Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has told Sky News he was “disappointed” in his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn’s response to a damning antisemitism report – but has insisted there is “no reason for a civil war” in the party.
Mr Corbyn was suspended from Labour on Thursday – a move he condemned as “political intervention” – after he claimed that antisemitism in the party was “dramatically overstated for political reasons”.
He has vowed to fight his suspension, raising the prospect of a bitter battle between Mr Corbyn, his allies and Sir Keir‘s leadership.
Some Labour MPs loyal to Mr Corbyn have condemned the decision to suspend the party’s former leader and called for him to be reinstated to the party.
But Sir Keir played down the prospect of a looming internal conflict within Labour.
“I don’t want a split in the Labour Party,” he told Sky News.
“I stood as leader of the Labour Party on the basis I would unite the party, but also that I would tackle antisemitism.
“I think both of those can be done, there’s no reason for a civil war in our party.
“But we are absolutely determined, I am absolutely determined, to root out antisemitism.
“I don’t want the words Labour and Labour Party and antisemitism in the same sentence again.”
Sir Keir stressed that the Equality and Human Rights Commission investigation, published on Thursday, had made “no individual findings” against Mr Corbyn.
But he said Mr Corbyn’s response to the critical report – in which the former leader suggested antisemitism was exaggerated by Labour’s opponents and the media – was “part of the problem” the party faces in addressing the issue.
“I was disappointed in Jeremy’s response yesterday, particularly since I had said in my response that the Labour Party will not tolerate antisemitism, nor will it tolerate those who deny there’s a problem of antisemitism and say it’s all exaggerated or factional,” Sir Keir added.
“That, for me, is part of the problem.”
In another broadcast interview, Sir Keir revealed he had spoken to Mr Corbyn on Wednesday night, before the report was published, in which he discussed with his predecessor his planned comments about those who made claims of antisemitism being exaggerated.
Sir Keir served in Mr Corbyn’s shadow cabinet for three-and-a-half years and campaigned for him to become prime minister at the general elections in both 2017 and last year.
The Labour leader defended his decision to align himself with Mr Corbyn’s leadership during that time, despite the allegations of antisemitism that dogged his predecessor’s spell in charge of Labour.
Sir Keir said he “spoke out about antisemitism” both within the shadow cabinet and in media appearances during that time.
“I thought it was right to raise it inside the shadow cabinet and outside the shadow cabinet,” he told Sky News.
“But there’s no getting away from the findings of the report yesterday.
“They are clear findings and we all have to accept them, including myself, which is why I thought the right response yesterday was to accept the findings, to apologise again for the hurt that has been caused, and to make it my absolute business to implement the recommendations as quickly as possible.”
John McDonnell, Mr Corbyn’s close ally and former Labour shadow chancellor, warned that – despite Sir Keir’s comments – the party was “drifting towards a hell of a row over use of language, misinterpretation, followed by overreaction”.
“My advice is that with a bit of explanation over what was meant in various statements we could all save ourselves a lot of unnecessary grief & get on with tackling Covid & job cuts,” he added on Twitter on Friday.
Jonathan Goldstein, chairman of the Jewish Leadership Council, told Sky News that Unite general secretary Len McCluskey – a key ally of Mr Corbyn – was “part of the problem” with antisemitism.
Mr McCluskey has previously claimed antisemitism allegations were used to undermine Mr Corbyn’s leadership.
In his Sky News’ interview, when asked repeatedly if Labour would continue to accept millions of pounds in funding from Unite, Sir Keir said he spoke to Mr McCluskey on Thursday and the trade union leader “recognises the antisemitism in the Labour Party”.
But Mr Goldstein said: “Len McCluskey is part of the problem, he’s been part of the problem since the beginning.
“He’s part of the faction that supported Jeremy Corbyn. There’s been denial on this issue since the very beginning.
“He described it as ‘mood music’, he’s described it as ‘overstated’.
“He’s part of the problem and until those around Jeremy Corbyn and Jeremy Corbyn himself have a level of self-reflection and understand that when Jewish people complain about antisemitism – in the same way that black people complain about racism and Muslim people complain about Islamophobia – they undertand what they are talking about, they understand what they’re feeling.
“Until he respects Jewish people and understands their problems, I’m afraid he will remain part of the problem himself.”
Mr Goldstein questioned whether Mr McCluskey was “fit and proper” to lead Unite.
Mr McCluskey has condemned the decision to suspend Mr Corbyn as a “grave injustice” but he urged the former leader’s supporters not to quit Labour.
“I’m hoping that we’ll be able to resolve the matter and my message really to literally hundreds of thousands of our members who are already expressing their anger is to stay in the party,” he said on Friday.
“We need the party to be united – working people out there need us, need a Labour government.
“So stay in the party and I’m hoping that we’ll be able to get through this fairly quickly to everybody’s satisfaction.”