(Bloomberg) — Labour leader Keir Starmer sought to prevent bitter infighting over the suspension of his predecessor from engulfing the U.K.’s main opposition party as recriminations threaten to overshadow its challenge to the government on Brexit and the coronavirus.© Bloomberg Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn Campaigns Ahead Of U.K. General Election
Photographer: Hollie Adams/Bloomberg
Jeremy Corbyn was suspended 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 move sparked anger among the former leader’s allies, ending abruptly six months of relative calm since Starmer took over the Labour Party.
“There is no reason for a civil war,” Starmer said in a BBC radio interview on Friday. “I want to unite the party, to stop the factional fighting.”
It’s a moment of danger for Starmer, who has pledged to make Labour into a legitimate government-in-waiting after it sank to its fourth successive election defeat in December, and its worst since 1935.
It also threatens to undermine the party at a critical time for Labour to be challenging Johnson’s Conservatives, whose poll lead has slumped over the government’s handling of the pandemic. The prime minister also faces intense scrutiny over the fate of trade talks with the European Union, with Britain nine weeks from exiting a post-Brexit transition period without a deal with its biggest trading partner.
The Tories went on the attack over the report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which found Labour breached the Equality Act through its handling of complaints of anti-Jewish prejudice while Corbyn was leader.
They called Starmer “Corbyn’s man,” and issued videos on social media highlighting supportive comments he made about Labour’s former leader while serving in his shadow cabinet.
In a series of media interviews on Friday, Starmer said Labour was left with no choice after Corbyn’s statement, which went against the party’s formal position that it would accept the commission’s findings in full. That position was made clear to Corbyn the previous day, Starmer told the BBC on Friday.
When the report was published, Corbyn said opponents and the media had exaggerated the scale of anti-Semitism within Labour under his leadership. He later said he will “contest the political intervention to suspend me.” Politicians including his former finance spokesman, John McDonnell, and his former home affairs spokeswoman, Diane Abbott, rallied to support him.
“I had wanted yesterday to be an opportunity to draw a line in the sand and to move the party on to restore trust,” Starmer told the BBC. “That didn’t happen because of Jeremy Corbyn’s response.”
Starmer said he won’t interfere in the internal party probe into Corbyn, saying that would contravene one of the recommendations in Thursday’s report by the equalities commission. Still, he said Corbyn’s expulsion from the party is an option open to those investigating the former leader.
That would be a seismic move, and Corbyn’s allies made clear Thursday on how they will respond. The Socialist Campaign Group, a group of more than 30 Labour MPs accounting for about a sixth of the parliamentary party, pledged to “work tirelessly” for his reinstatement.
The suspension is “an act of grave injustice which, if not reversed, will create chaos within the party and in doing so compromise Labour’s chances of a general election victory,” Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite the Union, the party’s biggest affiliate and a major donor, said in a statement. “A split party will be doomed to defeat.”
But other Labour luminaries lined up to praise the move. Former acting Labour leader Harriet Harman called Corbyn’s suspension “the right thing to do,” while Margaret Hodge, a Labour MP who went public with her concerns over anti-Semitism within the party, welcomed the move.
And 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.
The question for Starmer is how to prevent a decision that’s popular with the public becoming a full-blown schism that undermines his bid for power. Though the Tories will be enjoying the current Labour turmoil, the next general election isn’t scheduled for another four years — giving Starmer time to unite the party and mount a challenge.
“Factional fighting has been a real problem in recent years and I stood as leader of the Labour Party on the basis of uniting the party,” Starmer told ITV. “Leadership sometimes involves difficult decisions, and that’s why I set out my response in the way that I did.”