Corbyn was stabbed in the back… but that’s not why he lost

That leaked report is being used by Corbynistas to make excuses for their own failures.

James Heartfield

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Topics Politics UK

One of the great disasters of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party was the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) opening an investigation into anti-Semitism in the party. It showed that Labour had failed, with the previous investigation under Shami Chakrabarti, to satisfy people that anti-Semitism within the party’s ranks was being dealt with.

In the dying days of Corbyn’s time as leader, members of his team were tasked with preparing a report to the EHRC to give their side of the story, titled The Work of the Labour Party’s Governance and Legal Unit in Relation to Anti-Semitism, 2014-2019.

Last week, the newly elected Labour Party leader, Sir Keir Starmer, decided not to submit the report to the EHRC. The report has now been widely leaked, and many of Corbyn’s supporters are clinging to it as evidence that they were denied the victory they deserved in the 2017 General Election.

The basis of their claims is the subtext of the report, which is that ‘much of the Labour Party machinery from 2015-18 was openly opposed to Jeremy Corbyn, and worked to directly undermine the elected leadership of the party’. A great deal of the report is given over to showing that a clique of party employees in control of head office shared hateful messages with each other about key Labour left figures.

All of this is entirely believable. The people that then general secretary Iain McNicol gathered as his staff were pretty loathsome. Among them was my old students’ union secretary at Middlesex Polytechnic, Tracey Allen. She was elected on a ‘Students Before Politics’ ticket and then dedicated her term of office to sabotaging student protests in 1982.

The tittle tattle among McNicol’s team, drawn from emails and WhatsApp messages, is all about ‘the Trots’. Some fantasise about setting light to them, or using their faces for dartboards. Others gloat about Diane Abbott crying in a cupboard (stay classy, Tracey). In among their contempt for the Corbyn team that had – after all – won the party leadership, McNicol and his followers also express snide views about free-school-dinner claimants and Muslims.

The main allegations the report makes against these people are striking. The first is that party HQ’s factionalism prohibited it from dealing with anti-Semitism properly, as, from their perspective, the worse that things looked for Corbyn, the better. The second is that officials were actively hostile to a Labour victory under Corbyn and undermined any prospect of it.

Clearly McNicol and his team are unlovely people who deserve the bad reputation they have. But Starmer was right not to submit the report to the EHRC, because it is entirely inappropriate to the key problem at hand, which is the persistence of anti-Semitic prejudices among Labour Party members.

The report seeks to exculpate the leadership of the party by pointing the finger at the supposed saboteurs in HQ. But while the approach being taken to anti-Semitism by party HQ should be criticised and addressed, it is a spectacular mistake to pin the blame for Labour’s anti-Semitism problem on factional infighting.

Indeed, mean-spirited exchanges on a WhatsApp group about internal party politics is hardly integral to an investigation into anti-Semitism within the party. The inordinate attention the report gives to Iain and Tracey’s gossip circle shows that whoever wrote it is missing the issue of anti-Semitism and engaging in ‘whataboutery’.

The real question here is why did the party leadership not read the riot act to members who had a fixation on Israel and Zionism? The reason is that they shared those prejudices. This report goes on and on about the failings in the head office, but ignores those in the party leadership.

Starmer’s team have balked at the prospect of putting all of this dirty linen in front of the EHRC and the public, and understandably so. But not so with the Corbynistas. They are the ones who have leaked the report, and are gleefully reporting it all over the place, even condemning the mainstream press for not reporting on it.

It’s easy to see why they have jumped on it so excitedly. For the Corbyn wing of the Labour Party, the past two elections have been a thorough humiliation. Not once, but twice, the public rejected the policies and the approach that the Corbyn Labour Party put before it.

That was a terrible blow to the left, not least given how hard many had worked towards Labour victories in 2017 and 2019. It is not easy to face the idea that you might be wrong. For the Corbynista left, this new report serves as an alibi for their failures.

‘We could not have won because we were being sabotaged by HQ’, they are saying. It’s like the theory once popular among the German High Command that they did not lose the First World War, but instead were ‘stabbed in the back’. Radical-left circles are fixated on this report because they think it’s exculpatory. Rather than confront what is wrong with their programme and political approach, these left-wingers would prefer to find scapegoats.

This is a particularly self-destructive approach. It is not about examining particular problems with Corbyn’s Labour, but about avoiding responsibility for the failure of the project. Meanwhile, to the rest of the country, this row looks like yet more proof that the Labour Party is a petty and unpleasant organisation.

Outside of a small circle of Labour Party activists, the whole row looks bizarre. Many will wonder why the investigation into anti-Semitism in the party has become an occasion to air factional disputes that have dogged the Labour Party for years.

Nobody will be convinced by these leaked stories that Corbyn could have been prime minister.

James Heartfield is author of The Equal Opportunities Revolution, published by Repeater. His latest book is The Blood-Stained Poppy, written with Kevin Rooney.

Picture by: Getty.

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