British politics has served up more than its fair share of absurdities in recent times. But the fact that Jeremy Corbyn has now completed a full year of suspension as a Labour MP, having led the party between 2015 and 2019, is in a league of its own. The indictment of Corbyn drawn up by his opponents is so preposterous that it poses a real challenge for anyone whose approach to political discussion is still based on logic and evidence.
From the vantage point of 2015, it would have come as no surprise to those familiar with Labour MPs such as Margaret Hodge or Ian Austin that they should be centrally involved in a scandal about racism. But nobody would seriously have expected them to be the chief accusers, pointing their fingers with great indignation at a man whose record of opposing racism is demonstrably superior to that of any Labour leader in modern times.
When you know what has actually happened in British politics over the past few years, the experience of reading bog-standard newspaper columns that discuss Corbyn and his movement is rather like poring over articles in the Weekly World News about alien abductions and Bigfoot sightings, but without the tacit understanding that this is all a bit of harmless fun.
To compound the sense of unreality, anyone who declines to accept the fables of the commentariat is liable to be denounced as a crank, a conspiracy theorist, or a racist — most often by people whose employers pump out toxic bilge about immigrants and ethnic minorities on a regular basis.
Changing the Story
The Labour leader Keir Starmer justified the suspension of his predecessor by reference to the statement Corbyn issued on October 29, 2020, after the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published a long-awaited report on antisemitism in the Labour Party. This was Corbyn’s statement:
Anyone claiming there is no antisemitism in the Labour Party is wrong. Of course there is, as there is throughout society, and sometimes it is voiced by people who think of themselves as on the left. Jewish members of our party and the wider community were right to expect us to deal with it, and I regret that it took longer to deliver that change than it should. One antisemite is one too many, but the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media. That combination hurt Jewish people and must never be repeated.
And this was Starmer’s comment to reporters the same morning, generally taken as a response to Corbyn:
If, after all the pain, all the grief, and all the evidence in this report, there are still those who think there’s no problem with antisemitism in the Labour Party, that it’s all exaggerated or a factional attack, then, frankly, you are part of the problem, too. And you should be nowhere near the Labour Party either.
As we can see, Starmer’s comments had nothing to do with the content of Corbyn’s statement. Corbyn had specifically rejected the idea that there was “no problem with antisemitism in the Labour Party.” Starmer’s replacement of the words “drastically overstated” with “all exaggerated” was a careful, lawyerly deception. It captured in microcosm the shapeshifting nature of “Labour antisemitism” as a media talking point.
Throughout the controversy, pundits and politicians would make very specific claims about the prevalence of antisemitism in the Labour Party and the actions of its leadership that were demonstrably false. Whenever there was an attempt to push back, the critics immediately retreated to a much weaker line of argument, referring vaguely to the existence of a “problem” whose scale and substance they left undefined.
The implication was that anyone who questioned the most outlandish falsehoods must believe there wasn’t a single case of Labour members holding or expressing antisemitic views. This was an obvious non sequitur, but the whole media narrative had to rest upon it, since that narrative could not survive contact with the evidence.
This was not the first time Corbyn himself had been subjected to these rhetorical sleight-of-hand tricks. During the 2019 general election campaign, the Evening Standard, which is distributed free to millions of Londoners every day, carried an interview with Corbyn by the journalist Lynn Barber. The online edition had to publish a correction after Corbyn’s team reminded the Standard that they had an audio recording of his remarks:
An earlier version of this article erroneously included the following quote from Mr Corbyn: “There is NO anti-Semitism in the Labour Party”. This has now been replaced with his actual words: “It is not a racist party, it is not an anti-Semitic party and it never will be while I’m leader. In any way whatsoever.”
There was no explanation from the Standard of how its article had come to fabricate a Corbyn quote out of whole cloth, even describing his tone of voice as he said it. The paper’s editor, the Conservative politician George Osborne, might have shed some interesting light on the matter, if anyone had thought to ask him.
When Corbyn said that “the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents,” he was clearly referring to the standard media narrative, which had two variations, according to taste. What united both variations was their distance from the empirical record and their refusal to distinguish between hostility to Jewish people and support for Palestinian rights. From the very start of this meta-controversy, there was never a time when the criticisms of Jeremy Corbyn were sober, well-documented, and proportionate.
