2020 05 Editorial –Labour’s Internal War

Labour’s Internal War

Keir Starmer received the overwhelming support of Labour Party members in the vote for the new party leader. He is now in a strong position to steer the direction of Labour towards the next general election, scheduled for 2024. Crucially, his support is strong among Labour MPs. Unlike that of Jeremy Corbyn whose victory in two leadership elections was resented by a hard core of backbenchers, who constantly sought to undermine him. This created division within the party and was a factor in Labour’s defeat in the elections of 2017 and 2019.

Starmer’s shadow cabinet, appointed within a week of his election, is geographically diverse with members representing most regions of Great Britain. (Northern Ireland, excluded from Labour representation, is absent from membership in the cabinet). The surprise appointment is that of Lisa Nandy as Shadow Foreign Secretary. Nandy, MP for Wigan in north west England since 2010, polled a poor third in the leadership contest, with 16.3% of the vote. Nandy chair’s Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East (LFPME), and unlike a number of other shadow cabinet members is not a member of Labour Friends of Israel (LFI). Emily Thornberry, the previous shadow Foreign Secretary, is a member of both LFI and LFPME. She is now shadow International Trade Secretary, a clear demotion.

Was Nandy therefore an astute appointment by Starmer? To an outsider she would appear to be an odd choice as Foreign Secretary. Apart from her support for the Palestinians her views on foreign policy matters are largely unknown. She has however an interesting family pedigree. Her maternal grandfather, Frank Byers was a Liberal MP, while her father Dipak Nandy is an Indian academic and Marxist. Is Nandy a strange mix of the two?

Nandy’s background and appointment was generally ignored by the media. Starmer’s first public statement in which he apologised for the alleged institutionalised antisemitism in the Labour party more suited the media’s  appetite. An apology that was inevitable, given that he and the other leadership candidates signed up to the Board of Deputies 10 pledges. We believe they were wrong to do so and now there is no turning back. By making a public apology Starmer more or less accepted that Labour is an antisemitic party. A mere apology however will not satisfy the BoD. There is a bigger fish to fry as far as they are concerned. One that is linked to Labour’s attitude to Israel.

Like Corbyn, Starmer is not a member of Labour Friends of Israel. But unlike Corbyn he is not a critic of  Israel, or seen to be a supporter of the Palestinians. He can therefore expect a relatively easy ride from the  parliamentary Labour party. The allegations of antisemitism within Labour on the other hand were weaponised by Corbyn’s opponents to undermine his leadership and ensure that he would never become Labour Prime Minister.

This determination to stop Corbyn appears to be confirmed in an internal report recently produced by Labour’s central office and leaked by an unknown source. The report, ‘The work of the Labour Party’s Governance and Legal Unit in relation to antisemitism, 2014-2019’, was intended to be a part of the party’s submission to the inquiry into antisemitism by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). However it was not submitted following legal advice.

Labour is clearly embarrassed by the report, which names individual members of the party’s staff allegedly involved in the undermining of Corbyn. Keir Starmer has urged everyone not to jump to conclusions about the report and has called for an investigation into its leaking. John McDonnell has stated that it is so explosive that it has the potential to destroy the party.

While the investigation is carried out the party is urging its branches not to disseminate the report or discuss its contents. The individuals named in the report are threatening to sue the party for defamation of character. But the evidence set out in the report, if accurate, appears to be fairly damning. It’s difficult therefore to see that they have a strong case against the party.

Starmer’s caution over the contents of the report and its conclusions is in stark contrast with his comments on the EHRC inquiry into antisemitism in the party. While he believes that no conclusions should be drawn about Labour’s internal report, he has stated that he will accept the  recommendations of the yet to be published report of the EHRC inquiry.

In May 2019, the EHRC announced an inquiry into whether Labour had “unlawfully discriminated against, harassed or victimised people because they are Jewish.” The inquiry was not requested by Labour, but followed a number of complaints to the EHRC about antisemitism in the party. As far as we aware the nature of the complaints or their source is not publicly available.

The EHRC stated that “We are using our powers under the Equality Act to open an investigation, which will look at:

  • whether unlawful acts have been committed by the Party or its employees or agents
  • the steps taken by the Party to implement the recommendations made in the reports on antisemitism by Baroness Royall, the Home Affairs Select Committee and in the Chakrabarti Report
  • whether the Rule Book and the Party’s investigatory and disciplinary processes have enabled or could enable it to deal efficiently and effectively with complaints of race or religion or belief discrimination and racial harassment or victimisation, including whether appropriate sanctions have been or could be applied
  • whether the Party has responded to complaints of unlawful acts in a lawful, efficient and effective manner

The background to the long terms of reference states that: “The Commission suspects that the Labour Party (“the Party”) may have itself, and/or through its employees and/or agents, committed unlawful acts in relation to its members and/or applicants for membership and/or associates.”

Given the serious nature of the allegations and the wide terms of reference employed by the EHRC, why would Keir Starmer, a former Director of Public Prosecutions, be prepared to accept in advance the recommendations of the report of the EHRC inquiry? We thought legal eagles didn’t make judgements until they had seen the evidence.  Moreover, within the terms of reference there is no definition of what the EHRC believe to be antisemitism. If the EHRC has widened the definition of antisemitism beyond its broadly accepted meaning of hostility towards, or discrimination against, Jews as Jews, we are not confident that its conclusions and recommendations will be impartial or objective.