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In the aftermath of the expenses scandal more than a decade ago, MPs realised that they had to hand responsibility for funding their offices to an independent, outside body. Many have had gripes since about IPSA (not least the award of pay rises in a pandemic), but overall the shift has been welcomed.
For political parties, however, the idea of passing responsibility to an independent body for their internal affairs has been resisted. Instead they have “elements” of independence. That’s precisely the phrase that was used, for example, to explain reforms to Labour’s own sexual harassment complaints process.
Back in the summer of 2019, the party’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) decided that “an independent investigator” should take statements from alleged victims of harassment, and then provide a reasoned assessment to the party after gathering evidence from others. Their report then goes to a Sexual Harassment Panel, made up of NEC members with “appropriate training”.
Some say the system works well, but others believed strongly it failed to go far enough and was not genuinely independent. Tom Watson tried and failed that summer to get a fully independent system installed for all cases of sexism and racism – including anti-Semitism. In the end, the party didn’t even opt for an “element” of independence on anti-Semitism, preferring instead to give NEC panel members even more powers.
Fast forward to 2020 and the ECHR’s damning finding of illegal discrimination against Jews by the Labour party. Within minutes, one of Keir Starmer’s instant reactions was to declare ”we will establish an independent complaints process – and it will be in place as soon as possible in the New Year.” It’s worth remembering that the ECHR mandated such a shift, with its firm conclusions.
What Starmer didn’t reckon for, of course, was that Jeremy Corbyn would blow up the entire day with a statement that allegations of anti-Semitism had been “dramatically overstated for political reasons”, adding in a TV interview that the number of complaints had been “exaggerated”. He was promptly suspended, but today we learned that he subsequently sent a private message the same day that stated “to be clear, concerns about anti-Semitism are neither ‘exaggerated” nor ‘overstated’.
Today, the issue has blown up once more after the decision of a five-strong NEC panel to vote to lift his suspension, while sending him a “warning of conduct” letter. The news was greeted with delight by Corbyn backers, but by sheer fury among many centrists who had hoped Starmer’s era would see tough action on this whole issue.
There are two theories tonight floating around as to how Corbyn ended up getting away with effectively a minor sanction. One is that the NEC panel didn’t vote the way Starmer’s team expected to, and it is all a shock to them. The other is that the panel did indeed vote precisely the way they were expected to, as part of a grand compromise to readmit the former leader and avoid more civil war, while getting him to make amends.
The first theory could explain why Starmer tweeted what appeared to be irritation and embarrassment at the outcome. “I know that this has been another painful day for the Jewish community and those Labour members who have fought so hard to tackle antisemitism,” he said.
But those furious at the decision think the second theory is supported by the speed with which the Corbyn case was sorted. And it’s usually the general secretary (Starmer’s choice remember) who decides when cases are heard, and who sits on a panel. As one NEC member put it to me: “Why expedite this case? So many cases still waiting for a hearing and they turn things around on this in 19 days. Apart from insult because of the sensitive subject matter it’s just stupid, dumb politics.”
And that’s the central argument against Starmer tonight: that he and his general secretary should have followed through on the ECHR report by pausing all cases until the new system was introduced. Given that many cases of suspension have been unresolved for months and years, why not wait a few weeks in Corbyn’s case, when an independent process could fairly resolve it? Or as Margaret Hodge put it: “This is a broken outcome from a broken system.”
Starmer’s defenders may argue that the matter was taken out of his hands by Corbyn’s shock statement on the day of the ECHR report. Yet Starmer will be under huge pressure now to explain why he hasn’t followed the spirit as well as the letter of the watchdog’s findings: to ensure all future cases are resolved independently.
There is one other factor, and it’s a legal one. Did Corbyn’s private letter, in which he reversed his position on “exaggerated” numbers (the main reason for his suspension), give him some kind of legal cover should he be booted out and then challenge the party in the courts?
That won’t cut much ice with those who believe Starmer has allowed a political disaster to take place today, annoying both wings of his party over this whole affair. They remember it was he who said anti-Semitism would be a “test” of his own leadership. For the public at large, who don’t know the minutiae of this case, they may be wondering if Labour really is “under new management” as Starmer claimed. His next steps may answer that question.