W Stephen Gilbert
I don’t propose here and now to address the merits or otherwise of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s Investigation into antisemitism in the Labour Party. I am a member of the party and to do so in any objective or critical way would court immediate suspension from the party.
I prefer to cease my membership at a time of my own choosing.
It is impossible to write or say anything as a party member on the subject of antisemitism, unless it is a blanket condemnation of the party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and/or a wholesale acceptance of the EHRC findings.
In fact the EHRC report invokes Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention of Human Rights and affirms that “Article 10 will protect Labour Party members who … express their opinions on internal Party matters, such as the scale of antisemitism within the Party, based on their own experience and within the law”.
Sir Keir Starmer evinces no sympathy with this proviso. In his fury to stamp the legend of “new leadership” on the party, he allows no nuance.
But the fact that discussion by members of a report by an outside agency is verboten is a separate issue and, so far as I can judge, comment on this is not deemed to be a capital offence, at least at the time of writing. In any case, Starmer’s conduct of his office can hardly be beyond question for party members.
After all, from the moment of his election as leader, Jeremy Corbyn was confronted by a wall of dissent, dispute and disdain, especially within the parliamentary party. There were several cack-handed attempts to unseat him. A brilliant surprise victory at the 2017 election was snatched away from the party by a disorganised campaign of undermining, as was vividly illustrated in David Modell’s documentary Labour – The Summer That Changed Everything [BBC 2017]. The defining characteristic of Corbyn’s leadership was that it was virulently opposed within the PLP for its duration.
Corbyn lacked the temperament and the instincts decisively to quell this dissent for a very simple reason. He is a convinced democrat. One might argue that democracy takes priority over socialism in his political makeup. His attitude to democracy was summed up by his mentor, Tony Benn, in 1981:
It is not possible to conceive of a socialist society with any future that denies political democracy, nor is it conceivable that real political democracy could fail to lead to greater social equality and socialism Arguments for Democracy, Jonathan Cape
Compare and contrast Boris Johnson’s ruthless ridding of the pro-EU MPs from the Tory party as soon as he had an election to win.
Had the social democrats in the PLP been willing to serve in the shadow cabinet alongside the socialists, Corbyn would have led a broad-church opposition into the elections of both 2017 and 2019. Instead, a number of them declined to serve from the moment of Corbyn’s election and the remainder quit the shadow cabinet in the “chicken coup” of June 2016 that led to the (for them) calamitous challenge for the leadership by the patently inadequate Owen Smith.
Through all of this, it was open season for backbenchers to attack Corbyn in any way they chose, and the attacks increased as the centrists and right-wingers were concentrated on the backbenches, and issues like the allegations of antisemitism gave these malcontents a focus around which to coalesce.
Starmer saw all this at close quarters, remaining in the shadow cabinet in order to keep pro-EU politics in the game and to keep his ambition to lead the party fed by his being in the spotlight. The price of Corbyn’s democratic generosity to Starmer was the loss of all those hitherto Labour seats in the English north and midlands that had voted to leave the EU. But Starmer is no democrat, at least if his conduct of the reception of the EHRC report be any guide. On the claim of his party’s past antisemitism, he leads by fiat.
Tony Benn had something pertinent to say on that subject too:
Those who seek to justify authoritarianism of all kinds are forced to base their argument upon a false justification for an inherent inequality of political power. They deny the right of people to correct political errors at the top or remove those who make them. All totalitarian societies fear the emergence of democratic challenges and so do many societies in the West” [ibid]
No doubt Starmer would argue that he is indeed correcting errors and removing those who made them, but Benn’s point is about inequality of political power, and Corbyn as a former leader has no power comparable to that of Starmer.
But of course there is an embarrassment in Starmer’s position that he will seek to avoid having addressed in interview. Corbyn brought him onto the front bench as shadow minister of state for immigration immediately upon his own election as leader. A year later, following his re-election, Corbyn elevated Starmer to the shadow cabinet in charge of the party’s Brexit policy. This was in spite of Starmer having quit in the chicken coup just three months earlier.
Thereafter, then, he was subject to the convention of collective ministerial responsibility. Whatever errors – or even crimes – are now laid at the door of Jeremy Corbyn as leader, Starmer as shadow Brexit secretary was complicit in them. Repudiating what was done with hindsight does not exonerate him or any other member of the shadow cabinet.
Put up on The World at One to tough it out as Starmer’s deputy, Angela Rayner came under continuous pressure from Sarah Montague and was driven to declare that antisemitism had…
always been a blind spot for Jeremy.
This is perfidy of a desperate order. If, as they now propose, antisemitism was rife in the party, was it a blind spot for Rayner and Starmer too or did they merely turn a blind eye to it? For neither of them, it seems, was resignation the appropriate course to take so that they could proclaim Corbyn’s blind eye from the freedom of the backbenches.
Now, under their leadership, the backbenches are not bastions of freedom of speech and nor is the party at large. This sets a dangerous precedent for other contentious issues that will arise once COVID-19 is no longer the all-pervading issue in public life.
Watch these social democrats and see how soon they abjure democracy as a hangover from the Corbynite past.