Labour has suspended its former leader Jeremy Corbyn after he said antisemitism in the party was “overstated” following a damning report from the equality watchdog.
The move is likely to ignite a civil war in the party between the leader, Keir Starmer, and Corbyn-supporting MPs.
Corbyn condemned his suspension as a “political intervention” and said he would “strongly contest” the action.
The suspension was provoked by a statement from Corbyn that rejected the overall conclusions of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report, saying the problem was “dramatically overstated for political reasons” by opponents and the media.
That statement set the former Labour leader directly at odds with his successor. Moments after Corbyn’s statement was released, Starmer spoke at a press conference where he said those who “deny there is a problem are part of the problem … Those who pretend it is exaggerated or factional are part of the problem.”
The decision to suspend Corbyn was taken by the party’s disciplinary unit, rather than Starmer, who saw the statement just moments before he was due to give a press conference on the report. Multiple Labour sources said there was a sense of shock in the headquarters at Corbyn’s statement.
Asked about Corbyn’s response to the report, Starmer told reporters that he would “look carefully” at his predecessor’s comments. Two hours later, the party suspended Corbyn and withdrew the Labour whip.
A Labour spokesman said: “In light of his comments made today and his failure to retract them subsequently, the Labour party has suspended Jeremy Corbyn pending investigation. He has also had the whip removed from the parliamentary Labour party.”
The EHRC report found Labour responsible for unlawful acts of harassment and discrimination over antisemitism. It cites “serious failings in the Labour party leadership in addressing antisemitism and an inadequate process for handling antisemitism complaints”.
However, Corbyn said he had been obstructed by party officials in trying to tackle the issue. “One antisemite is one too many, but the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media.
“That combination hurt Jewish people and must never be repeated. My sincere hope is that relations with Jewish communities can be rebuilt and those fears overcome. While I do not accept all of its findings, I trust its recommendations will be swiftly implemented to help move on from this period.”
After his suspension, Corbyn said he would “strongly contest the political intervention to suspend me” – suggesting he believed it was done on Starmer’s direct orders. “I’ve made absolutely clear those who deny there has been an antisemitism problem in the Labour party are wrong. I will continue to support a zero tolerance policy towards all forms of racism.”
Labour’s former deputy leader Harriet Harman said Corbyn’s suspension was the right thing to do. “If you say that AS [antisemitism] exaggerated for factional reasons you minimise it and are, as Keir Starmer says, part of the problem,” she tweeted.
Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, who was promoted to the shadow cabinet under Corbyn, said the former party leader had “an absolute blind spot” on appreciating the scale of the problem.
“I’m devastated that it’s come to this. Today should be about really listening, reading and taking in the report,” she said. Rayner rejected the idea that the issue had been exaggerated for partisan reasons, saying people should read the EHRC report: “I think that brings shame on us, and there’s no mitigation of that, and we have to acknowledge that and do something about it.”
Rayner said she was “deeply, deeply upset by the circumstances, and upset that Jeremy wasn’t able to see the pain that the Jewish community have gone through.
“Jeremy is a fully decent man, but as Margaret Hodge said, he has an absolute blind spot, and a denial, when it comes to these issues. And that’s devastating.”
John McDonnell, the former shadow chancellor, described Corbyn’s suspension as “profoundly wrong”.
“On the day we should all be moving forward & taking all steps to fight anti-Semitism, the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn is profoundly wrong,” he tweeted. “In interests of party unity let’s find a way of undoing & resolving this. “I urge all party members to stay calm as that is the best way to support Jeremy and each other. Let’s all call upon the leadership to lift this suspension.”
Before Corbyn’s suspension, Peter Mason, the national secretary of the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), said Corbyn and Starmer’s words spoke for themselves and were clearly at odds. “Jeremy Corbyn does not have a future in the Labour party, he is yesterday’s man.”
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Dame Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP and JLM’s parliamentary chair, said Corbyn “sat at the centre of a party that enabled antisemitism to spread from the fringes to the mainstream”.
Pressed on whether he should remain in the party or face action after his statement, Hodge said Corbyn was now irrelevant to the party.
“There is an absolutely entrenched cultural challenge, and diverting it into somebody who is irrelevant in the Labour party today … it just doesn’t matter,” she said. “What matters are the commitments that Keir Starmer gave today. Jeremy is part of the past. I want to move on.”
Corbyn said that when he took over as Labour leader in 2015, “the party’s processes for handling complaints were not fit for purpose”. He added: “Reform was then stalled by an obstructive party bureaucracy.”
He argued that from 2018 the party’s new general secretary, Jennie Formby, and his officials “made substantial improvements, making it much easier and swifter to remove antisemites. My team acted to speed up, not hinder, the process.”
He said: “Anyone claiming there is no antisemitism in the Labour party is wrong. Of course there is, as there is throughout society, and sometimes it is voiced by people who think of themselves as on the left. Jewish members of our party and the wider community were right to expect us to deal with it, and I regret that it took longer to deliver that change than it should.”