Source – Daily Friend
By Martin Plaut – October 31, 2020
It’s hard not to conclude that the decision to suspend Jeremy Corbyn – Labour’s leader until 4 April 2020 – has opened the way for a bout of intense conflict inside the party. But quite why this has come about is far from obvious; so here’s a simple guide.
What exactly did Corbyn do?
Yesterday the United Kingdom’s official body fighting racism and discrimination – the Equality and Human Rights Commission – produced a report on antisemitism inside the Labour Party. It had been a long time coming: the investigation began in May 2019. The report found undeniable evidence of antisemitism. Specifically, it found that Corbyn’s office had interfered in the party’s internal disciplinary process to prevent some of the most serious cases from being handled effectively.
The hurt to the Jewish community has been immense, with many leaving Labour, which had traditionally enjoyed substantial Jewish support. Three findings of illegality by the party were made. Labour had to act.
Keir Starmer – Corbyn’s successor as Labour Leader – made a statement in which he described the findings as a ‘day of shame’ for Labour and promised to implement the findings in full. Starmer declared: ‘And if – after all the pain, all the grief, and all the evidence in this report – there are still those who think there’s no problem with antisemitism in the Labour party, that it’s all exaggerated, or a factional attack, then, frankly, you are part of the problem too, and you should be nowhere near the Labour party either.’
To the astonishment of almost everyone, Corbyn issued his own statement. He called for action against antisemitism, but went on to say: ‘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 denialism was exactly what Starmer had said would not be tolerated. Action was inevitable and the party’s general secretary suspended Corbyn – with Starmer’s support. Corbyn also lost the Labour whip, meaning he is no longer a Labour MP in Parliament. An internal party investigation will now begin. Starmer will have no role in this – intervention by the leader was one of the Equality Commission’s criticisms.
This battle was the last thing Starmer wanted. He had gone out of his way to speak to Corbyn on the evening before the report. Corbyn and his advisers knew exactly what Starmer was about to say, yet he decided to make the statement that he did.
Ok – those are the events, but how did we get here?
Let’s begin with Corbyn. I have known him since the 1970s. Not well, but I worked for the Labour Party before joining the BBC, and have been active in the party since 1978, and I came across him regularly. He was not a very remarkable MP. He worked hard for his London constituents and was well-known for his passion for growing vegetables. Since his election to Parliament in 1983 few could remember any piece of legislation that bore his imprint. His claim to fame was that he would support any left-wing cause that was going. From Nicaragua to Northern Ireland, Corbyn would stand on almost any platform and offer his backing.
At the end of Labour’s last period in government (the Blair-Brown years of 1997-2010) most senior Labour figures were exhausted and out of ideas. There had been the disastrous support for the United States (US) in the Iraq war and disillusionment within the party went deep. When the next leader – Ed Milliband – resigned in 2015, Corbyn seemed to offer a fresh face with new ideas: a return to authentic socialist principles. Corbyn had only agreed rather reluctantly to stand, fearing he would be trounced by more establishment figures. In the event he won, and won decisively.
What kind of politics did Corbyn represent?
For the first time since its foundation in 1900, Labour had a leader who was unequivocally from the party’s far left. Backed by a grassroots movement – Momentum – he had widespread support.
But behind the mass movement were far-left groups who now ran the show. They were an alliance of old Communist Party stalwarts and a variety of Trotskyist groups. The Communists had been largely uncritical supporters of the Soviet Union. The Trotskyists had come from a range of factions, including the Socialist Workers Party and the International Marxist Group. Normally the two groups were at daggers drawn – Trotsky had, after all, been murdered by Stalin in Mexico in 1940. But sensing that they had a historic opportunity to take control of Labour they mended their fences and formed an alliance around Corbyn.
Two key allies of Corbyn became his closest confidants in office: Seamus Milne and Arthur Murray. Both men had joined a Stalinist far-left group at Oxford University, known as ‘Straight Left’. Milne had been a journalist with the Guardian newspaper who was close to Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Murray, the grandson of an imperial governor of Madras and the son of a stockbroker, had been an employee of the Soviet news agency Novosti.
While Corbyn was happiest speaking at rallies, Milne and Murray did much to shape the policies of the Labour leader. Criticism of Russia was seldom part of Corbyn’s repertoire. This came to a head when Putin’s agents attempted to kill a defector in the English city of Salisbury, murdering innocent bystanders instead. Corbyn suggested that the nerve agent they had used should be sent to Moscow for analysis. It was a turning point. The British public reacted with fury and disbelief. Corbyn was discredited as a potential Prime Minister. In the 2019 general election Labour went down to its worst defeat since 1935.
What has all this to do with antisemitism?
There is a view on the British far-left that the US is the root of all evil. It is the bastion of capitalism, and America’s proxy in the Middle East is Israel. This has resulted in a laser-like focus on the iniquities of the Israelis. The plight of the Palestinians draws almost universal sympathy inside Labour, but the far-left is obsessive about its criticism of Israel. Seldom – if ever – do they raise concerns about the oppression of Rohingya Indians in Myanmar or the dictatorship in Eritrea at Labour party meetings.
This serves two purposes for hard-core Corbynites. Firstly, it serves to ‘reveal’ just how reactionary their opponents ‘really’ are. Secondly, it alienates many mainstream Labour members, who find this obsession with the Jewish state offensive – even if they share many of the criticisms of Israel. Traditional members and supporters were driven out of the party, strengthening the far-left’s grip on its structures.
Is Corbyn himself antisemitic? Some think he is and have told him so to his face. Certainly, he tolerated people who held antisemitic views, sharing platforms with them. Perhaps his most offensive act was to endorse a blatantly antisemitic mural on a London wall, something he later regretted.
In what was perhaps the Equality Commission’s most damning finding, when a complaint was made against Corbyn himself concerning the racist mural, it was his own office that interfered in the investigation.
It is difficult to predict how fierce the battle within the Labour Party will become. The far-left Campaign Group of MPs have criticised Corbyn’s suspension, but it is noticeable that they have not resigned from Labour to join their former leader in exile. This battle has a long way to go before it is over.
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR