U.K. Labour Party Leadership Urges Members to 'Get Real' About Confronting Antisemitism

In a conference hosted by the Jewish Labour Movement, party leader Keir Starmer and his deputy Angela Rayner continued their efforts to repair the damages of the Corbyn era

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Britain's Labour Party leader Keir Starmer speaking during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons in London, November 11, 2020.
Britain's Labour Party leader Keir Starmer speaking during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons in London, November 11, 2020.Credit: UK Parliament/JESSICA TAYLO

LONDON – U.K. Labour Party leader Keir Starmer used his keynote speech at the party’s Jewish affiliate conference on Sunday to denounce his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, for setting back the party’s recovery from antisemitism scandals that dogged it for five years.

Last month’s report by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) into allegations of antisemitism found that the party was responsible for unlawful acts of harassment and discrimination.

Many hoped the publication would mark a turning point for the left-wing party’s relations with the Jewish community, but Corbyn’s response seemed to scupper that.

“I wanted the publication of the EHRC report to represent a defining moment where we could move on to the mending part of the process,” Starmer told the Jewish Labour Movement online conference, describing the findings as “hugely shameful.”

Starmer, a former director of public prosecutions who took over as Labour leader last April, noted that he had planned a “full and unreserved apology” ahead of the report’s publication, and that his team “had made everyone sure of the approach we would be taking.”

Corbyn, however, immediately responded to the report’s release by declaring that the antisemitism problem had been “dramatically overstated for political reasons.”

Jeremy Corbyn, former leader of Britain's Labour Party, reacting as he leaves his home in north London on November 18, 2020.Credit: DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS - AFP

Starmer moved quickly to suspend Corbyn from the party, but a rapidly convened disciplinary hearing subsequently reinstated the former leader after just three weeks. Corbyn has now had the “whip removed” from the party for three months, meaning he is now sitting as an independent member of parliament.

“We’ve been set back and undermined by what Jeremy Corbyn said,” Starmer told conference attendees.

In addition, recent weeks have reportedly seen a resurgence of the kinds of abuse, both online and in local Labour meetings, that characterised the worst of the Corbyn years for many Jewish party members.

Dozens of constituency Labour parties have defied instructions from Labour’s general secretary and passed motions in support of Corbyn.

Most recently, the chair of a constituency party in Nottingham, central England, was suspended after presiding over a meeting that called for Corbyn’s reinstatement to the party. One veteran Jewish party activist was forced to leave the meeting, and subsequently called in the police because of ongoing threats.

Referring to such events, Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, told the JLM conference: “Labour members need to get real about this – if they don’t see there is a problem, there’s no place for them in the party.

“If I have to suspend thousands and thousands of members, we will do that,” she continued. “Because we cannot, and we will not, accept an injury to one – because an injury to one is an injury to all.”

People holding up placards and Union flags as they gather for a demonstration organized by the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism outside the head office of the Labour Party, in London, April 8, 2018.Credit: TOLGA AKMEN / AFP

Human rights lawyer Adam Wagner, who acted for the originating complainant in the EHRC investigation, told Haaretz that the constituency Labour parties “have been taken over by extremists, and I don’t use that term lightly.”

He added: “They hold onto a lot of the mechanics of influence and power. It wasn’t a problem when these people were on the fringes. It was a problem when they took over.”

Wagner said people had failed to realise that the EHRC could only make recommendations. It was Labour itself that had to begin the long process of fixing what the report had emphasized was an institutional problem – and that might involve brutal actions, he added.

“You can have party unity or reduce antisemitism,” Wagner said. “You can’t have both.”

It’s impossible to overstate the impact the Corbyn years had on Britain’s politically active Jewish community. Historically, British Jews had not especially identified with either the Labour or Conservative parties, with Anglo-Jewish figures playing prominent roles in the movements on either side of the political aisle.

This changed in recent years, though, with a drift toward the political center-right, which began before the Corbyn era began in 2015 and became an avalanche as it proceeded.

Jewish support for Labour haemorrhaged, and those who remained in the party to “stay-and-fight” found themselves attacked both in the political sphere and by others who felt they were betraying an unprecedented level of communal solidarity over the issue.

The JLM was at the heart of the “stay-and-fight” constituency.

While Sunday’s one-day conference was optimistically titled “Look to the Future,” it was clearly an event that was still struggling to move on from the trauma of recent years.

“The EHRC made us feel vindicated,” said JLM National Chair Mike Katz. “Everything that we said was wrong was very clearly proven right and our approach was vindicated. If we had just walked away, this would never have been found out,” he said.

JLM condemned the decision to reinstate Corbyn on November 17, after he issued a statement stating that he regretted “the pain this issue has caused the Jewish community and would wish to do nothing that would exacerbate or prolong it.” The movement dismissed that as “insincere and wholly inadequate,” noting that he had “offered no apology for his total failure of leadership to tackle antisemitism.”

It also suspended its formal dialogue with the party following Corbyn’s reinstatement.

Starmer is now under pressure to make the removal of the whip permanent. Louise Ellman, a Jewish former lawmaker who resigned from the party in October 2019 over concerns about antisemitism, said this was now his only option.

“Dozens of constituency Labour parties have defied him over Corbyn,” she told Haaretz. “This shows that support for [Corbyn] is still there.

“Starmer has to face them down,” she said. “If he keeps to what he says and doesn’t let Corbyn take the whip without a full apology for what he did, and a retraction of his [ECHR] statement, then that sends a clear message to his supporters that their time is up.”

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