The first version held that Labour had a very serious problem with antisemitism, involving a very large proportion of the party membership. According to this line of argument, antisemitic views were much more common in Labour than in the other main parties, or in British society as a whole. This phenomenon was a recent development, having only arisen while Jeremy Corbyn was the party leader. Corbyn and his allies were culpable at both ends, for attracting such people into Labour and then failing to clamp down on them when the opportunity arose.
This narrative, conveyed as much by the tone and volume of media coverage as it was by any explicit assertions, was already a wild distortion of reality. There was no evidence that Labour members were more likely to hold antisemitic views than the members of other parties or even a random cross-section of the British public. Nor was there any evidence that such views had become more prevalent under Corbyn’s watch — rather, it was the level of scrutiny that had increased.
There was no evidence either that Corbyn and his associates had turned a blind eye to genuine cases of antisemitic prejudice among the Labour membership. In fact, they devoted far more energy to rooting out antisemitism in Labour than previous leadership teams. Instead of welcoming such efforts, Corbyn’s opponents did everything in their power to disrupt them.
From the summer of 2018 onward, there was also a second narrative that escaped the Earth’s gravitational pull altogether. It now became commonplace for Corbyn’s opponents to allege that he was personally antisemitic, with a deep, all-consuming hatred of Jews, and that his party posed a threat to the safety of Jewish communities without precedent in Europe since 1945 — “an existential threat to Jewish life in Britain,” as one high-profile statement put it.
When the conservative journalist Simon Heffer claimed that Corbyn was planning to “reopen Auschwitz,” he was just spelling out explicitly what so many of his colleagues had been hinting at. On the eve of the 2019 election, the Guardian published an open letter from a group of celebrities claiming that they could not vote for Labour because of concerns about antisemitism. The letter said nothing about the racism of Boris Johnson or the Tory Party, and indeed, some of its signatories were Conservative supporters.
The implicit but unmistakable message was that a vote for Johnson to become prime minister was morally permissible in a way that a vote for Corbyn was not. This argument could only make sense if one believed that a Labour government would do things to harm British Jews that were qualitatively worse than the racist policies already enacted by the Tories in government — in other words, worse than the Windrush scandal, in the course of which the Home Office had unlawfully arrested and deported several dozen people, uprooting them from their homes and their families and sending them to countries they had left as children.
If Keir Starmer actually thought that a government led by Jeremy Corbyn would have surpassed the racism of Windrush and the “hostile environment” by a wide margin, then it would be incumbent on him to retire from politics with immediate effect, having first apologized for campaigning to make Corbyn Britain’s prime minister. Needless to say, Starmer doesn’t think anything of the sort, and neither do the journalists who handled disingenuous outbursts like this open letter with such credulity.
A survey conducted in March 2021 showed that the Labour membership remained stubbornly in touch with reality on the subject of antisemitism. This was by no means a hostile audience for Starmer. Labour members had voted decisively to make him the party leader twelve months earlier, and 64 percent of those surveyed now thought he was doing “very well” or “fairly well” as leader (this came before a string of poor by-election performances over the months that followed).
That made the other findings of the survey all the more striking. A mere 23 percent of Labour members agreed with the following statement: “The Labour Party has a serious problem with antisemitism, and the extent of the problem has not been exaggerated.” And 46 percent endorsed the argument that Corbyn had made when the EHRC report first appeared — “the Labour Party has a problem with antisemitism, but the extent of the problem has been exaggerated” — while 24 percent preferred a blunter option: “The Labour Party does not have a serious problem with antisemitism.” Of course, “serious” is a term that could mean different things to different people, from “more than a handful” to “pervasive and systematic.”
Once again, if Starmer truly believes the arguments he has been making over the last year, the only honorable course of action would be for him to resign. If it is outrageous and unforgivable to question the standard claims about antisemitism in the Labour Party, then the Labour membership must be a pogrom-in-waiting, a bubbling cauldron of prejudice without parallel in modern British history. Starmer should feel utterly ashamed to have been voted into his current position by this goose-stepping mob — unless, that is, he has his fingers crossed behind his back every time he delivers another homily about “antisemitism denial.”
