Keir Starmer’s decision to suspend Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party membership – for we must presume that was indeed his in effect – is being compared to Tony Blair’s decision to abolish the former Clause Four of Labour’s constitution. The comparison isn’t quite right.
Blair didn’t actually announce the abolition of Clause Four in his first speech as Labour leader to his party’s annual conference. Instead, he said that it was time for an “up-to-date statement of the objects and objectives of our party” and that this should “take its place in our constitution for the next century”.
But the briefing after the speech was clear enough about Blair’s intention, though he had held back from confronting party members during it directly.
Similarly, Corbyn’s suspension wasn’t announced during Starmer’s press conference yesterday morning. It came later, at one o’clock or so.
The difference is that Blair clearly had a plan to abolish Clause Four, but Starmer doesn’t seem to have had one to make an example of his successor.
The decision to act seems to have been sparked by Corbyn’s defiant statement yesterday morning, and by his later refusal to renounce it.
And the former Labour leader hasn’t, of course, actually been expelled from the party: instead, he has been suspended.
The Conservative campaigning machine, so uncertain of itself recently (think free school meals), has swung into co-ordinated action: it wants to ensure that the point is taken by the electorate.
Michael Gove is leading the pack, with an aggressive letter to Starmer – the central point of which is that Labour’s new leader was content to serve under the old one.
And Amanda Milling has written to Party members. “Keir Starmer is a lawyer,” her e-mail declares, “and as a lawyer, he follows whatever brief he’s given”.
Her letter also contains a video of Starmer on The Andrew Marr Show before last year’s election, saying that “I’m 100 per cent behind Jeremy Corbyn.”
You will view this activity either as proof that the Conservatives are desperate to discredit a new Labour leader who is a formidable danger to them…
…Or as evidence that they believe Starmer is vulnerable to the charge of opportunism, given his former presence in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet.
Or perhaps as both. The attack line on the Labour leader for being a lawyer, one that Boris Johnson persistently deploys in the Commons, has the smack about it of one arising from focus groups.
One take on yesterday’s events is that Starmer will now face a long drawn-out, debilitating struggle with many Labour members, some unions and a few MPs over Corbyn’s fate, which will sap and divert his energies.
We’re not so sure that will do him any harm with voters – though the question of whether to re-admit Corbyn to Labour, and if so on what terms, or whether to expel him after all, looks to drag on and on. A deeper problem for Starmer may be the charge of opportunism, one to which Opposition leaders are vulnerable.
It is striking that the media has not gone after the Conservatives over anti-Muslim prejudice in anything like the same way that it went after Labour over anti-semitism. Part of the explanation may be that there has been no domestic terrorism claimed in the name of Judaism, as there has been in the case of Islam.
But undoubtedly, Corbyn’s long, fitful association with anti-semites is another, bigger reason. He will now become a martyr to the hard Left within Labour – which will thereby prove that, even after yesterday’s report, anti-semitism will remain a problem for the Opposition and its leader.