Protesting Osborne's budget, 2015. Photo: Jason/cropped from original/licensed under CC2.0, linked at bottom of article Protesting Osborne's budget, 2015. Photo: Jason/cropped from original/licensed under CC2.0, linked at bottom of article

You can’t win a war if you don’t realise you’re in one. Time to fight, argues Shabbir Lakha

The suspension of Jeremy Corbyn from the Labour Party has rightly caused outrage. The EHRC report was always going to be used by the new Labour leadership and the media as a tool with which to attack Jeremy Corbyn.

That Jeremy Corbyn’s completely reasonable and accurate response was used as a justification to suspend him can only be described as a farce. That Jeremy Corbyn found out about his suspension from a photographer and not the Party, shows the level of contempt they have for him.

An attack on the left

The decision to suspend a former leader of the Labour party is unprecedented and shows just how far Starmer and the right are willing to go to bury the legacy of Corbynism. This hasn’t happened out of the blue. Since coming to power, Keir Starmer has decisively shifted the party to the right:

  • he barred the left from his Shadow front bench with the exception of Rebecca Long-Bailey who he sacked at the first opportunity on spurious grounds
  • he refused to back the trade unions against the government at the peak of the pandemic
  • he’s given implicit support to the government’s dangerous Overseas Operations and Spy Cops bills by whipping Labour MPs to abstain

On the question of antisemitism, Starmer signed up to the Board of Deputies’ ten pledges during his leadership campaign which included making Labour’s disciplinary process independent with oversight from the group, suspending anyone who supports or defends someone accused of antisemitism, and a commitment to “engage with the Jewish community” only through groups it considers legitimate and not “fringe organisations and individuals” – a clear attack on left wing Jewish organisations.

Starmer has gone to great pains to make clear to the Board of Deputies, the media, big business and anyone who’ll listen that he’s not Corbyn. But more importantly, he’s been laying the groundwork to ensure that the left don’t have an inkling of a chance of getting close to leading the party ever again. The direction of travel has been clear and this was the next step.

What unity?

It is then all the more frustrating that despite all this, the rallying call from leading Labour left MPs is to “stay calm” and the primary focus of their criticism of Corbyn’s suspension is to say “divided parties don’t win elections”.

The appeal for unity with the right of the party has been the mantra of the Labour left since the day Jeremy Corbyn became leader. Its pursuit has meant the left conceding to the right’s demands time and time again – something which has never been reciprocated by the right. The right was extremely open throughout Corbyn’s leadership about working against him and the Labour leaks showed they went as far as actively trying to sabotage the party during the general elections. What kind of unity is being envisioned and to what end?

The left’s loyalty to the party is its biggest weakness. Compare the numerous times Labour right MPs threatened to leave the party over the last five years whenever they made demands on the leadership to how socialist MPs have reacted to Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension. Compare how Starmer has said suspending Corbyn was the right decision and will expel him if the investigation pans out to how some on the left frantically pushed the leadership into dropping any kind of disciplinary action against Margaret Hodge when she publicly slandered Corbyn.

No lessons learned

Nadia Whittome and Clive Lewis have said that Corbyn’s statement was “ill-advised”. John McDonnell has said the party has “overreacted” to a “misinterpretation” of Corbyn’s words. Owen Jones has called it “tone-deaf” and together with other Labour left and trade union figures has criticised Starmer’s decision only insofar as it has wasted an “opportunity for reflection”, “to learn lessons” and “move on”.

The premise remains firstly that the allegations of antisemitism against Corbyn’s leadership were in large part done in good faith and secondly that Keir Starmer has made a mistake. But this is wrong. It has been patently clear for a long time that the majority of allegations of antisemitism were either unfounded or relating to people outside the party and that Blairite MPs and organisations like the Board of Deputies were using the issue as a means to attack Corbyn and support for Palestine.

Of course, as Corbyn has said, one antisemite is one antisemite too many and no one should claim the problem is non-existent or shouldn’t be dealt with. But it’s dishonest to imagine this is a specific problem on the left or that it isn’t exaggerated.

Going along with the smear campaign as if it were legitimate meant that the party adopted the IHRA definition with all its examples – and when Corbyn himself tried to at least attach a caveat he was stopped by a majority left NEC. The left tried to champion the cause and ardently pushed for suspensions and expulsions – some of which were on similar grounds to what Corbyn has now been suspended for.

This was always a witch-hunt, and not fighting back on those terms has only opened the ground repeatedly for more attack. Keir Starmer hasn’t “overreacted”, he’s carrying on the attack. He has no interest in unity with the left, and imagining that the way to fight back is to call him out on not maintaining unity is naïve. Those arguing for this tend to be the same people who downplayed the clear direction of travel Starmer’s election as leader represented because they took his lip service to maintaining Corbyn’s policies as a commitment to the left.

Fight back

The only thing to do is fight back. There is no sense in appealing for unity with the right for the sake of an election in 4 years’ time or pretending the solution is to ensure left victories in the NEC elections. This is a political fight.

We must insist on Corbyn’s reinstatement, but not primarily because of his membership of the party, but to defend him and what he represents – a principled socialist and anti-imperialist who has come from and remains with the movements. Therefore there is no logic to hoping for a technical fix like the EHRC’s report saying that questioning the extent of antisemitism isn’t itself antisemitic, nor for a resolution between people close to Starmer and close to Corbyn who are currently negotiating, because that solves nothing.

The mistake Starmer has made is biting off more than he can chew. He’s cornered himself into a position now, and backing down from expelling Corbyn will only bring the media furore crashing down on his head for being a weak leader who isn’t actually serious about antisemitism. But the only way it becomes a problem for him to not back down is if the left puts up a fight.

Starmer must be forced back and the right must be confronted – we need a fighting left to do this. It is on the left that we need unity to work together and that cannot be limited to inside the Labour party – it must include the social and trade union movements. But equally, we should not be taking any direction or calls for calm from the same quarters that have repeatedly made the mistakes that have led to this in the first place.

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Shabbir Lakha

Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.

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