Keir Starmer has said he was deeply disappointed by Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to play down the extent of antisemitism in Labour, saying he had hoped the publication of a damning report into the issue would be a chance for Labour to “draw a line and move on”.
In a round of media interviews as Labour descended into infighting following Corbyn’s suspension for saying antisemitism in Labour had been “dramatically overstated for political reasons”, Starmer insisted he had nothing to do with this disciplinary process.
Starmer told BBC1’s Breakfast that the decision was made at about 1pm on Thursday by Labour’s general secretary, David Evans, in the wake of Corbyn’s rebuff of criticism from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).
The Labour leader, who took over from Corbyn in April, and has accepted in full the EHRC’s findings that Labour was responsible for three legal breaches over antisemitism, said he had spoken to his predecessor the evening before the report was published, but not since.
“I had made it very clear that those that deny there was a problem, suggest it’s exaggerated, or just a factional fight, in or out of the Labour party, are part of the problem,” Starmer said, saying he was thus “very disappointed” by Corbyn’s response.
He said: “What I had hoped would happen yesterday is that we could accept what was going to be a very difficult day, draw a line in the sand and move on.
“And I’ve spoken extensively to Jewish communities, Jewish leaders over the last six months. That’s what they wanted to happen yesterday, an ability to recognise the hurt, draw a line and move on.
“That’s what I hoped would have happened yesterday. As it happens it took a different turn of events because of Jeremy Corbyn’s response.”
Corbyn has pledged to fight the suspension, and is rallying allies, including supportive MPs and friendly unions, including Unite, which is Labour’s biggest financial supporter.
Asked about the former leader’s future in the party, Starmer declined to comment, saying it was “very important that I don’t now comment on what is going to happen in the process”.
Asked whether he believed Corbyn was himself antisemitic, he indicated not: “I don’t see Jeremy Corbyn in that light. Neither did the commission report make any findings, individually, about things that Jeremy had said or done.”
The EHRC said Labour under Corbyn was responsible for three breaches of the Equality Act, connected to harassment, political interference in antisemitism complaints and inadequate training for those handling the complaints.
Challenged on what he did while serving as shadow Brexit secretary to try to change the party’s actions, Starmer said he had spoken out, both privately in public, adding: “Within the shadow cabinet you have responsibility, and I accept that. And we all have to accept the findings yesterday, and apologise for them.”
Asked why he did not resign, he said: “I thought it was important to have voices in the shadow cabinet.”
The Conservatives have questioned whether Starmer was sincere in his opposition to Corbyn. Interviewed later on BBC Breakfast, the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, said he welcomed the EHRC report.
But he added: “I think it is fair to ask Keir Starmer why he’s taken this action now, when it was less than a year ago he was asking the British people, calling on them to make Jeremy Corbyn prime minister. It feels like this isn’t a point of principle he’s acted on, but it’s a question of political expediency.”