Why Britain’s Labour Party Kicked Out Jeremy Corbyn
Arguments over anti-Semitism associated with the former leader have consumed the party for years.
On Oct. 29, 2019, the British Parliament voted in favor of an early general election, which pitted Conservative Boris Johnson against Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn. One year later to the day, Corbyn was suspended by his party, and now sits in Parliament as an independent MP.
Though Westminster has had its fair share of shocking twists and turns since the Brexit vote, the move was a particularly jaw-dropping one. How can a man go from leading a party to being expelled from it in such a short time?
The answer is anti-Semitism: the extent to which it festered in the left-wing party, and how willing Corbyn was to put an end to it. It is not a new problem; stories about Labour members sharing anti-Semitic posts and conspiracy theories on social media had been bubbling to the surface since his election as leader in 2015.
By November 2019, in fact, polling firm DeltaPoll had found that 42 percent of British adults thought that Jeremy Corbyn was anti-Semitic. That belief played a part in Labour losing dozens of seats less than a month later, not just in solidifying a long-standing British Jewish shift away from Labour, but in painting the party as the home of cranks and extremists.
Still, the beginning of the end for Corbyn came in May last year, when the Equality and Human Rights Commission, a non-partisan national equality body empowered to protect equal rights in the UK, decided to launch an investigation “to determine whether The Labour Party [had] unlawfully discriminated against, harassed, or victimized people because they are Jewish.”
At this point, the controversy was no longer focused on individual party members, but on allegations that the party itself was downplaying complaints of anti-Semitism, with the direct involvement of the leader’s office.
As often happens in left-of-center parties, the debate also became a proxy fight over the direction Labour was taking. Corbyn’s election had been controversial to begin with, as he had always been on the party’s staunch left, and his supporters argued that the issue was overplayed by centrists keen to get rid of him.
Other factions, on the other hand, felt certain that Corbyn’s lack of decisive action on anti-Semitism was symptomatic of his unwillingness to condemn those he saw as well-meaning political allies. He is known as a stubborn man with questionable political instincts—notably suggesting the suspected substance used by Russia to poison former spy Sergei Skripal on British soil should be sent back to Russia for testing—and, they thought, could not be trusted to rid the party of its anti-Semitic members. A particularly low point was the hounding of Jewish MP Luciana Berger, who left Labour in February 2019 and called the party “institutionally anti-Semitic.” It didn’t help that Corbyn had supported (without, he said, realizing the implications) an anti-Semitic mural, and that his enthusiasm for Palestinian causes had sometimes put him in the company of Holocaust deniers.
Things took a sharp turn earlier this year, when Corbyn stood down and members elected Sir Keir Starmer in his place, a former barrister and politician from a more traditional center-left background. Starmer’s first order of business was, as the Labour center saw it, to detoxify the party from Corbyn’s legacy. One of his first acts was to apologize for having “failed the Jewish community on anti-Semitism,” and promising to do better from day one—which brings us to today.
On Oct. 29, 2020, the Equality and Human Rights Commission published the results of its investigation. In the 130-page document, it concluded that the party could have tackled anti-Semitism more effectively “if the leadership had chosen to do so.” It also found that “there was political interference in the handling of anti-Semitism complaints” from the leader’s office, and noted two instances of party agents “committing unlawful harassment” against Jewish people.
In his press conference, Starmer said that “if after all the pain, all the grief, and all the evidence in this report, there are still those who think there’s no problem with anti-Semitism 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.”
Westminster watchers wondered if he had his predecessor in mind. He claimed it didn’t—at least not then, despite multiple journalists asking at the conference. This changed when Corbyn said, in his own response, that though he wished he’d acted more swiftly on anti-Semitism, “the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party,” which arguably sounded close to purposely minimizing the issue. He also repeatedly denied being “part of the problem.”
Less than an hour later, a Labour spokesperson announced that, “in light of his comments made today and his failure to retract them subsequently,” he was suspended from the party pending investigation, and that he would have the whip removed—the British term for kicking a MP out of a Parliamentary party. Corbyn now sits in the House of Commons as an independent MP, and currently cannot stand for further reelection as a Labour candidate.
It is not obvious what will come next; Corbyn has already announced that he would “strongly contest the political intervention to suspend [him],” and his supporters have flooded social media with fury at what they see as a blatant injustice—the only outlet available at a time when the pandemic has shut down the local party meetings that often turned into shouting matches in the past. The Jewish Labour Movement, on the other hand, has welcomed the decision, after previously withdrawing campaign support for the party.
Labour will now spend the next few days and weeks engulfed in civil war. That’s familiar territory for a party, which, even before Corbyn, spent the 1980s dealing with the splittist centrist Social Democratic Party headed by four of its own senior former leaders, and fighting the Trotskyite Militant Tendency in its own city councils. Whatever comes next, today will also be remembered as one of the turning points in Keir Starmer’s leadership—whether in its decisive reckoning with an ugly past, or as a descent back into fighting each other rather than the ruling Conservative Party.
As for Jeremy Corbyn, he may well find his way back to the Labour benches eventually, but it is hard not to see this as the end of a chapter. After decades spent on the sidelines followed by five years in the center of it all, it seems fitting that he has been cast back into the wilderness. Hopefully, Jewish Labour members can finally get some rest.