Keir Starmer’s refusal to return the Labour whip to Jeremy Corbyn is a major risk

The Labour leader has reignited a political battle that he cannot be certain of winning. 

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Jeremy Corbyn will not have the Labour whip restored, Keir Starmer has announced, after a five-person panel on the party’s ruling National Executive Committee opted to issue Corbyn with a formal warning over his response to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report on anti-Semitism.  

The affair is, in microcosm, a display of everything that is wrong with Labour's current processes. The party’s “disrepute” sanction – which means you can be issued with a reminder of values, a formal warning, suspended or ultimately expelled for bringing the party into disrepute – is designed to give the NEC a blank cheque for disciplinary processes. 

The problem, as the EHRC’s report showed, is that Labour’s processes have become so politicised that they are unable to produce fair and trusted results on this issue. That the NEC rushed through Corbyn’s hearing – he spent just 19 days on administrative suspension – has intensified the problem.

[see also: There are 45,000 reasons for Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension: one for each Jewish voter to abandon Labour​]

The NEC panel’s decision to issue Corbyn with a formal warning has been condemned by the Jewish Labour Movement, the largest body of Jewish Labour members and the only official affiliate, and by the Board of Deputies, the Jewish community’s elected leadership organisation. 

My read of the Parliamentary Labour Party’s standing orders is that there is no reason the criteria to retain the Labour whip and to remain a member need be aligned: indeed, in the past, serial rebels have had the whip removed from them. But the matter is not wholly clear and it will, in any case, reignite Labour’s internal conflict over the issue.

This is a row forced upon Starmer by the decision of his handpicked general secretary, David Evans, to suspend Corbyn rather than to wait for the introduction of the new processes to come in, as I wrote last night

What is significant is that Starmer has chosen to prioritise his efforts to win back the British Jews who voted Labour in 2015 but not in 2019 over his attempts to preserve party unity. The risk for him is that if he can’t settle the ensuing conflict, he will ultimately achieve neither.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

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