Unite behind Keir Starmer to cleanse Labour’s shame

The whole labour movement will be shocked by the revelations contained in the leaked report concerning how Labour HQ has handled complaints over antisemitism over the last few years. Even those of us well aware of the dislike many officials held for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership did not imagine that their bile would go so far as actively wishing for – even working for – Labour’s defeat in elections, including the 2017 general election.

Every activist will remember how agonisingly close we came to defeating Theresa May then. I have no doubt that had the party leadership enjoyed the full-on support of all Labour MPs and of Party HQ, both of which it had the right to expect, the result would have been closer still.

Let us be clear what the officials whose cynical, abusive and factional conduct has now been exposed were actually doing. In working for a Labour defeat, they were working for a Tory victory – that is to say, empowering the party that stood for austerity and a “hard Brexit”.  These politically-crooked officials were prepared to risk dramatic damage to the interests of the British economy and working people just in order to scratch their factional itch.

Their conduct is a reminder of the truth of what was said by the eminent socialist writer Stuart Hall: the only thing the Labour right are interested in, the only thing they are good at, is fighting the left. Bear in mind that these are the people who accused Corbyn supporters of only being interested in political purity and not in winning power. Even the most demented sectarian on the left has not championed a Tory election victory to win an inner-party argument.

And some of these officials have now secured peerages or been dubbed this-or-that of the British Empire “for services to the Labour Party”. If they are to keep these distinctions, at the very least the citations should be changed to “services to the Tory Party”.

This is not about legitimate political disagreement. A large minority of the Labour Party membership never supported Jeremy Corbyn and they had a right to their views. If they were employed by the party they had every right to keep their jobs, provided they continued to do them diligently, loyally and professionally.

But that is a world away from the rancid, and very cruel, political culture revealed in the report on Labour’s governance and legal unit (GLU). The atmosphere exposed in the exchanges varies between what one might expect to hear in the toilets at a teenage nightclub – “she’s so fat”, “she smells” – and the banter at a Trump rally – the black woman is “disgusting”, that left-wing activist should “die in a fire”. Mean Girls meets Mississippi Burning.

They seem to regard the Labour Party as their private property and anyone a millimetre to the left of Tony Blair as a “Trot”.  Andy Burnham has spoken out about how he feels the same apparatus undermined him on NHS policy.

And we – the labour movement – were paying for all this. Indeed, it seems we were also handing over money that was, unbeknownst to the national executive committee, allegedly being squirrelled away into secret slush funds devoted to supporting those MPs who party officialdom favoured. At first glance there would appear to be a case to answer for breaches of electoral law as well as party governance procedures. Since Unite was by far the largest single donor to the 2017 election campaign, giving around 75% of total union donations, we have the right to expect an honest accounting for this.

Some of the responses to the report have been deeply revealing. One might have expected groups and individuals who have campaigned loudly against Labour antisemitism in recent years to welcome its frank admission of the party’s failings in respect of handling complaints and its honest exposure of what went wrong and when.

Yet Labour Against Anti-Semitism and Labour MP turned Tory supporter Ian Austin, to take two examples, have instead rushed to denounce it. This can only fuel the suspicion that they are only interested in challenging failings in addressing antisemitism when they think these can be exclusively attributed to Jeremy Corbyn and the left, and are prepared to turn a blind eye to the negligence of those they consider their political allies.

And I have not noticed a peep from journalist John Ware, whose Panorama programme on Labour antisemitism can now be seen to fall a long way short of the standards expected of the BBC, in that it failed to interrogate his interviewees at all concerning their own shortcomings in handling antisemitism allegations.

The movement should keep the focus on the content of the report and not be distracted by secondary issues regarding its commissioning – clearly it formed part of the necessary work being done to assist the EHRC investigation and the party’s response – or its leaking. Those named in the report have of course the right to defend, contextualise or explain what is set out. They could even just apologise. We should not pre-empt any outcome, either legally or in terms of party rule.

But this cannot be swept under the carpet. First of all, the party should make a properly-redacted version of the report publicly available. This should not be a crisis for Keir Starmer. His desire to unite the party is almost universally shared, and certainly has Unite’s full support. He has rightly reached out to the leading organisations of the Jewish community to rebuild relations. He bears no responsibility for the state of affairs the GLU report reveals. It is absolutely right that his full focus now should be on the coronavirus crisis. But it falls to him and the party NEC to direct the clean-up.

In my view, where there is clear evidence of a party member having engaged in misogynistic or abusive conduct, or having worked to undermine the party’s election campaign, or even having broken the law, there is a case for suspension pending a thorough investigation (with no presumption of guilt).

I know there are tens of thousands of Labour Party members, many of them also in my union, whose dismay at these revelations may lead them to wonder why they should stay in a party where such things can happen. Let me urge them to remain with the party and get behind our newly-elected leadership as they handle this crisis.

Labour can, will and must move on. Transparency and accountability will be key. I am confident that Keir Starmer and Angie Rayner will be guided by these values, and will allow no return of the poisonous environment which prevailed when the hard right of the party last ran the machine we all pay for.

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