Keir Starmer has sparked a furious backlash from Labour leftwingers by refusing to readmit Jeremy Corbyn as a Labour MP, arguing that his predecessor has undermined efforts to restore the party’s reputation in the Jewish community.
A disciplinary panel of the party’s nationl executive committee (NEC) lifted the suspension of Corbyn’s party membership on Tuesday after he issued a conciliatory statement “clarifying” controversial remarks he made when the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published a damning report on Labour antisemitism.
In a strongly worded statement on Wednesday, Starmer said he would not be welcoming Corbyn back into the parliamentary Labour party (PLP).
“Jeremy Corbyn’s actions in response to the EHRC report undermined and set back our work in restoring trust and confidence in the Labour party’s ability to tackle antisemitism,” Starmer said. “In those circumstances, I have taken the decision not to restore the whip to Jeremy Corbyn. I will keep this situation under review.”
The decision sparked an angry response from Corbyn’s backers in the PLP, including Diane Abbott, John McDonnell and Richard Burgon, who accused Starmer of jeopardising party unity.
Andrew Scattergood, the co-chair of the grassroots campaign group Momentum, accused the party leader of “making it up as he goes along”.
“This is not only farcical and incompetent, it is a blatant political attack on the left at a time when Labour should be united in taking on the Tories,” he said. Scattergood added that leftwing members would continue to “fight for a socialist Labour party”, adding “they can’t remove the whip from our movement”.
Starmer appeared to be referring to Corbyn’s statement following the publication of the EHRC report on 29 October, in which he said the problem of antisemitism in Labour had been “dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media”.
In a “clarification” submitted to the NEC and made public this week, Corbyn said claims of antisemitism had not been “exaggerated”.
That appeared to satisfy the NEC disciplinary panel, which party insiders said had decided unanimously to end the suspension of Corbyn’s Labour membership.
However, it evidently did not satisfy Starmer, who repeatedly pledged during his leadership campaign to tackle the issue of antisemitism forcefully.
A Labour spokesman said Corbyn was informed of the decision by the chief whip by phone on Wednesday morning. He repeatedly insisted the decision to readmit Corbyn as a party member had been made by Labour HQ, not Starmer’s office.
Pressed on how long the suspension could last, the spokesman refused to be drawn, repeatedly saying he would not “give a running commentary”.
Corbyn’s supporters had insisted party rules meant he should be automatically readmitted to the PLP once the NEC decision was made, and the decision reignited the simmering civil war between Starmer and Labour leftwingers.
Jon Lansman, the founder of Momentum and a close ally of Corbyn, said Starmer’s decision not to readmit Corbyn was obvious political interference.
“Antisemitism and the threats of legal action which can follow from charging people with it forces us to abandon the make it up as you go along approach of catch-all rules about ‘bringing the party into disrepute’,” he said.
“Political interference has to end. An independent process will ensure that. The EHRC recommendations, all of which Keir has undertaken to implement in full, will ensure that. Refusing to restore the whip to Jeremy is just another example of political interference, a kick against inevitable change to a rule-based approach.”
The Labour’s spokesman said they did not accept that, adding: “The decision about membership is taken by the party; the decision about the whip is taken by the leader of the party.”
Starmer appeared to repudiate the NEC’s decision, which was made under disciplinary rules being reviewed as part of the response to the EHRC report.
He said: “The disciplinary process does not have the confidence of the Jewish community. That became clear once again yesterday. It is the task of my leadership to fix what I have inherited. That is what I am resolute in doing and I have asked for an independent process to be established as soon as possible.”
Friends of Corbyn said Starmer’s actions could have left the party open to legal challenge because the EHRC stressed the importance of disciplinary decisions being independent from political interference.
“Keir is a lawyer. Does he not realise what he is doing? It goes completely against the EHRC report,” one said.
Leftwing Labour MPs also rallied behind Corbyn, with the former shadow chancellor John McDonnell calling it “just plain wrong” and saying it would “cause more division and disunity”.
Marie van der Zyl, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, welcomed Starmer’s decision and criticised the process that led to Corbyn’s readmission to party membership.
“Labour’s disciplinary process is clearly still not fit for purpose. Keir Starmer has now taken the appropriate leadership decision not to restore the whip to Jeremy Corbyn,” she said. “We continue to say that ‘zero tolerance’ must mean precisely that, whether for antisemites or their apologists.”
The Labour MP Neil Coyle, who has been an outspoken critic of Corbyn’s approach to antisemitism under his leadership, said the case must be looked at by the independent process that Starmer said he would set up under the EHRC recommendations.
“Keir is trying to deliver on his self-confessed first priority as Labour leader – to rebuild trust with the Jewish community,” he said. “The whip cannot be restored until the new, genuinely independent complaints process assesses this case and ensures a fair decision is made. This is also the legal requirement under the EHRC report; the Labour party has to do this in order to avoid further inquiry. So it is the morally right thing to do as well as the only option available.”