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Keir Starmer has no need to betray Corbynism – Jeremy is doing it for him

The Labour leader has nothing to fear from the forthcoming inquiry into Labour antisemitism – his predecessor has chosen the wrong ground on which to fight

Crisis, what crisis? Starmer won’t face a revolt from party members
Crisis, what crisis? Starmer won’t face a revolt from party members

When Keir Starmer won the Labour leadership promising unity, this could have been a problem for him. The more perceptive of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters realised this, and one part of Momentum (fortunately, we do not need to keep up with the names of sub-factions any more) urged the members to hold Starmer to his commitment to all of Corbyn’s policies, including a Prevention of Military Intervention Act.

But one of Corbyn’s less perceptive supporters turned out to be Jeremy himself, who decided to go to war to defend his legacy, thus destroying the party’s “unity” and freeing Starmer of the need to be seen to be fostering it.

Corbyn condemned Starmer’s decision to settle the libel case brought against the Labour Party, saying that his legal advice was that “the party had a strong defence”. But this wasn’t just some random litigation the party had got into: this was a legal battle in the civil war raging within the party. The libel action was brought by former Labour staff who had featured in a BBC Panorama programme, in which they claimed that the party under Corbyn’s leadership was hesitant and inconsistent in dealing with antisemitism. They were accused in turn by the party of having “personal and political axes to grind” – in other words, that they were making it up or exaggerating in order to undermine Corbyn and his politics.

You could say that, by settling the case and apologising on behalf of the party to its former employees, Starmer was taking sides in the civil war – but what else is a leader pledged to unite the party supposed to do? “Settle” or “fight” was a binary choice, and Starmer made it clear during the leadership election that he had objected in the shadow cabinet to Corbyn’s handling of antisemitism. He also knew that Corbyn’s claim to have a “strong” defence was rubbish. This was confirmed yesterday when it was reported that Thomas Gardiner, Labour’s legal director until last month, formally warned the party not to use the “selective” and “misleading” evidence on which it intended to rely in the libel case.

It was Corbyn who made the disunity worse, by wanting to fight on in what his wing of the party used to call the capitalist courts.

The conventional view is that Starmer faces a crisis. The party members, many of whom were inspired to join by Corbyn, will be furious to see their idol traduced by the new leader who promised to keep the sacred flame alive. I am not sure that this is true.

Of course, most Labour members want to defend the 2019 manifesto (apart from free broadband – everyone seems to think that was a policy too far), and they may even buy into the Corbynite conspiracy theory that “Blairites” in the party worked to undermine it from within, handing victory to the Tories.

But they do not make the mistake of thinking that the definition of antisemitism is the ditch that the idealists in the party should defend at all costs. That is why Rebecca Long-Bailey was despatched to the outer darkness with hardly a murmur. Most party members would fight, and fight, and fight again, to save rail nationalisation as a policy, but they won’t go to the barricades for someone who praised an actor who blamed Israel for the killing of George Floyd – especially when the actor herself disowned her comment.

It has been assumed that the inquiry by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission into Labour’s handling of antisemitism would be a problem for Starmer. He will know, because a draft of its report is sitting on his desk, to give the party the chance to make representations before it is published, probably in September.

But the same principle applies. Most party members are not going to rise up to claim, as some of the Corbyn sectarians have done, that the EHRC is a Blairite organisation and that its investigation is being used for the purposes of factional warfare. Most members are going to be embarrassed by evidence that the party failed to show zero tolerance of antisemitism and will want the fuss to go away.

Journalists, meanwhile, will attack Starmer from the other side, accusing him of remaining in the shadow cabinet and therefore of being complicit in Corbyn’s failure to expunge the stain of antisemitism with sufficient rigour. Needless to say, this is not how politics works. Starmer did enough to distance himself from Corbyn’s approach at the time, and has acted decisively as leader.

He will be able to use the EHRC report as yet another demonstration that he has moved on from Corbyn’s leadership. That will impress the voters that Labour needs to win over at the next election, while maintaining the unity of the vast bulk of the party membership. Starmer has judged the mood of the members – after all, twice as many voted for him as for Long-Bailey, the continuity-Corbyn candidate – better than the leader who attracted so many of them to the party in the first place.

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