During the 2020 Labour leadership election, Keir Starmer pitched himself as the ‘unity candidate’. But throughout the first year of his tenure there was almost no let-up in his crackdown on the left: censuring MPs for the mildest expressions of pro-Palestinian sentiment, sacking frontbenchers who opposed Tory foreign policy, dismissing Rebecca Long-Bailey for her proximity to trade unions, and demanding an apology from Alex Sobel for being insufficiently ‘pro-business’. Even former allies have been alienated by this seemingly gratuitous factional assault, which is now seeking to root out marginal Trotskyist groups.
Yet there was a clear motive for Starmer’s volte-face. The Labour leader believes his party can only regain public confidence by ditching ‘ideological opposition’ for ‘constructive engagement’ with the government. Under his electoral strategy, Labour’s primary role is not to present an alternative vision of society, but to propose minor technocratic improvements to Tory policies. By replacing Corbyn’s “impossible demands” with serious suggestions, Starmer hopes to win back conservative ‘red wall’ voters along with wavering Lib Dems. To consolidate this new model of opposition, it is necessary to relegate Labour’s socialist faction. As long as the left has a prominent voice, it will obstruct the transition from class politics to tepid managerialism. The sooner it is sidelined, the better.
Of course, the loudest voice on the Labour left has always been that of Starmer’s predecessor. While the leader of the opposition took a proudly abstentionist approach to the pandemic – allowing Johnson to unlock early in pursuit of herd immunity – Corbyn and the rest of the Socialist Campaign Group called for social protections and virus containment measures. This refusal to toe the line made some form of disciplinary action against the former leader inevitable. To great media fanfare, he was evicted from the party last autumn, and continues to sit as an independent MP. Yet while the order to suspend Corbyn was a transparent attempt to repudiate his legacy, the dynamics of that decision have not yet been described in detail, and the controversy over his readmittance has dropped off the headlines. It is therefore worth rewinding to October 2020 and looking closely at this event – both to correct the flawed accounts currently in circulation, and to gain further insight into Starmer’s leadership.
On 29 October, the government’s Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published its highly anticipated report on Labour antisemitism. Rumours had been circulating that Corbyn would be suspended following its release, with Labour sources briefing a select group of journalists to that effect. Yet there appeared to be disagreements among Starmer’s team. While some were pushing to suspend Corbyn immediately once the EHRC delivered its verdict, others cautioned that they should allow him to respond before making their decision. A source close to Angela Rayner told me that the deputy leader was reluctant to eject her former boss. Although she didn’t share Corbyn’s politics, she had become associated with his wing of the party since her election to parliament in 2015. An all-out war between Corbyn and Starmer was likely to split her support base, with consequences for her future leadership ambitions.
As it happened, nothing in the content of the EHRC report gave Starmer cause to escalate his purge. It retrospectively identified various problems with Labour’s disciplinary process, but responsibility for these faults lay with two rightwing former officials – general secretary Iain McNicol and head of disputes Sam Matthews – whereas Corbyn’s allies had largely fixed them. The EHRC also noted that, under Corbyn, the leader of the opposition’s office (LOTO) had “interfered” in a small number of antisemitism complaints cases; but it conceded that the aim of such interference was to speed up processing times and hand down harsher penalties.
The pretext for Corbyn’s suspension would therefore have to be his reaction to the EHRC’s findings. He had been sent a first draft of the report the previous summer, but Starmer’s office would not allow him to read the final version until its publication date. Earlier in October, Corbyn had collaborated with his former staffers – Seumas Milne, James Schneider, Andrew Murray and Karie Murphy – on writing a response. They drafted a text which asserted that:
“Anyone claiming there is no antisemitism in the Labour party is wrong. Of course there is, as there is throughout society, and sometimes it is voiced by people who think of themselves as on the left. Jewish members of our party and the wider community were right to expect us to deal with it, and I regret that it took longer to deliver that change than it should. One antisemite is one too many, but the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media. That combination hurt Jewish people and must never be repeated.”
Corbyn was set to issue this statement on the morning of 29 October so long as the final version of the report did not significantly depart from the previous one. On the evening of 28 October he received a call from Starmer who told him that Labour’s official response would not personally attack him or his leadership, but would instead focus on the party as a whole. Starmer asked how Corbyn planned to respond, and Corbyn replied that he could not say exactly since he had not read the finished text. He then asked to see an advance version of Starmer’s press statement so he could make sure his own comments would not conflict with it. Starmer promised Corbyn he would send it over, and rang off.
