When the Equality and Human Rights Commission report into antisemitism within Labour was published just over a week ago, it was thought a full scale civil war would ensue. The damning report found Labour responsible for unlawful acts and it was, as Keir Starmer put it, a dark day for the party. Within hours Jeremy Corbyn had been suspended for his EHRC response, in which he argued that “the scale of the problem was dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party”. Reactions to his suspension have been mixed. Some such as Margaret Hodge saw it as a triumph for Starmer, while John McDonnell branded it “profoundly wrong”. Before long, petitions calling for Corbyn’s reinstatement were gathering signatures.
LabourList understands that longstanding Corbyn allies Jon Trickett MP and Unite’s Len McCluskey have been working behind the scenes to de-escalate the row and create a way back for the former leader. But the general response from left MPs has been markedly muted. The Socialist Campaign Group of MPs tweeted on the day that they “firmly oppose the decision to suspend Jeremy Corbyn” and have pledged to “work tirelessly for his reinstatement”. Reports quickly emerged that not all in the left-wing SCG group had been consulted on the post, however. And only 18 of the 33 SCG MPs (not counting Corbyn himself) signed a full statement this week that argued the disciplinary action should be “quickly reversed”. It is worth noting that some may not have been present at the meeting, as Nadia Whittome later said, adding her support. It is nonetheless notable that left Labour MPs were missing.
MPs lying low is not entirely surprising. The Parliamentary Labour Party was warned ahead of the report’s release that they were not to wade into any public discussion of the EHRC report unless they had been specifically requested by the party to do so. The action taken last week in suspending Corbyn suggests the warning was a serious one. Clearly many Corbynite MPs are keenly aware of the danger that making any comment on the substance of the former Labour leader’s statement could lead to their own suspension – and there is a reluctance to speak out when it is possible the situation could be resolved.
Other parts of the labour movement have been more bold. Unite the Union’s party staff branch complained that “due process appears to have broken down” in a letter last week sent on behalf of Labour employees, particularly in the governance and legal unit, which is responsible for handling complaints until they may be referred to the national executive committee. It said staff have been left “feeling very uncertain about the integrity of our processes” as they alleged the disciplinary action was “apparently not done using the formal GLU system and structures”. Starmer has said he did not take the decision to suspend the former leader himself and it was taken independently by David Evans. But some have criticised this process, as they interpret the EHRC report as determining that the general secretary also counts as “political interference”.
Grassroots organisations and members acting in Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) have been pushing back on the suspension. Various left groups have drafted statements in support of the leader, including the Labour Left Alliance (LLA); Labour Against the Witchhunt; Welsh Labour Grassroots; the Labour Representation Committee; Jewish Voice for Labour; the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD); and Socialist Appeal. The LLA and CLPD have circulated model motions for members to table at local party meetings, and the two petitions calling for Corbyn to be reinstated have reached over 34,000 and 63,000 signatures.
Attempts to express a view on the suspension from the grassroots have not gone far. A London regional executive committee (REC) meeting ended in confusion on Monday evening, as a party officer reportedly prevented the board voting on a motion expressing solidarity with Jeremy Corbyn. Participants claimed the vote was blocked via the chair being removed as a co-host, disabling his control of the voting functions. Supporters of the decision say the vote could not take place since the REC, as an agent of the party, is not allowed to comment on ongoing disciplinary cases. Labour has declined to comment on the matter. General secretary David Evans then issued guidance to local party chairs on Thursday, saying there should be no discussion or motions on individual disciplinary cases. It is worth noting that a similar instruction was circulated by his predecessor Jennie Formby in 2019.
Jewish Labour Movement national secretary Peter Mason hit back at attempts to express support for the former leader in a LabourList article on Wednesday. He warned the row over the suspension of Corbyn is distracting from the EHRC findings and the impact on Jewish members: “The full consequences of the report into the Labour Party have yet to be fully understood. They may well have lasting impact for not only Labour, but for all political parties and campaigning organisations. Apparently those who most need to read the report have not bothered to do so.” The intervention echoed comments from the group’s parliamentary chair Margaret Hodge on the day the report was published, in which she described Corbyn as “yesterday’s man” and said she did not want someone so “absolutely irrelevant” to be the focus.
Meanwhile, left Jewish group Jewdas complained on Thursday demanded the suspension of MPs Lisa Nandy, Steve Reed, Barry Sheerman, Rachel Reeves, Luke Pollard and former general secretary Iain McNicol. The group said it welcomed the Labour leader’s “commitment to swift action and a zero-tolerance approach”, then listed alleged antisemitic comments and behaviour by pro-Starmer Labour figures. In response, some of those have directed LabourList to apologies already offered, including MPs Sheerman and Reed. Lord McNicol told us: “Such false allegations are already in the hands of my solicitor in respect of very serious libels. If people want to continue to repeat such baseless allegations, they do so in the knowledge that legal action will follow.” A party spokesperson told LabourList that Labour “takes all complaints extremely seriously and they are fully investigated in line with our rules and procedures, and any appropriate disciplinary action is taken”.
The Campaign Against Antisemitism, which formally referred the party to the EHRC in 2018 prompting its investigation, submitted complaints against Corbyn when the report was published – along with 16 other sitting Labour MPs. These include MPs such as Diane Abbott, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Tahir Ali, Mike Amesbury, Apsana Begum, Richard Burgon, Barry Gardiner, Lloyd Russell-Moyle, Barry Sheerman and Zarah Sultana, but also frontbenchers Angela Rayner, Steve Reed, Mike Amesbury and Afzal Khan. The organisation has given Labour “six months to conduct transparent investigations and finally deliver justice for the Jewish community”.
The party is not in full-blown civil war. Many left figures in the PLP have held back, partly out of concern for their own future in the party and partly in the hope that a resolution between Labour and Corbyn can be found. But grassroots members and groups have been much stronger in staking out a position. Overall, a stalemate has been reached as the party waits for its former leader to row back more strongly on his EHRC comments. There is much to be done, however, with further tricky moments for Starmer on the horizon.
Labour faces a deadline, as the EHRC’s unlawful act notice requires the party to produce an action plan within six weeks. The ongoing Forde Inquiry, launched following a leaked report alleging antisemitism complaints were mishandled by party officials, is due to report before the end of the year. And the party still faces a number of potential legal challenges over the substance of the leaked report. Solicitor Mark Lewis told BBC Newsnight in July that 32 people had instructed him to take action, including former general secretary McNicol, while reports at the time suggested the potential payouts could exceed £8m. Some believe the party could be bankrupted. The challenges for Labour and its still relatively new leader are anything but over.