Starmer: Corbyn's response to antisemitism report 'about as bad as you can get'

Labour leader tells JLM conference ‘We are only in this place because of Jeremy’s response to Commission’


Opposition Labour Party Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer attends the second day of the Labour Party Conference in Brighton on September 25, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Ben STANSALL (Photo credit should read BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images)

Sir Keir Starmer has said Jeremy Corbyn’s response to the damning report on antisemitism was “just about as bad as you can get.” 

In comments that appeared to contradict claims he was open to a compromise over the former leader’s suspension as an MP, Sir Keir said his response to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report “undermined me.”

He added: “We are only in this place because of Jeremy’s response to the Commission.”

Speaking at the Jewish Labour Movement's one-day conference, the Labour leader also said he would "look again" at party rules that prevent anyone who supported candidates who fought against the party at elections from rejoining again for five years.

Any relaxation of the rules would take into account Jewish members  and MPs who had left Labour over antisemitism claims under Mr Corbyn to back candidates such as Luciana Berger in Finchley and Golders Green  

Meanwhile, Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner used her appearance at Sunday’s virtual conference to launch an outspoken attack on party members supporting pro Corbyn motions at meetings.

She said: “I feel really, really angry actually that there’s been scenes like that in our CLP meetings.

“If I have to suspend thousands and thousands of members, we will do that.”

The Labour leader also addressed the upsurge in anti-Jewish racism among some Labour members in recent weeks, following the suspension from the party and the removal of the whip from Mr Corbyn.

Sir Keir told JLM vice-chair Ruth Smeeth he recognised these were “hurtful” times for Jewish members whom “we owe so much to.”

He was later asked by a former member who had campaigned for Liberal Democrat candidate Ms Berger if strict rules on rejoining the party could be relaxed as a result of the antisemitism crisis.

Sir Keir said: “I know this affects a number of people who left our party over the last few years and found themselves campaigning for other candidates, or even standing as candidates.

“The usual rule as you know is that if you support another candidate at an election, that’s a five-year exclusion from the Labour Party. I think we need to look again at that where people left the party because of antisemitism.

“This is not people who chose to leave the party to go and necessarily support another political party, it’s people who felt driven out of our party. I think that’s a different set of circumstances and I think we need to look at how we address that.

“I think there will be an number of people in that position and if those – perhaps yourself – are beginning to say ‘I think the Labour Party might be a safe space for me again’ then first of all that’s an amazing important thing from my point of view…

“We therefore need to find a way to make that happen. That obviously depends on the rule et cetera… Every rule must have an exception for exceptional circumstances, and I’m very happy to have a debate with people about how we make that happen.”

The move could also open the door to former MPs who quit the party in 2019 to rejoin Labour under new leadership. 

Addressing the situation with Mr Corbyn he said:“I’m deeply frustrated that we’re in this place.”

He told the conference: “I felt that over the last six/seven months that we had slowly taken some steps in that direction. We had got better processes in place, we’d begun to have the engagement that we needed.

“I wanted the publication of the EHRC report to be a defining moment where we could move on to the mend part of the exercise. Obviously it is hugely shameful that the EHRC, set up by a Labour government, found the Labour Party to be in breach of equality law passed by a Labour government.”

Sir Keir added: “My team and I spent a lot of time in the days leading up to the launch of that report making sure that everybody understood the approach we would be taking so we could actually move on to that action plan…

“I can’t tell you how disappointed how I was with Jeremy Corbyn’s response. Because the words he used, what he said coming from the former leader of the Labour Party in response to that report, were just about as bad as you could get.”

 “Everything that has followed in the last few weeks follows from those words. That has exacerbated the pain and the hurt. And we’re in a position that I did not want to be in.

“I genuinely thought that on the day of the Commission report we could take the next important step towards mending the situation with an action plan. I still think we can.

“I don’t want us to be talking about Labour and antisemitism in months and years to come. I do think we can get past this. We had been making good progress.”

He said Mr Corbyn’s response “undermined me and what I was trying to achieve."

Speaking at the JLM event earlier in the day, ex Labour MPs Joan Ryan and Mike Gapes said they had not yet applied to rejoin the party.

In the morning session Labour’s deputy leader offered a hardline approach to those on the left of the party seeking to pass motions in support of the ex-leader at local meetings. 

Ms Rayner said: “It’s about education as well. It’s about having this approach where we don’t accept that people – you know, we have debates but there’s no debating what the EHRC said.

“There’s no debating whether antisemitism exists in the Labour Party. It does, and we’ve got to do everything we can to stamp it out.”

Other senior Labour figures to speak at the all day event included front benchers Anneliese Dodds, Lisa Nandy and Wes Streeting.

Ms Nandy re-confirmed her opposition to the Boycott Sanctions of Divestment (BDS) movement saying:“We’re not in favour of boycotts or the BDS (boycotts, divestments and sanctions) movement.

" I’ve always felt that the best way to advance the situation is to take people with you. BDS pushes people away instead of bringing people together."

Manchester Metro mayor Andy Burnham also spoke alongside Ms Rayner in a session on the situation in the UK’s second largest Jewish city. 

Later Lord Mandelson praised Sir Keir and described his chances of achieving power as “formidable.”

He added:"“As long as Jeremy Corbyn and the people around him are there, I think this is going to create endless confusion for the public. And while Jeremy persists in what he is doing, he is going to render the Labour Party unelectable.”

Lord Mandelson also said:"“Under Jeremy, the party’s brand was trashed and its organisation was reduced to rubble. Nobody knew what a vote for Labour meant anymore and didn’t much like it.”

He also questioned the role of an independent complaints process - one of the main recommendations of the EHRC report - suggested such a body could become bogged down in "legalism", which would not take into account the culture of the Labour Party.

The journalist John Ware, who made the revealing BBC Panorama documentary on antisemitism, also spoke of his admiration for the whistleblowers who had shared crucial evidence of Labour’s failure on the issue.

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