Keir Starmer should purge Labour of the far-left

23 November 2020

2:57 AM

23 November 2020

2:57 AM

Sir Keir Starmer was having such a good year. He broke cover early on to attack the government’s handling of Covid-19 and did so by speaking explicitly to traditional Tory voters. He repeatedly bested Boris Johnson at Prime Minister’s Questions and gave a good first conference speech in the job. He brought his party’s poll numbers to within a hairsbreadth of the Conservatives, just as Number 10 descended into the dullest soap opera this side of The Archers. Even that cringe photo of him and Angela Rayner taking a knee in the Shadow Cabinet room — like your parents after listening to Stormzy for the first time — can be forgiven because, bless their hearts, they meant well.

Then there was Jeremy Corbyn. The former Labour leader used the publication of the EHRC report into Labour’s handling of antisemitism to pronounce that:

‘One anti-Semite 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.’

He was boldly suspended, then, less boldly, unsuspended, from Labour. Though Sir Keir will not restore the parliamentary party whip for the next three months. That’ll teach him.

The EHRC report was supposed to ‘draw a line’ and allow Labour to ‘move on’. This kind of therapy babble is to be expected from a party that still thinks of itself as the victim of the antisemitism scandal. In fact, the publication has only underscored how little Labour has come to terms with what it has put British Jews through since 2015. Even those much-vaunted ‘allies’ on the soft-left — who stayed to fight for what was right, which turned out to be retaining their seats — typically speak in terms of getting past ‘distractions’ to turn the party’s fire on the government.

Half a decade later, there are still very few Labour MPs who fully understand, are prepared to acknowledge, or can fluently articulate just what their party did. Labour went from an organisation with pockets of antisemitism to an antisemitic organisation — and many supporters, most members and almost all MPs went along with it. Yes, they sent angry tweets and cried and shouted during PLP meetings, but when it came down to it, they looked at what appalled them and endeavoured to put it in charge of the country. If only UK progressives held themselves to the same standard they apply to US Republicans who declined to leave Trump’s party. Labour cannot ‘move on’ without reckoning with what it did and didn’t do.

There is an argument that, now Corbyn has been thrown back onto the backbenches, it’s time to stop talking about him and his time in office. If nothing else, British Jews deserve to be done with this wretchedness. I have three problems with this line of thinking. First, at a time when progressives demand we confront racial injustices of the distant past — in fact, place them at the centre of contemporary politics — it seems odd to say more recent prejudices ought to be left alone. Why is racism against Jews the only kind that must be forgotten?

Second, justice for Jews is only possible if those who mistreated them, turned a blind eye to their mistreatment, campaigned for the party that mistreated them, or denied they were mistreated at all, show remorse and take steps to right these wrongs. Third, a party that fails to confront Corbynism is a party that will eventually find itself back there. It won’t be exactly the same. The dramatis personae will be different, the language new, the heroes and villains time-appropriate, but just as Tony Benn’s near-victory in the 1981 deputy leadership race held out hope to the far-left, Corbyn’s period in office will still be inspiring angry idealists for decades to come.

Failure to act — as Blair and Brown and Miliband did — leaves the door open for another 2015. It makes Sir Keir look weak at the mercy of his party, while he tries to convince us he’s fit to lead the country. It tells British Jews and everyone else that Labour will tick a few procedural boxes and have more meetings with the Board of Deputies but will remain fundamentally unchanged.

The cure may lie in the ailment itself. The far-left are forever claiming that they are being purged, so why not purge them? In drawing up a new disciplinary process, include a specific mechanism for expelling party members (from MPs down to grassroot door-knockers) who helped bring the party into disrepute by engaging in, downplaying, denying, or defending antisemitism or causing strain in Labour’s relations with the Jewish community. Remove enough of them that way — especially the more high-profiled — until a sufficient number follow in protest. Labour will be reduced in size, both in members and MPs, but it will be in a position to start over again with Jewish communal groups and the country more broadly. It would be a new Labour, so to speak.

The far-left, from which most of the antisemitism emanates, does not belong to the Labour tradition and does not belong in the Labour Party. Driving out these ideological squatters would not end Labour’s antisemitism problem — the soft-left enablers would still have to wrestle with their consciences — but it would greatly reduce it. Take a year or two, expel as many as possible, and view resulting legal costs as an investment in the party’s future. This would be an unprecedented act of contrition; it would give Jews justice; it would make Labour what it ought to be: the mainstream party of UK politics.

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