The Observer

Andrew Rawnsley

The EHRC report was unequivocally damning of his leadership, but he still can’t accept any responsibility

Sun 1 Nov 2020 09.00 GMT

Jeremy Corbyn’s favourite role is that of the victim. He took Labour to such a calamitous defeat that its parliamentary representation is crushed to its lowest level since 1935, but he sees himself not as the perpetrator of that disaster but its casualty. He presided over an antisemitism scandal unprecedented in the party’s history, but that also cannot be his fault. He is suspended from the party after refusing to accept the damning findings of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s investigation into that scandal and someone else is again to blame.

Contrary to the narrative being promoted by Mr Corbyn and those still attached to his cult, the former Labour leader is not a martyr to his convictions. Nor was his suspension the result of a premeditated “political attack” designed to demonstrate for the edification of the media that Keir Starmer is a tough leader. This is not about a struggle over Labour’s policy direction or its philosophical orientation. This is about whether or not the Labour party should be a haven for racists and why it did become a magnet for antisemitic bullies and abusers when Mr Corbyn and his acolytes had charge of the party.

The report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is vindication in full for those who spent more than four years warning that Labour was becoming poisoned by antisemitism. The findings of the independent investigators are also a searing rebuke to the cheerleaders and apologists for Corbynism who tried to deny, ignore, downplay or excuse the malignancy.

The EHRC finds Labour guilty of harassment and discrimination and confirms that Mr Corbyn’s office interfered in the handling of antisemitism cases to such an extent that it was “unlawful”. The investigators “uncovered serious failings” in the way complaints were dealt with and says “a significant number” were not investigated at all. As for the man presiding over this, the EHRC observes that “a lack of leadership within the Labour party on these issues… is hard to reconcile with its stated commitment to a zero-tolerance approach to antisemitism”. Put more bluntly: he said one thing while doing another.

Antisemitism was never a big problem in the Labour party under any previous leader

From Labour’s perspective, the only redeeming feature of such a devastating report was that it created an opportunity for the party to draw a definitive line under a shameful period of its history. Mr Starmer sought to seize that opportunity by reiterating his commitment to expunge antisemitism while pledging unequivocal implementation of all the EHCR’s recommendations. He declared – and rightly so – that antisemitism was the responsibility not just of those who practised it, but also those who dismissed legitimate complaints as fake, smears or generated by ulterior motives. He could not have been clearer: “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.” His intention to deliver this unambiguous warning had been communicated to Mr Corbyn prior to the report’s publication, so it cannot be said that the former leader was ambushed. He had plenty of time to consider what he would say. I’m told that Mr Starmer had gained the impression from their conversation the night before that his predecessor would respond in a non-inflammatory way.Advertisement

“Keir didn’t go into the day looking for a fight with Jeremy,” says one member of the shadow cabinet. “In fact, he went out of his way to avoid a fight.”

It was Mr Corbyn’s decision to make what should have been a turning point for the better for Labour into another argument about himself. To some extent, it was always going to be about him. Antisemitism was never a big problem in the Labour party under any previous leader and only became a hugely divisive and damaging issue under him. The EHRC report puts it starkly: “Our analysis points to a culture within the party which, at best, did not do enough to prevent antisemitism and, at worst, could be seen to accept it.” The independent investigators clearly do not believe Mr Corbyn’s assertions that he was “always determined to eliminate all forms of racism and root out the cancer of antisemitism”. The report says: “It is not hard to conclude that antisemitism within the Labour party could have been tackled more effectively if the leadership had chosen to do so.” Since it was beyond their remit to peer into Mr Corbyn’s soul, the investigators don’t come to conclusions about why he didn’t choose to tackle it more effectively. The most generous explanation offered by some of his associates is that he has “a blindspot for antisemitism”. Much more severe verdicts are available.

He cannot deal with criticism because it challenges his self-conceited estimation of his own purity

Mr Corbyn’s vanity simply will not allow him to accept responsibility. Many things have been said about his character over the years, but one thing has not been said enough: he is a narcissist. He cannot deal with criticism because it challenges his self-conceited estimation of his own purity. He can never be the transgressor, he must always be the sufferer. So his response to the EHRC report was to weakly express “regret” that Labour took too long to address the issue while trying to shift culpability on to “an obstructive party bureaucracy” and adding the self-exculpating, responsibility-denying, victimhood-claiming assertion that the antisemitism on his watch had been “dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media”. Despite a statutory investigation finding otherwise, he stuck to his dog-eared denialist script that the antisemitism scandal was an exaggeration fabricated by his enemies.

After this direct violation of the “zero-tolerance” policy, Mr Starmer did not instantly treat it as an opportunity to demonstrate his “new leadership” by making an example of his predecessor. Mr Corbyn was first given a chance to avoid being suspended by retracting the statement. He instead went on TV to repeat it. There was no real choice then but to suspend his membership pending investigation, with the automatic consequence of also losing the party whip. For those asking under which rule, it is for “bringing the party into disrepute”. That appears rather appropriate.

Some have interpreted this – for the most part, admiringly – as Mr Starmer demonstrating robust leadership. Favourable parallels have been drawn with Neil Kinnock’s expulsion of the far-left entryists of the Militant Tendency. The simple truth is that this was not so much brave as inescapable. If the party’s general secretary had not suspended Mr Corbyn, the credibility of the “zero-tolerance” pledge would have been cracked, Mr Starmer’s attempts to rebuild the trust of the Jewish community would have been undermined and the huge task of restoring the party’s reputation with the electorate would have been set back.

Some are talking about a “civil war” in Labour, but one man’s obtuse refusal to take responsibility for what he did is a terrible reason for anyone to start one. What’s most interesting is not that some of the hard left are calling for a great fight, but that many of Mr Corbyn’s ideological companions do not appear to think him worth such a battle. Threats that Labour MPs in the Socialist Campaign Group would resign the whip have yet to come to anything. John McDonnell and other senior figures from the Corbynite project have protested the suspension while being very clear that they do not endorse what he said about the EHRC report. At least some of the hard left have the nous to grasp that trying to excuse the antisemitism scandal is a wretched hill to perish on.

Those who can’t see this now have the story of betrayal that they have been yearning for. Poor old St Jeremy, they cry, victim of the brutal Keir Starmer, martyred for the satisfaction of the anti-Corbyn media. Spare your tears. The victim of this hideous chapter in Labour’s history is not Jeremy Corbyn. The victims are those who were scared and scarred by the vile antisemitism that occurred when he was in charge. The victims are all those who needed an electable challenger to the Tories, not the toxic and sectarian party that Labour became under Mr Corbyn. The victims are the many millions of people who depend on having a Labour party capable of commanding the confidence of the public so that it can effectively represent those it exists to champion. Jeremy Corbyn is no martyr. He is a victim only of his own arrogantly self-pitying, self-denying delusions.

•Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer