In a defiant interview, Corbyn told the Guardian the crisis that led to the suspension of his long-time friend and ally Ken Livingstone would not blow his leadership off course. The Labour leader also insisted he would not be held to “arbitrary” measures of success in Thursday’s polls.
Corbyn said the review would be led by Shami Chakrabarti, the former head of the rights group Liberty, and that he was determined to root out antisemitism and racism in every form.
“Labour is an anti-racist party to its core and has a long and proud history of standing against racism, including antisemitism. I have campaigned against racism all my life and the Jewish community has been at the heart of the Labour party and progressive politics in Britain for more than 100 years.”
Corbyn has faced intense pressure to act swiftly, after a week which saw Naz Shah, the MP for Bradford West, being suspended over antisemitic Facebook posts from 2014, before she was elected; and Livingstone taking to the airwaves to defend her with a series of bizarre remarks linking Hitler to Zionism.
The former London mayor continued to defend his remarks on Friday, telling the Evening Standard, “everything I said yesterday was true,” and vowing to fight calls for his expulsion from the party.
Chakrabarti will talk to the Jewish community and members of other groups, and report back to the party within two months about how it can best tackle antisemitism and other forms of discrimination, including Islamophobia.
Labour sources said she would be asked to recommend guidance on the boundaries of acceptable behaviour and language; and, “action to ensure Labour is a welcoming environment for members of all communities”, including training for new councillors and MPs.
Chakrabarti’s deputy chair will be Prof David Feldman, director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism. A separate investigation into antisemitism at the Oxford University Labour club, led by Lady Royall, will feed into the new, wider inquiry.
Labour will also immediately draw up new rules, banning antisemitic behaviour and other forms of discrimination, which will be submitted to its national executive committee in the coming weeks. The code will be aimed at making it easier to discipline members, rather than relying on the charge brought against Livingstone, of “bringing the party into disrepute”.
Some of Corbyn’s close allies in the parliamentary party regard the ferocity of the backlash against Livingstone by prominent backbenchers, such as Wes Streeting, and former ministers, including Andy Burnham, as a “witch hunt”, aimed at undermining the leader in the run up to the local elections.
However, unlike many of his MPs, Corbyn insisted he does not see this Thursday’s elections, for the Scottish parliament, Welsh assembly and more than 2,000 local council seats, as a barometer of his leadership.
“We are placing no arbitrary figures on anything and I don’t think anyone else should. They are local elections, there are inevitably local factors, let’s see what happens,” he said.
Asked if he would seek to face down any leadership challenge, he said he would, pointing to the size of his victory in the leadership election last autumn.
“Yes fine, let’s have the debate,” he said. “I’m keeping going, I was elected with a very large mandate and I have a huge responsibility to the people who elected me to this position.
“I understand there are people who don’t necessarily agree with the political position I put forward before I was elected, but I hope they will understand that I have a mandate; I am carrying it out.”
Rumours have persistently swirled around Westminster that Corbyn could face a revolt if the election results are poor. While Sadiq Khan is expected to win the London mayoralty, the latest polls suggest Labour could slip into third place in Scotland; that the party faces a tough challenge from Ukip in Wales and the north of England; and it could lose hundreds of council seats.
But Corbyn said during the interview in his parliamentary office: “You can spend your whole life worrying about plots, coups and manoeuvres. You can spend a lot of time worrying about; I don’t. There is always things to fill up your day with in Westminster, but if you are trying to bring about a political movement, a political change, it is not going to happen in this room.”
He makes a point of spending just three days a week among his divided MPs in Westminster, instead drawing strength from encounters with enthusiastic Labour members, as he criss-crosses the country by train.
Corbyn made clear he regards himself as representing the same anti-austerity, anti-politics forces that led to the rise of Bernie Sanders, the leftwing challenger to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries in the US; and populist parties across Europe, including Syriza in Greece, and Podemos in Spain.
He talked about some of these issues with Barack Obama when the pair met in London last weekend. “Most of it was a discussion about global corporate power as opposed to political power, and the disengagement of a lot of people from the political system, because they felt disempowered,” he said. “He was very relaxed, very friendly, and he wanted to engage with us, so it went on much longer than it should have done.”
Some MPs are concerned that his radical stance of facing down corporations and taking on Tory cuts will have little resonance in areas where Labour is facing a tough electoral challenge from Ukip; but asked if the party should tailor its message for different audiences, Corbyn said: “No: you’ve got to give fundamentally the same message, of the injustice of economic austerity, and the way in which local government is being punished”. In every constituency, he would “make the point that austerity is not necessary”.
The Labour leader also made clear that he wants to tighten the grip of grassroots members over the party’s decision-making: “The Labour party should be run by its members and supporters.”
He said: “There used to be a pub called the Pillbox pub where, in 1970, we founded the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy.” The Bennite CLPD has spent 40 years arguing for changes to be made to the party’s constitution, and Corbyn made clear he wanted to use his position to pursue some of its longstanding aims. “There is an issue about democracy in the party.”
Meanwhile, a Labour spokesman denied reports published in the Times that Corbyn’s adviser Seumas Milne led the resistance to Livingstone’s suspension with claims that the latter’s comments had been factually accurate. He also denied that Milne argued that Livingstone “had a point”.
“The suggestion that was made in the Times was completely untrue,” he said.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010