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Artillery Row

Jeremy is back, sort of

With Labour facing massive legal bills, Corbyn’s return to Labour is a less explosive risk than expelling him

The rapid readmittance to Labour party membership of the man who was its leader only seven months’ ago has received a mixed reception which can be split into three broad catergories.

His admirers – and few modern politicians have attracted such personal loyalty and devotion – insist that he should never have been suspended in the first place. Does not his speedy readmittance prove that to be so? Instead, a needless internecine conflict was created – manufactured – by Sir Keir Starmer at exactly the moment when he should have been reaching out to rebuild socialist unity. Now Starmer has added insult to injury: for rather than learning from this botched effort to erase Corbyn as Stalin vanished Trotsky, he still lacks the humility to restore the parliamentary whip to Corbyn. Indeed, Sir Keir’s spokesman confirmed today that the two men have not spoken since the release of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report that led to his suspension in October. And thus: no justice, no peace.

Nor does Starmer win plaudits from Labour’s opponents. Amanda Milling, the Conservatives’ co-chairman, claims to be horrified, “Keir Starmer is failing to stand up for British Jews” she responds, and “by allowing Jeremy Corbyn back into the Labour party he is sending a message that the shameful antisemitism of recent years should be allowed to continue.”

Starmer’s critics are not giving him the credit for withholding the whip from Corbyn, seeing that as tokenistic. Given the post-2019 arithmetic, it’s not as if Corbyn held the casting vote in Westminster in any case. More importantly, Starmer is supposedly at fault for not intervening to prevent the Labour party’s disciplinary committee from letting him back in.

Give Starmer a break, say those appreciative of his balancing act performance. Everything was done by the book (as you’d expect with the former director of public prosecutions). It is for the party’s disciplinary committee to investigate and adjudicate on taking away or restoring Corbyn’s membership and it would have been quite wrong for Starmer to intervene in a process that, although internal to the party, is deliberately independent of his will. At least he has shown his disgust with the man he recently campaigned to make the UK’s prime minister, by denying him what is in the leader’s gift – the whip.

That Corbyn is now back in his party but officially disapproved of by the Labour whips pleases neither the Left nor the Right in the party. It is understood that the Labour leader had a long telephone conversation last night with Dame Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP and former government minister, who has been among the most outspoken critics of Corbyn’s response to anti-Semitism. Whatever the tone of the call with Keir, she remains deeply unhappy, stating, “this is a broken outcome from a broken system. A factional, opaque and dysfunctional complaints process could never reach a fair conclusion. This is exactly why the EHRC instructed Labour to setup an independent process!”

Earlier today, Keir Starmer’s spokesman pointed out to lobby journalists that since Starmer and Angela Rayner were elected leader and deputy leader, the party’s disciplinary procedures had been sped-up and the quick verdict on Corbyn was one consequence of this emphasis on getting on with things. But he remained adamant that Starmer had not been involved in the deliberations which were entirely those of party officials – the senior of which is David Evans. Evans, who was elected Labour’s general secretary by the NEC in May, is far closer to Starmer’s political outlook than that of Momentum.

But even the need for speed is being used as a weapon against Starmer. At EHRC prompting, fully independent disciplinary procedures are due to be introduced in the new year. Why then was the Corbyn case rushed through, when it could have been delayed until this new, independent, tribunal could adjudicate on his words and deeds?

Few would question the genuineness of Starmer’s efforts to allay the fears of Britain’s Jewish community. He could not be more clear that anti-Semitism has no place in the party he leads. But Labour must remain a funded and functioning fighting machine. Maintaining this does involve compromises. Starmer may not want Corbynistas running his show, but nor does he want to denude his party entirely of some of its most energetic activists when the time comes to turn the fire on the Tories rather than each other.

Tidying-up after Corbyn is proving expensive

Further, there is the vulgar matter of money. Tidying-up after Corbyn is proving expensive. In July, Labour paid out at least £600,000 to seven former Labour staffers (who had been described as “disaffected staff” with “personal and political axes to grind” by Corbyn’s Labour spin machine) and the BBC journalist, John Ware, whose “Is Labour Anti-Semitic?” Panorama documentary had been rubbished as ““deliberate and malicious representations designed to mislead the public” by Corbyn’s Labour.

Those who think there is an anti-Left conspiracy exploiting charges of anti-Semitism as a way of purging the party of socialists believed a more resolute defence was needed. They are horrified at the sums paid out and the full apology made. Rather than say little beyond mouthing some words of regret, Corbyn criticised the settlement as a “political decision” that “risks giving credibility to misleading and inaccurate allegations about action taken to tackle antisemitism in the Labour Party in recent years.” Equally unrepentant was Len McCluskey, the Unite general secretary, who condemned the pay-out as “a misuse of Labour party funds to settle a case it was advised we would win in court.”

If only that were the end of it. The leaking of an internal report swelled the number of civil cases pending to over thirty, among them, from Labour’s former general secretary, Lord McNicol and it is estimated that there are, in all, at least sixty potential legal suits pending or under consideration.

Even before Corbyn’s suspension, McCluskey had announced a 10 percent cut in Unite’s funding to the Labour party. The anger felt last month over Crobyn’s suspension would have seemed decorous compared to the civil war – and legal action – that would have followed a decision to expel him now. Even if Starmer had won in the end, it would be at terrific cost to the party he leads.

This is the context in which the decision to readmit Corbyn to Labour but deny him the parliamentary whip has been made. It pleases few. But taking an unambiguous decision one way or the other risked worse consequences. The problem remains though of what to do with Corbyn? Starmer’s spokesman today would not enter into speculation about how long he would be denied the whip, but parliamentary Labour party protocol generally limits that suspension period to six months. Then what?

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