In Depth

Keir Starmer vs. Jeremy Corbyn: how Labour’s civil war could sink the party

The party may be ‘under new management’ - but the old guard isn’t going quietly

When Keir Starmer settled a legal action brought by Panorama and a group of Labour whistleblowers this week, he was hoping to draw another line under the anti-Semitism scandal that has dogged his party for the past several years.

But Jeremy Corbyn, who stepped down as Labour leader in April, is not yet ready to move on.

“In a sign that the move could reignite factional infighting with the party’s hard Left element, Mr Corbyn and his followers including Unite leader Len McCluskey attacked the payout,” the Daily Mail reports.

Corbyn’s reaction resulted in “at least 40 further civil claims”, says The Telegraph, which could “leave the party at risk of bankruptcy”.

What led to the first court case?

The lawsuits stemmed from an episode of Panorama in which the BBC journalist John Ware investigated anti-Semitism in the Labour party. It featured interviews with several former party workers, who accused the party of failing to take the problem seriously.

The party, then led by Corbyn, accused the BBC of “deliberate and malicious misrepresentations designed to mislead the public” and described the interviewees as “disaffected former officials” who had “both personal and political axes to grind”.

Ware and his interviewees sued Labour for libel, saying the party had damaged their reputations. This is the case which Labour settled on Wednesday by apologising to the plaintiffs and paying them “an estimated £370,000 in fees and damages”, The Telegraph says.

Why is that controversial?

“Many left wing Labour members are furious at the decision,” according to the Corbyn-loyal Socialist Worker, which says “the left faces further assaults from the right” after the “huge pay-out and apology to so-called whistleblowers”.

And Corbyn is among those who wanted to fight the case in court.

“The decision to settle these claims in this way is disappointing and risks giving credibility to misleading and inaccurate allegations about action taken to tackle anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in recent years,” he said in a statement.

His ally, the Unite union leader Len McCluskey, described the settlement as “a misuse of Labour Party funds”.

What happened next?

Mark Lewis, the libel lawyer who represented Ware and the former Labour officials, said he had been instructed to pursue new claims against Corbyn based on his reaction to the settlement.

He told Newsnight: “A full apology was made in court and it was completely undermined immediately after by Jeremy Corbyn saying he’s not sorry, that the Labour party has been advised that there were good defences, as if to say there was an apology to you but we had our fingers behind our backs.”

Other claims for libel and breaches of data privacy result from an internal Labour party investigation which was leaked in April.

Why does it matter?

In the short term, this appears to be very bad news for Starmer’s party.

“Senior Labour officials have warned the potential payouts could amount to several million pounds, although suggestions it could top £8m in a worst-case scenario are disputed,” says The Telegraph.

“It is also understood that the party is not protected by legal insurance, meaning a slew of legal actions could leave Sir Keir facing an existential crisis.”

And in the long term?

“The kickback from Mr Corbyn may end up suiting Sir Keir very well, as he seeks to signal the changes he is now making,” says The Independent.

Having described his party as “under new management” earlier this week, Starmer is now in open conflict with Corbyn and his supporters, says Philip Collins in The Times.

“Even if the decision to settle were purely political, Sir Keir made the right call,” he says. “Change has to be dramatised over and over again, given that most people, most of the time, are not watching. This is why decisive responses to incidents like the libel case are so vital.”

The ensuing battle “won’t be comfortable or fraternal for the party’s management team, past or present”, predicts The Independent, but there is no alternative but to “deliver Labour into the common ground of politics, and to challenge for power”.

That may require a yet more dramatic act, says Collins: “The real catharsis, the real way to show the world that Labour has changed, will be to kick Corbyn out.”


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