UK Labour Party leader Starmer: We must change party culture

Head of the UK Labour Party Keir Starmer says party should learn about Jewish history and celebrate Jewish traditions in effort to root out antisemitism.

Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer attend a general election campaign meeting in Harlow, Britain November 5, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS / HANNAH MCKAY)
Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer attend a general election campaign meeting in Harlow, Britain November 5, 2019
(photo credit: REUTERS / HANNAH MCKAY)
A change of culture is needed within the UK’s Labour Party to root out antisemitism that flourished in its ranks while Jeremy Corbyn headed it, according to Keir Starmer, the current leader.
He made his remarks on Sunday during an online conference of the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), an affiliate of the Labour Party.
Starmer spoke about his efforts to combat antisemitism within the party, which the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission recently found had broken the law regarding three components of equality laws.
“We will only deal with this when we change the culture of the Labour Party, as well as the process [for dealing with antisemitic complains], to make it a party that is a safe place for everyone in it,” he told Ruth Smeeth, a former Labour MK and a national vice chairwoman of JLM.
“For me, success will only come when everyone in our Jewish communities feels safe in the Labour Party and when those who have left feel safe to return, if that’s what they want to do,” Starmer said.
Corbyn’s election as Labour leader in 2015 heralded an influx of far-left members into the party and its leadership. Many of them had deeply anti-Zionist and at times antisemitic views that were expressed on innumerable occasions during his tenure and that were frequently ignored or addressed in an unsatisfactory manner.
“We have to be very clear by saying we won’t tolerate antisemitism, and that has to come from the top of the party, from myself and [Labour deputy leader] Angela Rayner,” Starmer said. “We have to keep on taking action, keep on saying it, that there is no place for this in our party. I have to lead the zero tolerance and make it clear we won’t tolerate this in our party.”
Starmer lamented Corbyn’s response to the EHRC report on antisemitism in the Labour Party, which was published in October. Following the release of the report, Corbyn said antisemitism in Labour was “dramatically overstated for political reasons” by its opponents and the media.
Corbyn was suspended from the party, and although its disciplinary mechanism subsequently reinstated his membership, Starmer withdrew the title of whip from the former leader, meaning he no longer sits in the House of Commons as a Labour MP.
On Sunday, Starmer said he had hoped the EHRC report would be “a defining moment” for Labour to take stock of the problem and move forward to combat it, but Corbyn’s response had once again set the party back in its efforts to combat the antisemitism in it.
Corbyn’s suspension and the withdrawal of the whip unleashed a new round of vitriol by far-left Corbyn supporters toward the new party leadership and activists, often Jews, who worked against the former leader because of his failure to tackle antisemitism in the party.
Last week, a Jewish Labour Party member said he felt forced to leave an online meeting of the Labour Nottingham East constituency party due to what he described as the “unacceptable atmosphere” in the meeting when a motion was proposed to restore the whip to Corbyn.
According to The Jewish News, Labour is investigating whether the Jewish member was verbally abused by a fellow constituency party member during the meeting. The constituency party chairperson has been suspended.
Starmer said he and the party are working on an action plan as part of its response to the EHRC report, and it will be submitted in the coming weeks.
“This for me is not about making us more electorally attractive… This is about the soul of the Labour Party, what it represents, its value and its principles,” Starmer said. “I think we made some progress in the early months [of his leadership]. We’ve been set back by what Jeremy [Corbyn] did, but we won’t get deflected.”
The EHRC had specifically highlighted the importance of providing training and education to party members and officials on antisemitism, he said.
“I think we should celebrate Jewish traditions and history,” he added. “I think that would be good for a lot of our members.”
Starmer was asked about the possibility of creating an exception to Labour Party rules that stipulate a party member who supported another party in the last general election cannot remain a member.
Many Jewish party members left Labour during Corbyn’s leadership due to the antisemitism in its ranks and the toxic atmosphere for Jews that developed in it, and some campaigned for other parties and candidates.
With the election of the more moderate Starmer, many of those former members and activists could be interested in returning, something the new leader said the party should consider despite the current rules.
“I think we need to look again at where people left the party because of antisemitism,” Starmer said. “There will be a number of people in that position. If people think, ‘I think the Labour Party might be a safe space for me again,’ we need to find a way to make that happen.”