UK's Labour warns against 'civil war' after Corbyn suspension

London (AFP) –


Britain's main opposition Labour party on Friday urged shocked members to stand united against anti-Semitism, appealing against a renewal of internecine "civil war" following the suspension of its left-wing former leader.

Jeremy Corbyn was exiled pending investigation after he refused to accept all the findings of a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which said his office had broken the law in its handling of complaints by Jewish members.

New leader Keir Starmer, calling the report a "day of shame" for Labour, said he was "deeply disappointed" in Corbyn for blaming party critics as well as the media for exaggerating the scale of anti-Semitism.

Starmer has won strong backing from Jewish groups which, in evidence to the EHRC, detailed a deluge of anti-Semitic abuse online and in party meetings during Corbyn's leadership, including death threats at the hands of left-wingers.

Jewish Labour Movement chair Mike Katz said the decision to suspend Corbyn was "brave and correct", vowing to work with Starmer "and put this shameful period behind us".

But Starmer acknowledged on BBC TV that the suspension had overwhelmed his efforts to "recognise the hurt, draw a line and move on", even as he wages increasingly effective attacks on the Conservative government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservatives are trying to exploit Labour's divisions, noting Starmer had continued to serve in Corbyn's shadow cabinet when anti-Semitic incidents were on the rise.

Veteran socialist Corbyn vowed to fight the suspension and his supporters are mobilising, with the radical group Momentum planning an online rally later Friday against Starmer's "naked attack on the left".

Corbyn ally Len McCluskey, the head of the Unite union, one of Labour's biggest financial backers, said the suspension would "create chaos within the party and in doing so compromise Labour's chances of a general election victory".

- 'Utter disgrace' -

However, voters turned against Corbyn in droves at the last election in December, with Johnson profiting from Labour infighting over Brexit.

Snap polls meanwhile suggested strong public backing for the moderate Starmer's confrontation with his more radical predecessor and attempts to bury the recent past.

"I don't want a split in the Labour party. I stood as leader of the Labour party on the basis that I would unite the party, but also that I would tackle anti-Semitism," Starmer told Sky News.

"Both of those can be done. There's no reason for a civil war in our party."

Corbyn was propelled from the backbenches to become Labour leader in 2015 after decades of socialist activism, including for Palestinian causes.

Among his supporters, criticism of Israel veered often into anti-Jewish tropes and conspiracies.

The EHRC found damning instances where Corbyn's leadership team underplayed, belittled or ignored complaints by Jewish members, and sometimes actively interfered to support favoured allies.

The charge of political interference means Starmer must tread a fine line between condemning his predecessor's actions and allowing internal party procedures to play out, now that Corbyn is under investigation.

"The leader of the Labour party should now not comment any further, let the process take its course," Starmer said, while stressing he opposed "purging" anyone.

Some are showing no such reticence in calling for Corbyn's outright expulsion from Labour.

"A political party founded on the principles of equality and justice, with a proud record of fighting racism, has now been found guilty of breaking the law in its treatment of Jewish people," former Labour MP Ian Austin wrote in the Daily Telegraph.