Keir Starmer has said and done the right things in accepting the EHRC report and promising to draw a line under a sad and shaming chapter for the Labour party © Leon Neal/Getty

To suspend the former leader of a mainstream political party is a severe sanction. But Keir Starmer, the UK Labour leader, had little choice but back a move to do so with his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn. A damning report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission into anti-Semitism in the party found serious failures of process and leadership. Mr Corbyn admitted Labour had not acted fast enough but accepted no blame, while insisting the problem had been exaggerated by his opponents and parts of the media. Sir Keir is to be applauded for his apology to Jewish people, his pledge to implement the report’s recommendations, and his stand against Mr Corbyn. Through the latter, however, he is reigniting conflict within his party.

The report from the EHRC — which a Labour government created — points to a clear breakdown of trust between the party, many of its members and the Jewish community. It finds Labour under Mr Corbyn was guilty of “unlawful acts of harassment and discrimination”, with three breaches of the Equality Act of 2010. It highlights political interference in anti-Semitism complaints and failures to provide adequate training to those handling them.

It also makes clear the problems went to the very top. The report exposes the extent to which the Corbyn leadership created a permissive environment for anti-Semitism by a big slice of the party’s far left, and attempted to interfere in investigations. The commission said while there had been recent improvements in complaints handling, its analysis “points to a culture within the party which, at best, did not do enough to prevent anti-Semitism and, at worst, could be seen to accept it”. Yet Labour, it said, showed it could act decisively “when it wants to” — such as when it introduced a bespoke process to handle sexual harassment complaints.

Sir Keir has said and done the right things in accepting the report and promising to draw a line under a sad and shaming chapter for his party. His response contrasts sharply to his predecessor’s own failure effectively to curb figures such as the former London mayor Ken Livingstone, one of the few individuals singled out for criticism.

The new leader would prefer to be a unifier — and appeared in his press conference in response to Thursday’s report to be trying to avoid a direct attack on Mr Corbyn. Yet, as when he sacked his education spokesperson Rebecca Long Bailey, a Corbyn ally and rival for the leadership, after accusing her of sharing an article containing an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, he has shown he is prepared to act decisively.

Mr Corbyn could have chosen to reject some of the report’s conclusions but to express regret and some contrition. His claim instead that the issue was a product of party factionalism is belied by the report itself. By insisting the scale of the problem was “dramatically exaggerated”, he confirmed all the doubts over his fitness for high office.

By choosing to take him on, Labour’s new leader is confronting a powerful bloc within the party that remains loyal to Mr Corbyn. There are echoes here of Neil Kinnock’s struggle with the hard-left Militant in the 1980s, or Tony Blair’s battle in the 1990s to amend Clause Four of the party’s constitution, ending its commitment to mass nationalisation. Triggering this conflict while voting is under way for 18 of 39 seats on the ruling National Executive Committee risks a leftwing counter-reaction that could endanger the pro-Starmer majority. But if Sir Keir is serious about eradicating anti-Semitism, stamping his authority on the party, and turning Labour into a modern and electable force, this is a battle he needs to have.

Letter in response to this editorial comment:

Applause for Starmer’s bid to regain Labour ‘decency’ / From Sebastian Monblat, London SM1, UK

Get alerts on Labour Party UK when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article