Keir Starmer reopens old wounds as Jeremy Corbyn left out in the cold

His election was hailed as a decisive break from the Corbyn "project" and a return to winning ways. 

However, seven months on from his elevation to the Labour leadership, Sir Keir Starmer’s refusal to bring Jeremy Corbyn back in from the cold threatens to reignite the civil war that contributed to his predecessor’s undoing. 

In withholding the whip from former leader Mr Corbyn, Sir Keir has sought to quell the fury of the Jewish community and convince the public that his commitment to "zero tolerance" of anti-Semitism is unflinching. 

But in his bid to bridge one divide Sir Keir has risked widening another, with his party’s hard left and the unions on which Labour remains largely dependent financially.

Perhaps more importantly, insiders from both left and right agree that the bitter struggle over Mr Corbyn’s future has undermined the Labour leader’s greatest strength – his air of electability (the video below shows Tom Harris arguing that Sir Keir has "the right stuff" to become PM after Mr Corbyn’s suspension last month). 

Their concerns appeared to be underscored by a new YouGov poll, which found that, while half of Britons backed Sir Keir’s decision, Labour voters were split, with 38 per cent in favour and 32 per cent opposed.

The survey of 6,713 people also found that 63 per cent believed Labour was a divided party, compared to just eight per cent who believed it to be united.

"It’s very bad politics," a senior union source said on Wednesday. "Everyone knows the line about divided parties. It looks totally dysfunctional. Rather than drawing a line under all of this, he is creating further divisions. The left will never be happy until Corbyn is reinstated, and the right won’t until he’s expelled. It’s like a terrible game of chess. And a mess." 

Another insider accused Sir Keir of opting for the nuclear option after being "panicked" by a backlash from the leaders of Jewish organisations. 

In claims disputed by Labour sources, the source said that for several days Len McCluskey, the Unite union general secretary, and John McDonnell, the former shadow chancellor, had sought to broker a resolution with David Evans, the party’s general secretary, and Simon Fletcher, Sir Keir’s campaign adviser. 

Len McCluskey, the Unite general secretary

Credit: Daniel Leal-Olivas/ AFP

But when the scale of anger at Mr Corbyn’s readmission to the party became clear, the source claimed the Labour leader rowed back. 

"There was a huge effort by the general secretaries of several unions and people right across the board on the left to find a form of words to sort this out," another insider said. "My understanding is they would have got to a form of words where everybody thought it would be ok. But everyone opposed to Jeremy blew up instead. Keir could have said it’s time to move on, but instead he’s capitulated." 

In a stinging rebuke, Mr McCluksey claimed that by "capitulating to external pressure" Sir Keir now risked "destroying the unity and integrity of the party".  Accusing him of a "vindictive and vengeful action", he added: "I urge Keir Starmer in the strongest terms to pull back from the brink."

Hitting back at the claims, a Labour insider said Mr Corbyn’s readmission to the party and whether he had the whip returned were separate processes.

"There were obviously people lobbying for Jeremy to be reinstated. People were entitled to take a view. But even if there had been conversations, that wouldn’t have been able to influence the outcome," the insider said. 

Scotching suggestions of a deal, they added that Mr Corbyn’s failure to apologise in a "clarification" statement published on Tuesday morning had caught members of the Labour leadership off-guard. "It’s fair to say there was surprise that he didn’t go further. There was no reconciliation, no sense of regret," the source added. 

Echoing the comments, Sir Keir’s spokesman told reporters: "I think what the public will see is a leader of the Labour Party who is absolutely determined to root out anti-Semitism, to restore trust of the Jewish community, and make the Labour Party a force for good." 

The timeline to Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension

Peter Kyle, a shadow justice minister, said: "We knew there would be moments that challenge and test us. The last 24 hours were unnecessary difficult, but Keir Starmer has acted authoritatively. We are moving forward."

While it is understood that Mr Corbyn’s suspension could last for up to six months under the rules governing the Parliamentary Labour Party, senior figures believe that the controversy must not be allowed to drag on indefinitely. 

Their concerns appeared to be well-founded, as Momentum, the pro-Corbyn campaign group, launched a petition urging members to "lobby Starmer to restore the whip". The Campaign for Labour Party Democracy is also imploring local Labour branches to pass motions demanding that the leader "reviews this decision immediately". 

Separately, Sir Keir faces mutiny in the Commons from the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs, which includes John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and the former shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon. 

In a statement issued by 32 of its members, the group denounced Sir Keir’s decision as "wrong and damaging", adding that it "severely undermines efforts to defeat anti-Semitism… and to challenge and defeat this disastrous Conservative Government".

Signalling that Mr Corbyn could soon be offered a "route back", a Labour insider said: "We can’t have this hanging over us. There needs to be a very clear resolution to this, and today wasn’t that. Nobody is pretending it was, but it was necessary."

However, Sir Keir’s allies are equally clear that forgiveness will not be granted without contrition on Mr Corbyn’s part. "It will be on our terms," one said. Should Mr Corbyn refuse, the alternative is likely to be a protracted legal battle. 

Allies of Sir Keir Starmer say forgiveness will not be granted without contrition on Mr Corbyn's part

Credit: Jessica Taylor/ AFP

While Labour argues about whether whipping decisions are ultimately a matter for Sir Keir, sources close to Mr Corbyn believe the Labour rulebook is clear that his readmission should be automatically guaranteed. 

In the meantime, the Labour leader is likely to come under significant pressure from the trade unions that remain loyal to Mr Corbyn. They include Unite, the party’s biggest donor, which has already moved to cut its funding by 10 per cent in protest over Sir Keir’s leadership. "They will be talking about it [funding] already," a union insider said on Wednesday night. "They will be going absolutely nuts." 

Any threats of financial retribution are likely to fall on deaf ears, however. While Labour continues to work closely with the trade union movement, Sir Keir has taken steps in recent months to woo Blair-era donors back to the party. 

Last week it emerged that he had secured the backing of David Abrahams, a reclusive property developer, while Lord Levy – who as Mr Blair’s leading fundraiser earned the nickname "Lord Cashpoint" – has also praised Sir Keir’s leadership. 

"We want to maintain good relations with the unions, but there is a bigger question about the fundamental values of the Labour Party," a party insider said. "No amount of money will win us the next election if the public don’t think we have tackled anti-Semitism." 

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