The refusal of the Labour membership to endorse the media narrative about their party enraged the Jewish Chronicle, which had played an outsize role in constructing that narrative with a breathtaking sequence of grossly misleading articles. It was the Chronicle that had commissioned the polling company YouGov to pose this particular question, along with two others asking Labour members if they supported the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, and whether they considered Israel to be an apartheid state — a telling indication of what the paper means when it talks about “left-wing antisemitism.”
There is no hidden agenda at work here. Corbyn’s most dedicated opponents have never concealed their belief that contemporary antisemitism usually expresses itself through commentary about Israel. But if we accept the claim of groups like the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council that they alone can determine when such commentary becomes antisemitic, we will have no option but to muzzle Palestinians and prevent them from speaking about their own experience of violent oppression at the hands of the Israeli state.
In a recent article, Peter Beinart noted that the “Squad” of left-wing Democrats in the United States has repeatedly faced charges of antisemitism since entering Congress:
Search for articles alleging that they are antisemitic and Google generates a seemingly endless supply. But if you search for articles suggesting that their critics are “anti-Palestinian,” you’ll find next to nothing. There’s little indication that they’ve ever had to publicly respond to charges of anti-Palestinian bigotry at all.
That’s strange because the evidence that the Squad’s critics are anti-Palestinian is far stronger than the evidence that the Squad is anti-Jewish. The reason this bigotry goes undiscussed is because, in mainstream American discourse, the word “anti-Palestinian” barely exists. It is absent not because anti-Palestinian bigotry is rare but because it is ubiquitous. It is absent precisely because, if the concept existed, almost everyone in Congress would be guilty of it, except for a tiny minority of renegade progressives who are regularly denounced as antisemites.
Mutatis mutandis, the same point holds true for Corbyn and the British political scene. Anti-Palestinian racism has run through this whole affair like a red thread, yet the more blatant it becomes, the less we hear about it. If we start with the assumption that Palestinians have the same rights as Israelis or Europeans, including the right to be heard, then most of the accusations against Corbyn himself will collapse like a house of cards.
Starmer’s Double Cross
Len McCluskey, who retired this year as general secretary of the Unite trade union, has given us a detailed account of what happened after Starmer and his ally David Evans moved to suspend Corbyn. McCluskey has put his name to the account and pledged to repeat it in court if necessary. Speaking off the record, “senior Labour sources” attempted to discredit his version of events, but they took care not to question any of the direct quotes that McCluskey attributed to Starmer. This attempted rebuttal was a classic non-denial denial.
McCluskey’s article shed light on the response of the Labour left to Corbyn’s suspension, as well as the behavior of Starmer and his team:
That evening, in a Zoom call between leading figures on the left, it was agreed that before mobilizing the membership against the suspension — and potentially splitting the party — we should see if a negotiated solution could be reached. As it turned out, the leadership was keen to talk.
According to McCluskey, Starmer “indicated that a clarification statement by Corbyn could be a way of resolving the issue.” The key passage of that clarification, published on November 17, read as follows: “To be clear, concerns about antisemitism are neither ‘exaggerated’ nor ‘overstated.’ The point I wished to make was that the vast majority of Labour Party members were and remain committed anti-racists deeply opposed to antisemitism.”
This muddled the clarity of what Corbyn had said on October 29 by shifting the conversation from objective facts to subjective “concerns.” However, it did not retract or apologize for his original statement. If, as Corbyn insisted, “the vast majority of Labour Party members were and remain committed anti-racists deeply opposed to antisemitism,” then the standard media narrative was indeed “drastically overstated.” A five-person panel from Labour’s national executive committee (NEC) — “only two of whom could be described as pro-Corbyn,” as McCluskey observed — unanimously decided to readmit him to the party.
At that point, one of Corbyn’s most bilious opponents, Margaret Hodge, threatened to resign as a Labour MP if Corbyn took his place on the party’s benches at Westminster once again. The Jewish Labour Movement, the British sister organization of the Israeli Labor Party, also bitterly attacked the panel’s decision. According to McCluskey, Starmer immediately reneged on the deal and stripped Corbyn of the Labour whip, even though he remained a party member in good standing. At the time of writing, Corbyn is still trapped in parliamentary limbo.