Later that night, Milne received a call from Rayner, who seemed stressed and agitated. She said they needed to ensure Corbyn was protected once the report came out, and emphasised that he should be extremely cautious in his response. Milne repeated what Corbyn had said to Starmer, asking her to send them the leader’s official statement so they could amend Corbyn’s accordingly. She said she would tell LOTO communications director Ben Nunn to email it as soon as possible. But by the next morning, neither Corbyn nor Milne had received Starmer’s communique – despite Milne prompting Rayner for a second time. At 9.30am Corbyn was sent the pdf of the EHRC document, half an hour before it was released to the general public. Schneider and Milne checked it over to see if it was different to the version they had already read and found only minor changes. They were eager to publish Corbyn’s response as soon as possible so it would feature in the initial media coverage of the EHRC report, and at 10.35am it was posted on social media. Corbyn then joined Milne and Murphy at a community centre in Finsbury Park to film a short video clip reiterating his written statement.
Starmer and his staff read Corbyn’s post as soon as it was published. At 11am, Starmer gave a press conference at Labour’s Southside headquarters in which he appeared to respond directly to his predecessor’s remarks. “If after all the pain, all the grief, and all the evidence in this report”, he said, “there are still those who think there’s no problem with antisemitism in the Labour party, that it’s all exaggerated, or a factional attack, then, frankly, you are part of the problem too. And you should be nowhere near the Labour party either.” Upon hearing these words, Corbyn’s team began to wonder whether Starmer had deliberately withheld the transcript of his speech, hoping Corbyn would say something that could be used to justify his foreordained suspension. “If Keir had sent us his statement”, said one of Corbyn’s aides, “we would have cut Jeremy’s line about the scale of the problem being ‘dramatically overstated’”. Some could not help but conclude that Starmer had refused to share his notes because he intended to create a marked contrast between his statement and Corbyn’s.
Rayner texted Milne during the press conference and told him that the situation was a ‘disaster’. After Starmer left the podium, he met with other LOTO staffers on the eighth floor of Southside and made the order to issue the suspension, which was enacted by Labour’s newly appointed general secretary David Evans. Corbyn left the community centre at 1pm and was told by a press photographer waiting outside that he was no longer a Labour member. He high-tailed over to a nearby shop owned by his son, where Murphy set up a conference call with John McDonnell and Diane Abbott to discuss next steps. That afternoon, Corbyn appeared on Sky News and signalled his willingness to negotiate with Starmer about the terms of his readmittance. McDonnell suggested Jon Trickett and Len McCluskey act as delegates for Corbyn in dealing with LOTO. According to sources, he also encouraged Corbyn to apologise for his comments in meetings over the coming days. McDonnell denies ever advising Corbyn to apologise for his statement.
At that point, messages of solidarity began to roll in from the Labour membership. Constituency Labour parties (CLPs) across the country – Liverpool, London, Bristol, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Bolton, Cardiff – passed motions condemning the suspension. Trade unions threatened to withhold funding from Labour for the upcoming local elections. Statements of support arrived from leftwing leaders in Latin America, anti-apartheid activists in South Africa and partisans of the Bernie Sanders movement in the US. In response, Starmer ordered CLPs and Labour MPs not to discuss Corbyn’s suspension at risk of being suspended themselves. All CLP motions supporting Corbyn would be ruled ‘out of order’, and any critical discussion of the EHRC report would lead to disciplinary action. Rayner, having been forced to pick a side in the factional dispute she tried to prevent, fell in line with Starmer, warning that the leadership was ready to suspend “thousands and thousands” of members. Of course, this meant ousting any Jewish members who stood with Corbyn. Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, a prominent Jewish Voice for Labour activist, and Moshé Machover, a leftwing Israeli academic, were among those who were suspended.
Despite its heavy-handed treatment of dissenters, LOTO knew it was on shaky ground. The EHRC report had explicitly stated that Labour members were entitled to “express their opinions on internal party matters, such as the scale of antisemitism within the party” – so expelling Corbyn for claiming that the scale had been “overstated” would be difficult. In addition, one of the report’s key recommendations was that the disciplinary process over alleged antisemitism should be free from “political interference”. It asserted that if “staff from the leader of the opposition’s office (LOTO) were able to influence decisions on complaints, especially decisions on whether to suspend someone”, this would amount to “unlawful indirect discrimination”. So by suspending Corbyn and his allies, Starmer had himself violated the injunctions of the EHRC. The leader appeared to realise this shortly afterward, and switched from claiming he had made a “difficult decision” on Corbyn’s case to claiming he had only been “consulted” on the action. (Although from the perspective of the EHRC this was a meaningless distinction, as both were equally “unlawful”). Despite one shadow cabinet member briefing that the suspension could be Starmer’s “clause IV moment”, its execution was too clumsy to have the intended effect.
