concerns about anti-Semitism are neither ‘exaggerated’ nor ‘overstated,’” as he had claimed in the past.
Following this apology, the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the Labour Party decided to reverse Corbyn’s suspension, readmitting him to the party. Corbyn has been an MP since 1983 and continues to hold a Commons seat, representing Islington North (a neighborhood in London). However, in a stern statement issued on Wednesday, party leader Keir Starmer said that regardless of the NEC’s decision, he would not permit Corbyn to reenter the party’s ranks.
“Jeremy Corbyn’s actions in response to the EHRC report undermined and set back our work in restoring trust and confidence in the Labour Party’s ability to tackle antisemitism,” Starmer said. “In those circumstances, I have taken the decision not to restore the whip to Jeremy Corbyn. I will keep this situation under review.”
Denying the party whip to a MP is considered a very grave punishment for a party member. While it does not deny Corbyn his actual seat in the House of Commons, it means that he is no longer considered a member of the Labour Party, but rather, an independent. If the whip is not restored before a future election, he will not be able to present himself as a Labour Party candidate.
Reactions were swift in coming from Labour Party members, some sharply condemning Starmer’s move, others praising his stance.
Jon Lansman, the founder of the Momentum movement that essentially propelled Corbyn to power, claimed that Starmer’s decision was politically motivated, saying that it had “driven a coach and horses through the party’s disciplinary process.”
Lansman, who is himself Jewish and was born into an observant family, told The Guardian that, “Refusing to restore the whip to Jeremy is just another example of political interference,” and added that “rules about ‘bringing the party into disrepute’” were too easy to abuse.
Other Corbyn supporters suggested that Starmer’s move could be legally contested, as the EHRC stresses the importance of disciplinary actions being uninfluenced by political considerations. John McDonnell, a close ally of Corbyn, called Starmer’s decision “just plain wrong” and said it would lead to “more division and disunity in the party.”
On the other side of the divide, Jewish Labour MP Margaret Hodge, the parliamentary chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, welcomed the news. Corbyn had “refused to accept the findings of the EHRC report, refused to apologize for his actions, and refused to take any responsibility,” she told the BBC.
Similarly, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Marie van der Zyl, said that Starmer had “taken the appropriate leadership decision,” adding that Corbyn had been “shameless and remorseless for what he has put the Jewish community through.”
Starmer himself acknowledged the anguish in the Jewish community at the ongoing Corbyn saga, describing how, “The disciplinary process does not have the confidence of the Jewish community. That became clear once again yesterday. It is the task of my leadership to fix what I have inherited. That is what I am resolute in doing and I have asked for an independent process to be established as soon as possible.”