Anyone who compares Starmer’s campaign for the Labour leadership with his actions since winning the election will find this account of his duplicity eminently plausible. But there was never much chance that the “negotiated solution” that the Labour left sought would hold up under fire. Figures like Hodge may not have expected Corbyn’s suspension to happen in the first place: once it did, however, they were not going to accept his readmission without a fight. The same held true for Corbyn’s opponents outside the party.
In order for the deal to stick, Starmer would have had to demonstrate a willingness to face down criticism from his right flank, for the sake of better relations with those on his left. That, in turn, would have required a break with the entire modus operandi of his leadership. The low-key approach that the Labour left decided to follow after Corbyn’s suspension proved to be a failure on its own terms. Without a public challenge to the premise that Corbyn had committed an unspeakable offense when he issued the original statement, this was always likely to be the outcome.
There was an alternative course of action available to them. As well as mobilizing the party membership in defense of Corbyn, the Labour left’s most prominent figures could have acted immediately by repeating the central point Corbyn had made and elaborating on it. This would have put Starmer on the spot — would he have to suspend other MPs for telling the truth as well? — and broken through the conformist din of the British media. The only challenge for those who wanted to show that Corbyn’s opponents had “drastically overstated” the prevalence of antisemitism in the Labour Party would have been deciding where to start.
The experience of Rebecca Long-Bailey, the left-wing candidate in the 2020 leadership election, had already demonstrated that there was nothing to be gained through acceptance of the false narrative. Long-Bailey did everything she could to avoid controversy on the subject, but Starmer still had no problem stitching her up with charges of antisemitism that were not merely false but insultingly so.
While this saga was unfolding, there were some revealing developments that attracted no attention from journalists who had once been deeply invested in the smallest details of this affair. Corbyn’s critics presented the EHRC inquiry as the ultimate indictment of his leadership: the fact that it was happening at all was damning enough, regardless of the contents of the report. This hinged on the assumption that the EHRC itself was an impartial body guided only by the evidence when it chose whether or not to investigate political parties.
The commission’s refusal to investigate Tory Islamophobia and its effect on Muslim members of the party, despite multiple requests to do so, torpedoed that assumption below the waterline. Even David Isaac, the EHRC chair from 2016 to 2020, tried to distance himself from its indulgence of the Conservatives after his departure from the post. As Isaac noted, the EHRC had declined to investigate the ruling party on the grounds that the Tories had commissioned an inquiry of their own, to be conducted by the academic Swaran Singh:
The commission needs to look at the recommendations of that review and if it is unhappy with the approach that it’s taken and whether or not it is sufficiently independent and robust, if it’s not satisfied about those things, then it should investigate Islamophobia in the Tory Party in the way that it investigated antisemitism in the Labour Party.
Isaac now had the luxury of dispensing such advice, since he would not have to follow through on it himself and face the inevitable barrage of criticism from the Conservatives and their press allies. The prospect of further cuts to the EHRC’s operating budget, which the Tory government had already cut by 73 percent between 2010 and 2020, will also have hung over the commission as it chose the safer course of action.
The Tory self-assessment finally appeared in May 2021, several months late. Muslim Conservatives such as the party’s former chair Sayeeda Warsi derided it as a sham. At one point, the review addressed charges that Zac Goldsmith, the Tory candidate in the 2016 London mayoral election, had run an Islamophobic campaign against his Labour opponent, Sadiq Khan. It did so in a strikingly original way, by asking Goldsmith how he felt about those charges and printing long, verbatim quotes from his answers.
The report did not mention the fact that David Cameron used parliamentary privilege to lie about Suliman Gani, a British imam, claiming that he was a supporter of ISIS and linking him to Khan. Gani’s name was entirely absent from its pages, along with that of Michael Fallon, the Conservative politician who had to pay the imam damages after repeating Cameron’s lie outside the House of Commons. The EHRC welcomed the publication of Singh’s report and promised to “evaluate his team’s findings carefully.” At the time of writing, five months later, we have yet to hear the results of their evaluation.
