The moment of truth has arrived

featured image thumbnail for post Starmer’s Plan For The EHRC May Define His Leadership

Starmer’s Plan For The EHRC May Define His Leadership

Comment by Euan Philipps

On December 10, 2017, then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn addressed the Jewish Labour Movement’s Chanukah party and announced to a sceptical room there was “zero tolerance of antisemitism anywhere in the Labour Party”. Three years later to the day, in his first response to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), his successor will apparently deliver the same. What that response contains will reveal not just the strength of Keir Starmer’s commitment to tackling antisemitism, but also his appetite for upsetting and angering a large part of the Labour coalition that elected him leader last April.

What that response contains will reveal not just the strength of Keir Starmer’s commitment to tackling antisemitism, but also his appetite for upsetting and angering a large part of the Labour coalition that elected him leader last April.

The EHRC report that appeared in October, after over 18 months of investigation, was damning: it described a Labour Party guilty of breaching the Equality Act 2010 by “committing unlawful harassment” that represented “the tip of the iceberg”, identified “serious failing in leadership”, “an inadequate process for handling antisemitism complaints” and “a culture that is at odds” with its own “commitment to zero tolerance of antisemitism”. It outlined 19 recommendations the Labour Party is statutorily obliged to implement, covering a wide range of issues including an independent complaints process, a change in culture to make it easier to confront and report inappropriate behaviour, education and training for staff and members, and the quarterly publication of data regarding how antisemitism cases are handled. It is the first draft of that action plan to deliver against these recommendations that Keir Starmer is today delivering, for the EHRC to scrutinise and sign off.

Despite the apparent clarity of the EHRC recommendations and the necessity for the Labour Party to deal with this unprecedented situation (the massive election defeat last December was partly a consequence of this political, moral and organisational failure), concerns remain that the organisation will resist taking the measures it needs to, and try and get by with adopting only the measures it has to. Like many complex organisations the Labour Party is a mess of competing groups aiming to succeed in a highly competitive internal environment, frequently perceiving the real enemy as their foes inside rather than political rivals outside. The extremism and conflict of the last five years has only intensified this factional rivalry, within a party whose psychology has always been uniquely and self-destructively tribal. Under these conditions the short term attractions of conservatism and consolidation can often outweigh the requirement of fundamental and painful long-term reform.

Under these conditions the short term attractions of conservatism and consolidation can often outweigh the requirement of fundamental and painful long-term reform.

The degree to which any resistance to change manifests itself within the plan will be crucial, not just to Labour’s relationship with the Jewish community but also its ability to professionally and efficiently redraw itself as an effective party of government. An independent complaints process should mean the complete outsourcing of Labour’s entire disciplinary system to a professional and objective third party, removing political interference and the inexpert interpretation of party rules that led to unknown numbers of reports of antisemitism being grossly mishandled. But a watered down version, whereby the process is only subject to independent oversight, could be suggested - possibly satisfactory for the EHRC but far from the rigorous and objective ideal.

Changes in culture are hard to implement and even harder to measure, and the culture of antisemitism in the Labour Party is both broad and deep: will Keir Starmer take on the entrenched prejudices of an institutionally antisemitic organisation or box tick with opt-out online courses and value signalling mission statements that provide gloss but little substance? Regarding transparency, Starmer has failed to publish any figures on membership expulsions since he assumed the party leadership in April, despite pledging to do just that in January.

Changes in culture are hard to implement and even harder to measure, and the culture of antisemitism in the Labour Party is both broad and deep

As for the motivation for taking the path of least resistance, one need only look at the reactions of vast swathes of the Labour Party following the publication of the EHRC report – or more accurately, their reaction to Mr Corbyn’s reaction to the report. Instead of taking on board the EHRC’s findings and recommendations, Mr Corbyn outrageously claimed that the antisemitism crisis had been “dramatically overstated for political reasons” by opponents and that he did “not accept all of its findings”. In response he was suspended, unleashing a six week period of vicious backlash that was worsened by a cack-handed attempt to defuse the situation by lifting the suspension and restoring the parliamentary whip.

Keir Starmer is now the head of a political party many of whose membership and a significant number of senior figures (including Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite, and John McDonnell, the former shadow chancellor) are in open rebellion against his and David Evans’ stewardship. His parliamentary colleagues include a substantial number who themselves have track records of antisemitism and have no place in a mainstream democratic party. Many Labour MPs – including Keir Starmer himself – were vocal defenders of Mr Corbyn during the period investigated by the EHRC, and while they too should admit their culpability, they are unlikely to do so willingly.

Supporters of Keir Starmer made much of his successful pre-parliamentary career as Director of Public Prosecutions, suggesting a capable and competent manager of a large organisation was needed after the chaos of the Jeremy Corbyn era, and it remains possible that his EHRC response will be brave, effective and transformational. Defenders of his record as leader will no doubt point to decisive moments such as the refusal to restore the whip to Mr Corbyn after his suspension was lifted, or the sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey in June after she shared an article containing an antisemitic conspiracy theory. But on both occasions, he stopped short at following up his actions with further tough measures and has often appeared to promise action while delivering the bare minimum. This could belie a lack of strategic conviction and an instinct towards mollification rather than confrontation, hardly the characteristics required for the challenges ahead.

This could belie a lack of strategic conviction and an instinct towards mollification rather than confrontation, hardly the characteristics required for the challenges ahead.

Now the moment truth has arrived, and Keir Starmer cannot delay defining the direction he wants to take any longer. Will he do what too many of his predecessors did, with ultimately disastrous consequences, and try and push his party’s antisemitic tendency back into the margins? The evidence from the last five years, amplified over the last six weeks, suggests that is now impossible. But does he have the stomach, the skill and the vision to take Labour’s antisemitism crisis head on, even if it costs him political capital inside the party, financial support from some trade unions, and possibly the loss of some of his own MPs? Will he not only commit to an improved future, but also instruct a full review of the many cases of antisemitism that were mishandled since 2015, leading to even more expulsions and outrage but also a safer space for Jewish members?

That would go some way to delivering the long-promised zero tolerance of antisemitism, and that is the question that today’s action plan will hopefully – eventually - answer.