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The Guardian view on Labour and antisemitism: a question of leadership

Editorial
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Thierry Monasse/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Thierry Monasse/Getty Images

Labour has been braced for months for the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report on antisemitism during Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. The release of the report on Thursday was generally expected to mark what Keir Starmer duly called it, a “day of shame” for the party, in which Labour took its punishment, confessed its sins and apologised to Britain’s Jewish population. Few expected events to take the dramatic course they then did, with Mr Corbyn’s unwillingness to apologise and his subsequent suspension from the party he recently led threatening to eclipse the larger issue.

The report’s findings are nevertheless clear and stark. Labour, it says, was responsible for unlawful and antisemitic acts of harassment and discrimination. There were multiple failures in the party’s system for handling antisemitism complaints, including inconsistent approaches, poor training and lack of transparency. There was also, more broadly, a Labour culture that “at best, did not do enough to prevent antisemitism and, at worst, could be seen to accept it”. The report concludes that antisemitism within Labour could have been tackled more effectively if the party leadership had chosen to do so.

These are devastating findings, not just against Mr Corbyn but against any party, especially one that prides itself on its commitment to equality and which set up the very commission that conducted the investigation. Mr Starmer takes this view. He is understandably determined to draw a line. He has already authorised private settlements in the civil cases brought by former party members and staff. On Thursday he announced that the party would plead guilty to the report on all counts. Labour accepted the findings in full and said it would implement all its recommendations. There will be an action plan, a new independent complaints process and zero tolerance of antisemitism.

It was a steely response, forcefully delivered. But it was not simply a plea to begin a clean page with Jewish voters and former Labour members and MPs, important though that was. It was also an implicit attack on his predecessor and supporters. In a key passage, Mr Starmer added that those who reject the report’s findings, or who think the issue is exaggerated or a factional attack were “part of the problem too”. They too “should be nowhere near the Labour party either”. This was tough language. Mr Corbyn however insisted that the issue had been “dramatically overstated for political reasons”. When Mr Corbyn refused to retract, Mr Starmer suspended him and withdrew the party whip, pending an investigation.

It is a huge move for Labour. It shows Mr Starmer’s willingness to take a tough decision, his calculation that most of the party will back him, especially on this issue, and his preparedness to start to chart a very different course for the Labour party. But it also shows Mr Corbyn’s determination to defend his legacy and to defy Mr Starmer to force him out. Whatever the eventual consequences of the now inevitable battle, it means that Labour risks turning inward at exactly the moment it should be leading the charge against Boris Johnson over Covid and hard Brexit.