In reality, the commission is a thoroughly partisan body, stuffed with political appointees, some of whom have made their own personal contribution to the noxious clouds enveloping public discourse in contemporary Britain. It was entirely predictable that it would allow the Tories to mark their own homework after first accepting that the dog had eaten it. The EHRC’s survey of the Labour Party was an artful piece of work, which generally stuck to the facts in the main body of the report, before constructing a set of mountainous conclusions out of an evidential molehill, granting itself the right to determine what constitutes “legitimate criticism of Israel” without any legal basis for doing so.
During the same period, the journalist John Ware declined to follow through on a very public threat to sue Jeremy Corbyn. Ware was responsible for the BBC Panorama documentary “Is Labour Antisemitic?” Aired in July 2019, the program was not merely one instance among many: it occupied pride of place in the whole media narrative. Former Labour officials lined up to accuse Corbyn and his team of deliberately obstructing their efforts to root out antisemitism through the party’s disciplinary process.
Ware and his principal witnesses took Labour to court for disputing their version of events in considerable detail. In July 2020, Starmer ordered a six-figure payout to Ware and the former party officials to settle the case, despite receiving legal advice that Labour would almost certainly win. When Corbyn repeated his criticisms of the documentary, Ware vowed to sue him personally. That pledge now seems to have expired.
For the EHRC, specifically tasked with investigating allegations of “institutional antisemitism” in the Labour Party, the claims made in the Panorama documentary could not have been more relevant. Yet it appears to have found those claims to be unworthy of inclusion in an official document that might be subject to legal challenge by those named in it. We can only say that the commission “appears” to have reached this conclusion, since the report did not even mention the BBC program or the names of Ware’s most important “whistleblowers,” Iain McNicol and Sam Matthews, who served respectively as Labour’s general secretary and the head of its disciplinary unit between 2015 and 2018.
Ware insists that “Is Labour Antisemitic?” presented the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth to a vast audience. He had the chance to sue Corbyn in a country where the libel laws are famously tilted in favor of plaintiffs. Ware’s political hostility to Corbyn and the tendency that he represents is unconcealed. Yet for some reason, he has let the opportunity slip through his fingers. It really is a puzzle.
A Thought-Terminating Cliché
In a set-piece interview on the eve of this year’s party conference, Keir Starmer claimed that he had not been engaged in a factional struggle against the Left:
The battles we’ve had in the Labour Party in the last 18 months have pretty well all been about anti-Semitism, so they’re set up or described as a left-right-centre battle: they’re not. I said I was going to tackle anti-Semitism, and we’ve had to take action. Some people have perceived that as an attack on the left of the Labour Party. It isn’t — but you can’t have a united Labour Party if you’ve got anti-Semitism there.
This was a calculated insult to the intelligence of the New Statesman’s readers. Tom Kibasi, who was one of Starmer’s early backers, criticized him in February 2021 for having “provoked a completely unnecessary war with the party’s left” during his first year in office. Starmer’s current associates have gleefully briefed reporters on multiple occasions about their desire to extirpate every trace of left-wing influence. Yet Starmer had no reason to fear that his interlocutor would question what he had said.
The false narrative that has congealed around Corbyn’s stint as Labour leader is a perfect example of a thought-terminating cliché. Its chief function is to obstruct any sensible discussion of what happened while Corbyn was at the helm, or of what his successor has been doing since replacing him. Such barriers are especially important for Starmer, since he has comprehensively failed to deliver on what he promised during the 2020 leadership campaign, whether in terms of policy, party management, or “electability.”
Corbyn’s statement in October 2020 was a necessary baseline for rational discussion. The fact that his successor had him suspended for producing it speaks only to the political bankruptcy of the party’s current leadership. It is of a piece with the rest of Starmer’s track record, from his acceptance of the “Spy Cops” bill to his refusal to support a £15 minimum wage and his cynical U-turn about engagement with the Sun.
Whether or not Starmer can parlay this subservience to the British power elite into a turn as the country’s prime minister, he will certainly not be delivering the kind of change that Britain needs so urgently if he does get over the line. Most likely, he will fall short, and the only true legacy of his leadership will be the frenzied destruction of a political project upon which he had promised to build.