This made Starmer keen to resolve the matter quickly. Having taken the symbolic step of dislodging Corbyn, he was now mindful of the potential fallout – and reluctant to get drawn into a protracted struggle with the membership. Morgan McSweeney, Starmer’s chief of staff, rang Trickett on the afternoon of 29 October to tell him LOTO was ready to strike a deal that would see Corbyn return to the party. At 5pm Trickett and McCluskey met with Corbyn, who officially authorised them to negotiate on his behalf. After their discussion, the Unite boss rang Starmer and asked if he wanted to resolve the issue. Starmer answered in the affirmative. The pair agreed to meet again the following day, along with Trickett, Rayner and McSweeney. McCluskey began the summit by demanding the immediate reversal of the suspension and lambasting Starmer for his hypocrisy. Starmer rejected McCluskey’s appeal, but agreed to reinstate the former leader if the two teams could agree on a new statement for him to sign. Trickett told Starmer this would have to be a “clarification” rather than an apology, and Starmer assented to this prerequisite. Starmer and Corbyn then stepped back from the process – allowing McSweeney, McCluskey and Trickett to draft the revised statement with input from Murray. By 4.10pm on 31 October, the quartet had hammered out a wording they could all agree on, which included the following diplomatic sentences:
“I regret the pain this issue has caused the Jewish community and would wish to do nothing that would exacerbate or prolong it. To be clear, concerns about antisemitism are neither ‘exaggerated’ nor ‘overstated’. The point I wished to make was that the vast majority of Labour party members were and remain committed anti-racists deeply opposed to antisemitism.”
The clarification was approved by Starmer the same day. He agreed to welcome Corbyn’s statement in an upcoming interview on The Andrew Marr Show on 1 November. Yet this opportunity was missed, as Trickett and McCluskey were unable to get Corbyn to sign the document before Starmer went on air (the former leader had turned his phone off and was unreachable). Once Corbyn had eventually approved the wording, another group call was scheduled for 12 November with Fletcher, McSweeney and Milne. Their aim was to choreograph the release of the statement along with Corbyn’s subsequent readmission. They decided that the text would be published at 9.05am the following Tuesday, ahead of a National Executive Committee meeting which would rule on Corbyn’s case. To avoid the impression of a partisan stitch-up, they agreed the NEC meeting would be composed of half Corbynites and half Starmerites, with the casting vote given to the second group. The NEC, they determined, would issue Corbyn with a “reminder of values” and take no further action. According to those present at the discussion, McSweeney briefly raised the issue of the Labour whip, informing the group that it would be automatically restored with Corbyn’s membership.
McSweeney and Trickett continued to coordinate over WhatsApp throughout the day of the NEC meeting. At 8.57am, McSweeney saw Corbyn’s statement had not yet been published and told Trickett he was “getting a bit worried”. “Do you want us to pull the meeting?”, he asked. Trickett told him to wait a few minutes, and Corbyn published the text as planned. That afternoon, the NEC met and sat for several hours. There was a slight hiccup in the arrangement when two of the panel’s Starmerites insisted on giving Corbyn a “reminder of conduct” – a step up in severity from the sanction that had been agreed. But by early evening the reinstatement had been passed, and Corbyn publicly thanked Labour members and trade unions for their support. Starmer had been prepared to draw a line under the affair, but he had not anticipated the level of instant pushback from the right (having grown complacent after months of glowing media attention). The Jewish Labour Movement and the Board of Deputies of British Jews went into overdrive, bombarding LOTO with threats to reignite the crisis. The former briefed that Labour had “expedited this case for hearing by a factionally aligned political committee”; the latter called the decision “a retrograde step for the party in its relations with the Jewish community”. Dame Margaret Hodge – the Labour MP for Barking, once lofted by the BNP for arguing that immigrants should be denied access to council housing – angrily confronted Starmer, threatening to resign unless Corbyn was kept out of the parliamentary Labour party (PLP).
