Labour was plunged into turmoil after the party suspended Keir Starmer’s predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, in the wake of a damning report into antisemitism that found the party responsible for unlawful acts of harassment and discrimination.
The decision to suspend Corbyn for saying the problem of antisemitism within Labour was “dramatically overstated for political reasons” by opponents and the media sent shockwaves through the party and led to rumours of a split.
Corbyn’s rebuff of criticism from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) put him at odds with his successor. Moments after Corbyn’s statement was released, Starmer spoke at a press conference where he said those who “pretend [antisemitism] is exaggerated or factional are part of the problem”.
Corbyn is understood to have spoken to Starmer on Wednesday night, ahead of the report’s publication, and was reassured there was no plan to take action against him in light of its findings. That changed after Corbyn’s statement was released.
There was an atmosphere of shock and dismay in Labour HQ after Corbyn’s statement was published shortly before 11am, according to party sources. “It was total disbelief that he would put that out,” one adviser said.
A senior Labour source said the deputy leader, Angela Rayner, spoke to Corbyn and his team and urged him to apologise and issue a clarification in a televised clip he recorded at lunchtime, but he did not do so. Labour announced his suspension at 1pm, with Corbyn finding out from a cameraman as he left a community centre in north London.
It is understood that Corbyn did not intend to make his statement a direct challenge to Starmer despite suspicions among senior Labour figures that he was “goading Keir”.
Corbyn condemned the “political intervention” and said he would “strongly contest” the action – but called for calm and urged supporters not to quit the party. Shadow cabinet ministers backed Starmer, with one describing it as the Labour leader’s Clause IV moment.
In a broadcast clip released after his suspension, Corbyn urged his followers to “stay in the party” to fight for leftwing principles following the decision to suspend him.
During the interview, Corbyn refused to retract his earlier statements, saying the “public perception” about how many members were under investigation for antisemitism was “very different” from the reality.
Len McCluskey, leader of Labour’s single biggest donor, the Unite union, called the suspension a “grave injustice” and said it raised questions over Starmer’s involvement in disciplinary matters – a key topic of the EHRC investigation. Starmer’s team strongly deny the decision was his.
McCluskey, whose union gives millions of pounds to the party each year, said it would “create chaos” within the party and in doing so compromise Labour’s chances of a general election victory. “A split party will be doomed to defeat,” he said.
The decision to suspend was taken by Labour’s general secretary, David Evans, and chief whip, Nick Brown, and meant automatic withdrawal of the party whip, according to multiple sources.
Corbyn-supporting members of Labour’s national executive committee on Thursday evening confronted Evans over his decision to suspend the former leader and claimed that the decision could be legally challenged.
One ally of Corbyn said: “In theory, the NEC could call an emergency meeting and get him back in.”
One of the key criticisms of the EHRC report was of regular political interference in the complaints process by Corbyn’s office. “The general secretary has always had that power to act quickly. Keir had to keep away from it otherwise it goes against everything that has happened today,” a member of the party’s executive committee said.
Corbyn’s supporters believe the disciplinary process is flawed and that the Labour leader will be able to fight his suspension, intending to challenge the notion that Starmer had no role in the decision.
Corbyn’s fate in the disciplinary process could take months to resolve. The party has been charged by the EHRC with setting up a new independent procedure to fairly resolve outstanding complaints.
One shadow cabinet minister, who called it “a Clause IV moment for Keir”, added: “I hadn’t expected Keir to be so strong in criticising those who deny antisemitism. It was the obvious clap line for those in the party have been worried about the issue. Once he’d said that, the party had little choice but to act.”
Another senior Labour MP said Corbyn’s suspension had been inevitable given his response to the report: “Jeremy showed absolutely no contrition or acknowledgement of his role and the role of his staff and supporters in causing this tidal wave of antisemitism. Keir had no option. The bit where Jeremy says the problem was overstated for political reasons is just echoing antisemitic conspiracy theories.”
The MP said that even without the statement, some sort of showdown with Corbyn would have probably taken place: “A line had to be drawn beneath this, and the report is pretty clear that his office, his staff, his general secretary meddled in these inquiries.”
The EHRC report found Labour responsible for unlawful acts of harassment and discrimination over antisemitism. It cited “serious failings in the Labour party leadership in addressing antisemitism and an inadequate process for handling antisemitism complaints”.
However, Corbyn said he had been obstructed by party officials in trying to tackle the issue. “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,” he said.
“That combination hurt Jewish people and must never be repeated. My sincere hope is that relations with Jewish communities can be rebuilt and those fears overcome. While I do not accept all of its findings, I trust its recommendations will be swiftly implemented to help move on from this period.”
Rayner said the former party leader had “an absolute blind spot” on appreciating the scale of the problem, adding that she was “deeply upset by the circumstances, and upset that Jeremy wasn’t able to see the pain that the Jewish community have gone through”.
Lisa Nandy, the shadow foreign secretary, said the mood at shadow cabinet on Thursday had been sombre. “It was not a decision anyone took any pleasure in, least of all Keir. I could not see any other reaction other than absolutely sadness.”
She said that the party was closely monitoring Labour members’ and officials’ social media accounts over the coming days and would take action against any further antisemitism. “We will proactively investigate, we will not be passive about this, racism is a cancer, it is a poison,” she said. “Once it is allowed to enter an institution, it poisons everything that it touches, and so we are going to be proactive about this.”
John McDonnell, the former shadow chancellor, described Corbyn’s suspension as “profoundly wrong”.
“On the day we should all be moving forward and taking all steps to fight antisemitism, the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn is profoundly wrong,” he tweeted. “In [the] interests of party unity, let’s find a way of undoing and resolving this. I urge all party members to stay calm as that is the best way to support Jeremy and each other. Let’s all call upon the leadership to lift this suspension.”
The grassroots pro-Corbyn group Momentum called the suspension “a massive attack on the left by the new leadership and should be immediately lifted in the interests of party unity”.