Recognition and reconciliation: the significance of Corbyn’s suspension from the Labour Party
Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn leaves his house in North London ahead of the release of an anti-Semitism report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), 29 October 2020 | PA Images
After the explosive fallout from the EHRC's report into antisemitism in Labour, where does the party now sit within conversations on race and ethnic disparities?
At 10am on Thursday 29 October, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published its much anticipated report into antisemitism in the Labour Party. The investigation had been over a year in the making and was launched following mounting concerns that discrimination had been allowed to escalate in the party without proper scrutiny or disciplinary action.
The EHRC found the Labour Party guilty of having breached the Equality Act 2010 in three ways. Firstly, for politically interfering with the antisemitism complaints process, especially where it concerned the conduct of the Leader of the Opposition’s Office. Secondly, for failing to adequately train those handling complaints, in such a way that amounted to indirect discrimination. And thirdly, guilty for harassment wherein agents representing the party, and for whom Labour were therefore directly responsible, had used antisemitic tropes and/or suggested that “complaints of antisemitism were fake or smears.”
The report did not place the blame squarely with any one individual; however, it concluded that there had been “serious failings in leadership” which lead to an erosion of trust in the party.
The report’s publication should have marked a sombre moment of recognition by Labour for the collective harms experienced by the Jewish community. The reality was more mixed – and much more dramatic than some expected.
In his own response to the report’s findings, delivered an hour after the report was published, Labour leader Keir Starmer said there was “no room for equivocation,” on antisemitism and that he was “truly sorry for all the pain and grief” wreaked upon the Jewish people. Accepting all the report’s recommendations, Starmer said that any person who still believed claims of antisemitism were an exaggeration were themselves “part of the problem.”
However, his predecessor did not share that view; 25 minutes earlier, Jeremy Corbyn put out a Facebook post stating that he “did not accept all of [the report’s] findings”, and that political opponents and the media had “dramatically overstated” the scale of the problem “for political reasons”. He later doubled down on those comments in a TV interview.
By 1pm, Jeremy Corbyn had been suspended from the Labour Party.
John McDonnell, Corbyn’s former shadow chancellor, said the decision had been “profoundly wrong” – an opinion shared by over 21,500 signatories on a Change.org petition calling for Corbyn’s reinstatement, and several Labour MPs who tweeted their support. Corbyn himself has said he would “strongly contest the political intervention,” just as he would continue to “support a zero tolerance policy towards all forms of racism.”
Both sides of the chasm have claimed their priority concern was achieving reconciliation with the Jewish community; however with neither side prepared to lay down their swords, where does this place Labour within conversations on race and ethnic disparities? And if, as McDonnell had said, the party is “drifting towards a hell of a row over use of language and misinterpretation,” why does language matter, and why is full acceptance of the EHRC’s report significant for wider debates on equality and discrimination?
However for many in the Jewish community, saying that allegations of antisemitism were exaggerated, as Corbyn did, has the resultant effect of minimising experiences of harm. To minimise harm in some ways makes it seem more permissible; and it is for this very reason that the Commission found Labour to have unlawfully breached the Equality Act 2010.
The Board of Deputies of British Jews said there had been a “great deal of relief within the Jewish community” following Corbyn’s suspension; and the Jewish Labour Movement said that Keir Starmer had “taken responsibility” by adhering to his promise that antisemitism would not be allowed in any form within in the party.
There is evidently ripe ground for where Labour could move on from this period in their recent history. The party are now legally required to draft an action plan by 10 December 2020 to tackle the unlawful finding which had been set out in the report, based on recommendations, and the leadership have shown clear determination to deliver on the Commission’s report.
Alexandra Ming is Dods political consultant for health and equalities