A fight for the soul of the party that Keir Starmer MUST win: Former Labour MP IAN AUSTIN argues there is no point trying to compromise with extremists who have infected the ranks
When Keir Starmer was elected Labour leader seven months ago his first promise was to ‘tear anti-Semitism out by its roots’.
Anti-Jewish racism had poisoned the party under his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn and the new leader vowed he would restore Labour’s reputation as a decent party.
Sir Keir was determined to introduce all sorts of changes to show the party had learnt its lesson.
He didn’t have much choice because Labour had become the first party in history to be subjected to a full inquiry by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the official body established to tackle racism and prejudice.
Sir Keir Starmer has vowed he would restore Labour’s reputation as a decent party and stamp out Anti-Jewish racism
Their verdict was damning. Labour, they found, had broken the law in its treatment of Jewish people and the commission demanded a series of changes to the party’s procedures.
Corbyn claimed the problem of anti-Semitism was ‘dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party as well as by much of the media’ – he always thinks he is the victim of a conspiracy to smear him.
But Sir Keir suspended his predecessor from membership of the party.
And I welcomed this, having repeatedly criticised the party for failing to deal with the scourge of racism.
What happened next was very much less welcome, however. Everyone expected there would be a proper investigation, not just into Corbyn’s comments about the EHRC report but to deal with outstanding complaints about his behaviour in the past.
But on Tuesday, amid rumours of a deal brokered by the powerful boss of the Unite union Len McCluskey, it emerged that Corbyn’s case was being fast-tracked to a disciplinary hearing held under the old discredited rules the EHRC had demanded should change.
Corbyn, meanwhile, issued a so-called ‘clarification’ which completely failed to apologise for the comments that had led to his suspension, let alone the offence he had caused to Jewish people over the years.
On top of this, we received the shocking and deeply disappointing news that Corbyn’s suspension was being lifted and he would be readmitted to the party.
I couldn’t believe that Sir Keir allowed the hearing to take place and the panel had arrived at this verdict.
More importantly, Jewish people told me they were furious, felt betrayed and let down. So much for the changes that had been promised.
The anger was so great that yesterday Sir Keir did not restore the whip to Corbyn, but too late – the episode has done great damage to his leadership.
Three weeks ago, when Corbyn was suspended, Sir Keir appeared decisive, seeming to make the changes he had promised – but letting the former leader back in reversed all the progress that had been made in the Labour Party I loved.
I joined Labour as a teenager in Dudley to fight racism. I served it proudly for 35 years as a local councillor, Member of Parliament and Government minister until I took the heartbreaking decision to leave last year in protest at Corbyn’s regime and the anti-Semitism that flourished under it.
My Dad arrived in the UK in 1939 as a ten-year-old refugee from what was then Czechoslovakia. His Jewish mum and sisters were unable to escape and were murdered in Treblinka in 1942.
I grew up listening to him teach me about the horrors of the Holocaust, the evils of racism, prejudice and hatred – and the great British values that led our country to fight for freedom through the war.
I have never been as proud of our country as I was last December when lifelong Labour voters across the country in communities with no Jewish people at all – many of whom had never even met a Jewish person – decided ‘enough was enough’.
These were voters like me who could never have imagined being forced to vote Conservative. But they can’t stand racism and they knew they had to prevent Corbyn doing to the country what he had done to his party.
Which is why Corbyn’s return to the party was so depressing and upsetting.
But there is more the Labour leader must do than not restore the whip.
He talks constantly about the need for unity, but there is no point being united as a party when the public thinks you are wrong. And there is never any point trying to compromise with the extremists who have infected Labour.
The battle lines are drawn whether Sir Keir likes it or not. He now faces a huge fight for the soul of the party.
Labour must now show Jewish people and the country that it has learnt from the disgrace of the last five years and that things really will change.
The party must repair relations with Jewish people and show lifelong Labour voters, who turned away in disgust at extremism and racism under Corbyn, that it was wrong. How can it possibly do this while tolerating Corbyn as a member of the party?
Corbyn claimed the problem of anti-Semitism was ‘dramatically overstated for political reasons by opponents inside and outside the party
The cranks, conspiracy theorists and racists must be driven out. They have no place in a mainstream political party and must be banished to the dark corners on the fringes of politics where they belong.
Starting with Momentum – the party within the party established to support Corbyn’s leadership and target his moderate opponents – the hard-Left must be shown the door. This ‘movement’ encouraged not just well-meaning and naive young people into the Labour Party, but hardened extremists too.
Even yesterday, Momentum’s leading figures were insisting Corbyn had done nothing wrong and his whip should be reinstated. Dealing with them would show proper change.
Union boss Len McCluskey, with his immense financial muscle, backed Corbyn every step of the way over the last five years. He ludicrously called Corbyn’s return to the party a ‘correct, fair and unifying decision’ when it is anything but.
He and the rest of them can try to throw their weight around, but Sir Keir needs to show them who is in charge.
Most members of the public don’t follow policy details or the twists and turns of daily politics, but they sit up and pay attention at important moments and they are watching now.
This is the moment when Sir Keir really has to exert control and save the Labour Party. It will not be easy and the hard-Left will relish the prospect of civil war.
But it is a true test of leadership. It is about how you answer tough questions and whether you can take decisions that show the public where you stand.
You have to show people that new management means real change. It must be more than just a slogan.
Kicking Corbyn out for good would be a start – and would demonstrate that Labour is finally getting a grip on this scandal.
Lord Austin is chairman of Mainstream, the Campaign Against Extremism
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