This is an edited transcript of Richard Burgon’s speech to the Reinstate Corbyn, Unite to Fight the Tories event held on 9th November.
Firstly, I would like to congratulate Arise on holding this event tonight, and all the groups streaming it: Tribune, Momentum, CLPD, Red Labour, Don’t Leave Organize, Labour Outlook, For the Many, Labour CND and many others.
It is vital that we make it clear that large numbers of Labour members are deeply unhappy about this decision. Especially at a time when we must be stepping up the pressure against a Tory government whose policies are costing lives and causing such harm to livelihoods.
Over the decades, in struggle after struggle – from opposition to the war on Iraq to opposing cruel Tory benefits cuts – Jeremy Corbyn has always stood with us. So now we need to stand with him.
It is quite extraordinary that a former leader has been suspended – has this ever happened before? Of course, one of the most famous left wing MPs, Nye Bevan, was briefly expelled at one stage. And Ramsay MacDonald was expelled for forming a treacherous national coalition, but I can’t think of any former leader being expelled not long after stepping down.
So there is now an important argument to be won to ensure that Jeremy is readmitted to the Labour Party following his suspension. And, as the Socialist Campaign Group said in its statement in support of Jeremy, members are the lifeblood of our Party so to those thinking of quitting Labour, I say: Don’t Leave. Organise. Let’s win this and then fight for the progressive policies that are needed.
For the entire Labour Party, the publication of the EHRC report should have been an opportunity to reflect and to move forward together in the important battle against anti-Semitism. Instead, we are in the middle of a potentially historic division in the party.
If you haven’t read in full Jeremy’s response to the EHRC report then much of what he said may surprise you. Because the media hasn’t exactly been helpful in giving a proper impression of what Jeremy said.
So you may not have known that Jeremy said in his response to the EHRC – and I wholeheartedly agree with him – that “antisemitism is absolutely abhorrent, wrong and responsible for some of humanity’s greatest crimes.”
And that as Leader he “was always determined to eliminate all forms of racism and root out the cancer of antisemitism.”
Or that Jeremy also said in his response to the EHRC that: “Anyone claiming there is no antisemitism in the Labour Party is wrong” and that “One anti-Semite is one too many” in our party.
Or even that he concluded by saying that the EHRC report recommendations “be swiftly implemented to help move on from this period.”
Instead of the report being a moment to move forward as a united party on how to defeat the evil of antisemitism, there’s talk today of a civil war in the Labour Party. I want to be absolutely clear: that serves no one but the Tory Government.
Our communities are being hit by the greatest health crisis in generations and the deepest economic fallout in decades. So a top priority for the whole labour movement must be to unite to force the government to change track.
Another must be to unite to fight the racism and scapegoating of Black and Jewish communities that history shows us will soar across society as the economic crisis deepens.
Instead, we now face division in the party, with a former Labour Party leader suspended, demoralising many members whom the Party needs to be active in their communities in the fight against the Tories.
That’s why the Socialist Campaign Group made clear in its statement that it shares the views of the seven union general secretaries who have expressed “serious concerns about the manner of and rationale for suspension of the former party leader Jeremy Corbyn”. And like them, is calling for a “unifying way forward”. Because people are not going to stand idly by while the former leader of the Labour Party is expelled.
Some, of course, want this to be a moment to get rid of Corbyn’s policies as well as Corbyn. For example, former Labour MP Phil Wilson, who worked for Tony Blair for a number of years, wrote in the Independent that “Corbynism, in all its guises, needs to become an annex of Labour history, where future historians read the pain expressed in every word written and shudder with horror as they put down the book and say never, ever again.”
Such views are shared by powerful right-wing media outlets. A Daily Telegraph Editorial has called for “a house cleaning” and for Keir to define himself by “taking on the far-Left”. It ends by claiming, “It is time to drive Corbynism out of the Labour Party altogether.”
We should be clear what that means. Hundreds of thousands of members – especially younger members – and trade unionists driven out of the Labour Party. If that approach is taken, then don’t be surprised if many other members respond by withdrawing their time, money and resources.
What will be the consequences? For those encouraging Keir to have a Kinnock moment, where he takes on the Left to define his leadership, I would advise them to remember that Kinnock lost twice with a divided party.
Keir himself stood on a pledge of unity. And Keir has said that only a “broad coalition” can help recreate Joe Biden’s win in Britain
I agree that building that unity is essential. But such unity is undermined while the former leader – who represents the socialist vision of tens of thousands of members – is suspended.
Of course, unity does not mean that we all agree – or even that we refrain from robust debate on policies and approach. For example, I have been calling for Labour’s frontbench to go much further on its response to COVID, including fighting for schools to be included in the lockdown and for greater economic support for people.
And as the Secretary of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs, I don’t expect to agree with Progress and they will no doubt hope not to agree with me.
For me, unity means that the Labour Party remains a party of socialists, social democrats and trade unions. This attack on Jeremy will be interpreted by many as an act of disunity – an attempt to drive socialists out of the party.
That would weaken the movement as a whole. Take a look at the US – without the mobilising efforts of Bernie Sanders, AOC and others the picture could have been very different.
Some may look at recent polls and see Keir effectively neck-and-neck with Boris Johnson and think: now is the time to kick out the left. But Boris Johnson won’t be the Tory leader going into the next General Election. The Tories will be ruthless and will have a fresh face ready by then.
In the middle of an enormous economic and social crisis, the British ruling class will not want a Labour government of any character.
It will be an uphill fight for Keir as Labour’s leader to become PM – which is what I and all Labour members will want to see. He shouldn’t have that fight with one hand tied behind his back in the form of a divided party.
So the way forward is clear: Re-admit Jeremy. Unite to take the fight to the Tories.
Image: Official portrait of Richard Burgon MP. Source: https://members-api.parliament.uk/api/Members/4493/Portrait?cropType=ThreeFour, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.