These threats rattled the leader, who was heard “shouting and swearing” in chief whip Nick Brown’s office on the night of 18 November. Starmer told Brown he had never approved the text of Corbyn’s statement nor signed off on his readmission to the party. The chief whip found this hard to swallow, as it would have meant McSweeney – who was in contact with Starmer almost every hour of the day – had taken the extraordinary step of planning Corbyn’s readmission without the leader’s knowledge. But whether or not he believed Starmer was immaterial. The important thing was that LOTO had begun telling the whips office, and the press, that they would not allow Corbyn to sit as a Labour MP until he had unreservedly apologised. Although McSweeney had reportedly assured Milne and Corbyn that the whip would be restored, Starmer’s change of heart forced him to renege on this commitment. The next day, Starmer officially announced he had withdrawn the whip from Corbyn, to rapturous applause from Hodge and the Board of Deputies.
Corbyn launched a legal challenge to the decision. He knew this would probably fail, since the courts rarely interfere in internal party disputes, but it was a useful means of publicising the reams of evidence – text messages, emails, minutes – which proved Starmer had broken their agreement (whose very existence was now being vigorously denied by Labour sources). On 20 November, Corbyn’s team decided it was better to negotiate with the chief whip than with LOTO. They dispatched Trickett and Ian Lavery to meet with Brown, who liaised with the leader about restarting talks. By this time, McCluskey had given up, believing Starmer to be fundamentally untrustworthy.
Starmer instructed Brown to send Corbyn a letter which suggested he could return to the PLP once he had “unequivocally” repented for his comments. Corbyn was also informed his suspension would last at least three months while the party “investigated” the incident. In turn, Trickett and Lavery told Brown that Corbyn would only return to the PLP once all those suspended for solidarity motions had been reinstated. They stressed the necessity to settle any outstanding complaints against Corbyn, so he could not be readmitted and then re-suspended shortly afterwards. LOTO agreed to both requests, and began to gradually reinstate those removed for pro-Corbyn CLP motions. Milne drafted a second text that seemed to satisfy all parties: a statement of regret from Corbyn, plus an endorsement of the EHRC recommendations. But once again, Starmer approved this wording and then abruptly changed his mind, scuppering their tentative deal. Brown, who “did his best to get Jeremy readmitted” according to one of Corbyn’s negotiators, was sacked as chief whip and replaced by the Blairite Alan Campbell.
Campbell is currently negotiating with Dave Ward, general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, who has taken over from Trickett and Lavery. While Corbyn’s allies have found it difficult to interpret Starmer’s inconsistent actions, the consensus is that LOTO simply can’t make up its mind. On the one hand, Labour’s poll ratings began to slide after Corbyn’s departure, with the party haemorrhaging support among younger generations, BAME people and Muslims – while the Green vote share has risen steadily. If the suspension was part of Starmer’s attempt to restore trust with the electorate, it has evidently not gone to plan. On the other hand, Starmer has become increasingly reliant on the Blairite old-guard since last October: Peter Mandelson has joined as an informal adviser; former Blair aide Matthew Doyle has been appointed interim communications director; and Deborah Mattinson – a pollster who previously worked for Kinnock, Blair and Brown – is LOTO’s new strategy director. Starmer is now compelled to appease those who want Corbyn out of the party even if it means damaging Labour’s popularity.
Because of this tension, Corbyn’s status remains in limbo. Meanwhile, his successor has failed to take action on a deluge of other discrimination cases – particularly those related to Islamophobia. As his swift action against Jewish members shows, the leader has always been more interested in weeding out leftwing antiracists than actual antisemites. He has also shown his flagrant disregard for the recommendations of the EHRC by not only interfering in a supposedly independent complaints procedure, but planning every stage of the process down to the final minute.
On top of this, Starmer’s triple U-turn on the suspension – making the decision, seeking to reverse it, and then twice reversing the reversal – belies many of the leadership qualities he is reputed to possess. As Tariq Ali wrote: “Starmer’s purge is neither competent, professional, lawyerly or sober, but ill-considered, clumsily executed and open to legal challenge.” Labour’s new sachem is so incapable of making clear political judgements that his advisers – before they were replaced last month – reportedly took to giving him briefing papers with just one option on them so he would not have to decide between alternative strategies. If Starmer was always unlikely to stand by his ten pledges and retain the bulk of the 2017 manifesto, some hoped he would at least bring a slickness and efficiency to LOTO that was missing under Corbyn. After the suspension debacle, this is a hope that few can cling to.
Oliver Eagleton is an editor at New Left Review. His first book, The Starmer Project, will be published by Verso in May 2022.
- Since publication, this piece has been amended to remove the claim that John McDonnell and Diane Abbott encouraged Jeremy Corbyn to apologise for comments made in his EHRC statement during an initial phone call following his suspension.