Keir Starmer has defended the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn over his response to the Equality and Human Rights Commission report into antisemitism as “appropriate action” but argued that he does not want a “civil war”.
Discussing the disciplinary action against the former Labour leader on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, Starmer told listeners: “I want to unite the party, but I’m not going to renege on my commitment to root out antisemitism.”
The Labour leader said he spoke to Corbyn the night before out how he would deal with the publication of the 128-page document and said “Corbyn and his team knew exactly what I was going to say in my response”.
The EHRC concluded on Thursday that Labour is responsible for three breaches of the Equality Act – relating to political interference in antisemitism complaints; failure to provide adequate training to those handling them; and harassment.
Commenting on the outcome of the investigation, Starmer said: “We all have to take responsibility. It was a finding of collective failure. That’s why I took the opportunity yesterday to accept the findings in the report in full…
“I had hoped that whilst it would be a painful day, we could draw a line in the sand, and move forward on my commitment to root out antisemitism by making clear how quickly we would act on the recommendations.”
Asked why he continued to serve in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, Starmer said: “There were concerns when I was in the shadow cabinet and when when we were in that period – that’s why I raised those concerns, as did other people.
“And I felt it was important to have voices in the shadow cabinet and there were a number of people in the shadow cabinet raising serious concerns and voices outside the shadow cabinet.”
Asked why disciplinary action was taken by the party against the former Labour leader on Thursday afternoon, Starmer told listeners that it had come as a reaction to “his response to the report yesterday”.
He added: “In my response I made it clear that the Labour Party I lead will not tolerate antisemitism. Neither will it tolerate the argument that denies or minimises antisemitism on the basis that it’s been exaggerated…
“I’m deeply disappointed in that response from Jeremy Corbyn yesterday, not least because I spoke to him the night before the report to set out how I intended to deal with it.
“And from discussions yesterday morning, I’m in no doubt that Jeremy Corbyn and his team knew exactly what I was going to say in my response about not only antisemitism but the denial and the arguments about exaggeration.”
Corbyn issued a statement in response to the report, which claimed the “the scale of the [antisemitism] problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party”.
A Labour spokesperson subsequently announced that Corbyn had been suspended, and the Parliamentary Labour Party whip removed from the Labour MP, “in light of his comments made today and his failure to retract them”.
Starmer said this morning: “Appropriate action was taken yesterday by the general secretary in suspending Jeremy Corbyn. That’s the right action – difficult, very difficult action but the right action, which I fully support.
“What is important now, very important, is that I don’t take up your invitation to give my view on the merits of what was said. One of the major findings yesterday was that the leader, deputy leader offices should not get involved in individual decisions.
“That’s part of what went wrong so I’m not going to make that mistake. It doesn’t mean I don’t feel strongly about it. I had wanted yesterday to be an opportunity to draw a line in the sand and restore trust. That didn’t happen because of Jeremy Corbyn’s response.”
The Labour leader explained that “there is a process that will now go through the governance and legal unit” and said there are a “number of possible sanctions”.
Asked whether Corbyn could be expelled, Starmer said: “Yes, people have been expelled from the Labour Party… But it’s not for me to say what process should be followed – that’s for the general secretary – or what sanction is in order.
“I don’t want a civil war in the Labour Party. I don’t think there’s any need for one. I want to unite the party, but I’m not going to renege on my commitment to root out antisemitism.”
Momentum co-founder and former director of communications for Corbyn James Schneider argued: “There was no denial whatsoever. He said in his statement that those who deny antisemitism in the Labour Party are wrong.”
Schneider said the point that the former leader had made in his response to the EHRC report was that the “perception of the issue is grossly overstated in the general public’s imagination because of the media coverage”.
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said on Thursday that the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn was a move that “will create chaos within the party” and urged the new Labour leader to find a “unifying way forward”.
Starmer told a Sky News interview that he had spoken to the union leader. He added it is the “responsibility of all of us to work forward in a way that unites our party” and said “Len McCluskey and I do not want a split in the Labour Party”.
Labour leader @Keir_Starmer says both him and union boss Len McCluskey “do not want a split” in the Labour Party and that there is “no need” for a “civil war” following the EHRC’s antisemitism report.#KayBurley
Get live updates here: https://t.co/9iq20qro1y pic.twitter.com/WJiXW8Dkml
— SkyNews (@SkyNews) October 30, 2020
A number of recommendations have been made by the EHRC for Labour in its report around living up to the zero-tolerance commitment on antisemitism, rebuilding trust, education and training and on monitoring and evaluating improvements.
Labour has been served with an unlawful act notice following the investigation. The party has six weeks to produce an action plan in response to the findings and recommendations of the report published today.
Starmer has pledged to implement an independent complaints process “as quickly as possible” and he hopes that this will be “early next year”. Rule changes would normally require conference approval.
The party has until December 10th to deliver an action plan to the EHRC on how it will implement the recommendations and when. This is legally enforceable by the court if not fulfilled.