Jeremy Corybn’s four and a half years as leader of Britain’s Labour Party ended quite fittingly: The party’s official website crashed the moment it was scheduled to publish the final results of the leadership election on Saturday.
Aside from the winner being announced online rather than in a festive conference due to the coronavirus restrictions, it was a reminder that Corbyn and his acolytes had destroyed Labour’s credibility – both as a viable alternative for government and as a historically anti-racist party.
The website was soon restored, but Labour, even after Corbyn’s departure from the leader’s office, is still in critical condition.
Keir Starmer, the newly elected leader, acknowledged the greatest stain on Labour’s record under Corbyn in his victory statement, writing: “Antisemitism has been a stain on our party. I have seen the grief that it’s brought to so many Jewish communities. On behalf of the Labour Party, I am sorry. And I will tear out this poison by its roots and judge success by the return of Jewish members and those who felt that they could no longer support us.”
He also chose to quote this section from his winning speech in his first letter to the party’s lawmakers and in a letter to the president of the Board of Deputies, British Jewry’s representative organization.
But just before his acknowledgment of anti-Semitism and apology to British Jews, Starmer, 57, had paid “tribute to Jeremy Corbyn” – the man who had allowed anti-Semitism to taint Labour – for leading “our party through some really difficult times, who energised our movement and who’s a friend as well as a colleague.”
Starmer is taking charge of Labour at one the lowest points in its 120-year history. He still feels he has to tread a careful path between apologizing for the shame Corbyn and his cult have heaped on the party, and praising him for his leadership.
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The new leader is used to serving as a bridge between two ideological sides. Early in his legal career, he was a crusading civil rights lawyer, often working for radical causes. He migrated almost seamlessly to the establishment, working first as an adviser to the Northern Ireland Policing Board and then, as Sir Keir, being appointed director of the Crown Prosecution Service (Britain’s state prosecutor). He served under the center-left Tony Blair and Gordon Brown governments, but also under the Conservatives, who came back to power in 2010 in a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats.
As a politician entering parliament in 2015, Starmer succeeded in staying on cordial terms with both warring sides in his divided party. He was among the rebels against Corbyn, joining the mass resignation of Labour’s shadow cabinet in 2016, in protest over how Corbyn failed to campaign in favor of the United Kingdom remaining in the European Union before the Brexit referendum. But he also rejoined Corbyn’s front bench four months later as shadow Brexit Secretary.
What does Starmer really believe in? He isn’t a Marxist in the mold of Corbyn and his allies, but he’s certainly more to the left than the “Blairites” and “Brownites” who led Labour the last time it was in power. He is passionate on issues of civil rights and sees himself as a socialist, at least in the West European sense. However, he seems to have left his youthful radicalism in the past.
As far as the anti-Semitism crisis that roiled the party throughout the Corbyn years goes, some in the Jewish community will find it difficult to excuse Starmer for having remained in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, at a time when thousands of Jewish members felt the party had become a toxic environment for them. Others will acknowledge he was never prepared to excuse or defend Corbyn on this issue in public.
And it will help, at least for some, that Starmer’s wife, Victoria, is Jewish with relatives living in Israel, and that during the leadership campaign Starmer was forthright in saying that insofar as Zionism means believing in Israel’s right to exist in security, then he is a Zionist as well.
There is a desire both among many in the Labour movement and among British Jews to see the new Labour leader uprooting the Corbynist faction and repudiating all it stands for.
This is unlikely to happen. At least not openly. Not only because confrontation isn’t Starmer’s style, but also because he seems to think that some of the Corbynistas will wither into irrelevance, while the rest can be made to realize that Labour needs to be less radical in its approach to the British public.
Tactically, not angering the old leader’s loyalists seems to have worked well for Starmer, who won the election handsomely with 56 percent of the vote in the first round.
But in the long term, Corbyn is still a presence on Labour’s back benches (assuming Starmer doesn’t offer him a position in the shadow cabinet), and he will be quick to voice his displeasure once his replacement starts tracking back to the middle ground where elections are won.
Starmer is an improvement simply by not being Corbyn. By becoming leader at a time when Britain is reeling from the coronavirus pandemic – which has particularly hit London, where the Jewish community is mainly concentrated – he will be tested in the coming months on how he succeeds in balancing the Labour Party between supporting the government’s efforts to fight the virus and offering constructive criticism of its failings.
He is the right sort of leader for this kind of delicate maneuver. And the crisis will allow him to detoxify Labour from Corbynist anti-Semitism, as he seems to intend, in a low-profile manner as well.
In another time, the Jewish community would have been demanding a more demonstrative repudiation. But for now, they will probably be happy for Starmer to go and de-Corbynize Labour more softly.