London: The U.K.’s opposition Labour Party suspended former leader Jeremy Corbyn after he failed to accept in full the findings of an anti-Semitism probe that found the party broke the law on his watch.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission said Thursday that Labour breached the Equality Act through its handling of complaints of anti-Jewish prejudice while Corbyn was leader. In response to the report, Corbyn said he did “not accept all of its findings” and that the problem was “dramatically overstated for political reasons” by the media and his opponents.
Corbyn said later on Twitter he will “contest the political intervention to suspend me.”
Labour’s decision to suspend its controversial former leader risks igniting a fresh civil war between party factions after months of relative calm under the new leadership of Keir Starmer. Accusations of anti-Semitism hampered Labour’s bid for government under Corbyn, who led the party to its worst electoral defeat in 85 years in December.
“On the day we should all be moving forward & taking all steps to fight antisemitism, the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn is profoundly wrong,” John McDonnell, who served as the party’s finance spokesman under Corbyn, said on Twitter. “In interests of party unity let’s find a way of undoing & resolving this.”
A snap YouGov poll on Thursday showed 58% of Britons think suspending Corbyn was the right decision, compared to 13% who thought it was the wrong one. Of people who voted for the Corbyn-led party in last year’s election, 41% supported his suspension, versus 26% who opposed it.
Corbyn’s suspension, if upheld following an investigation, also removes an attack line frequently used by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservatives against Starmer: that the Labour leader represents a continuity candidate of a party roundly rejected by the electorate last year.
The Tories nevertheless sought to keep up that line of attack on Thursday, sending supporters an email entitled “Keir Starmer is Corbyn’s man” and urging them to circulate a video compiling supportive comments the new leader had made in the past about Corbyn.
‘Enough Is Enough’
Margaret Hodge, a Labour member of Parliament who went public with her concerns over anti-Semitism within the party, welcomed the move. “Labour is finally saying enough is enough, anti-Semitism can never be tolerated in our party,” she said on Twitter. “Now we can finally move on.”
Former acting Labour leader Harriet Harman called Corbyn’s suspension “the right thing to do.”
In a televised statement earlier Thursday, Starmer said it was a “day of shame” for Labour, apologized for the “pain and grief” caused to Jewish people, and vowed to do everything he could to win back their trust. He pledged to implement the report’s recommendations in full and provide an action plan to the commission within six weeks.
Starmer ducked calls at the press conference to take action against Corbyn personally. He said the report didn’t make findings against the former leader himself, saying it was a “collective failure” by the party.
‘Part of the Problem’
But he did warn: “Those who deny there’s a problem are part of the problem.”
In his initial statement on Facebook, Corbyn said he had been determined as Labour leader to “eliminate all forms of racism and root out the cancer of anti-Semitism.” But he also accused the media and opponents of exaggerating the problem.
“Jewish members of our party and the wider community were right to expect us to deal with it, and I regret that it took longer to deliver that change than it should,” Corbyn said. “One anti-Semite 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.”
That stance forced Labour to act. “In light of his comments made today and his failure to retract them subsequently, the Labour Party has suspended Jeremy Corbyn pending investigation,” a Labour spokesperson said in an emailed statement, adding that the former leader will also no longer represent Labour in the House of Commons.
“I have no words for that response today,” Luciana Berger, a Jewish former MP who quit Labour last year over the party’s failure to deal with anti-Semitism, told LBC Radio when asked about Corbyn’s comments. “What people were looking for today was some acknowledgment of the pain and the hurt and the distress caused to so many.”
In its report, the EHRC said there were “serious failings in leadership” and “political interference” in the handling of anti-Semitism complaints. The commission found 23 cases in which Corbyn’s office intervened, including in decisions on whether to investigate or suspend party members and staff.
The commission also found two instances of unlawful conduct relating to the use of anti-Semitic tropes — using written or verbal phrases or images to suggest stereotypes — and to suggestions that complaints were “smears” and “fake.”
“The Labour Party made a commitment to zero tolerance for anti-Semitism,” Caroline Waters, interim chair of the commission, said in the report. “Our investigation has highlighted multiple areas where its approach and leadership to tackling anti-Semitism was insufficient. This is inexcusable and appeared to be a result of a lack of willingness to tackle anti-Semitism rather than an inability to do so.”