The shame of the Labour party – the Labour party! – being put into special measures by the Equality and Human Rights Commission for racism shocked most members to the core in 2020. To be released from that disgrace now is hardly a moment for celebration, after the EHRC’s original finding that Labour acted unlawfully in failing to rein in antisemitism under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
His refusal to accept the overall findings set Corbyn on an inevitable path out of the parliamentary Labour party. He maintains “The scale of the problem was dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media.” But a party can’t be a little bit racist: the damning findings had to be swallowed whole.
Keir Starmer’s confirmation today that Corbyn cannot stand as a Labour candidate at the next general election is hardly surprising. Cleansing the party of antisemitism is deeply personal for Starmer, as his wife is Jewish and they keep Jewish festivals. But Corbyn’s obstinacy was convenient, too, his expulsion an opportunity to demonstrate Starmer’s mission to get a grip on the party. Rishi Sunak’s feeble jibes at Starmer for serving in Corbyn’s cabinet bounce off him now. Of course, as Starmer said yesterday today, it’s a job not quite done: when the Labour MP Kim Johnson got up at PMQs to call the Israeli government fascist, she had to apologise to the house promptly, under threat from the chief whip.
Taking over the leadership during the Covid crisis, Starmer devoted his time to fixing the party internally as he slowly made progress with voters. Asked his mission, he declared it was “winning”. It has paid off handsomely as he soars in the polls. I am told that many reports from local meetings speak of the Corbynite influence fading, with some of his supporters leaving altogether or changing their mind as the party inches towards power. Starmer has been lucky in the total implosion of the Tories and lucky again with the resignation of Nicola Sturgeon: polling for all her likely successors is unimpressive, aiding Labour’s chances in Scotland. No opposition leader has ever scored as low in Ipsos’s polling as Corbyn’s -60 personal approval rating, with Michael Foot at -56, and Iain Duncan Smith and William Hague tied at -37. Corbyn benefited from his opponents’ disastrous campaign in 2017, though his personal rating trailed far behind both Theresa May’s and his own party’s popularity – Labour won 40% of votes to the Tories’ 42.4%. Yet there are those who still see him as a saviour rather than a drag anchor: as the one who brought flocks of enthusiastic new members into the party, and prompted delighted chants of “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” at Glastonbury. He was betrayed by rightwingers in the party and brought down in 2019 by those who should have backed him, they say.
The Guardian is often their chief villain. Whenever I write criticism of the government I am guaranteed Twitter and thread responses claiming that if only I, my colleagues and the paper had backed him, we wouldn’t be suffering this Tory era. A brief check in the archive would show that the only thing wrong with this analysis is that I, other columnists and the Guardian’s leader all urged voters to back Corbyn’s Labour party. How could we not, after a decade of brutal austerity, and given Boris Johnson’s unfitness for power? I backed just about every individual item in Labour’s 2019 manifesto: it was nothing like Michael Foot’s “longest suicide note in history”, which pledged to leave both the EU and Nato. Its obstacle was its implausible costings, with extra billions added during the campaign. But Labour’s worst problem was Corbyn himself, as voters feared his perceived lack of patriotism (prompted by, for example, his failure to sing the national anthem at a remembrance event) and told focus groups and pollsters they felt he was “not concerned about their issues” or “people like them”. Most voters never joined that misleading Glastonbury chorus.
My own greatest anger with Corbyn him was over his refusal to campaign seriously against Brexit in the referendum. “Where is he?” I asked his advisers a couple of months before the vote. “He thinks the local elections more important,” was the unforgivable reply, when in truth he was a lexiter – a Bennite Brexiter. But because our monstrous election system offers only a binary choice, of course progressives of every hue had to back Labour against a nightmarish, sociopathic Tory leader. I never doubted that Corbyn would be a preferable prime minister to Johnson – the lowest of bars – but in 2019 he led Labour to its worst result since 1935. Now, Corbyn’s remaining believers cling to that last resort of all failed ideologues, the same refrain as the failing Brexiters’: we were betrayed.
Corbyn seems likely to stand as an independent for Islington North, where Labour has an array of good would-be candidates. Groups within Labour such as Momentum may face a quandary, as they would automatically be expelled from the party if they campaigned for him against Labour. But in the present golden polling climate, it hardly matters who wins that one seat. What matters is that Labour has expunged the shame of the EHRC’s special measures. What matters, too, is that in its haste to escape the failure of Corbynism, Labour doesn’t overreach and purge anyone with anything original or interesting to say.