Britain’s opposition party wrestles with its identity

Starmer came into office reiterating his utter determination to stamp out the scourge of antisemitism from the party. From very early in his leadership he demonstrated his resolve.

 Britain’s Labour Party leader Keir Starmer with his Jewish wife Victoria at the annual conference in Brighton on September 29. (photo credit: HANNAH MCKAY/ REUTERS)
Britain’s Labour Party leader Keir Starmer with his Jewish wife Victoria at the annual conference in Brighton on September 29.
(photo credit: HANNAH MCKAY/ REUTERS)

ANNUAL PARTY conferences are the lifeblood of British politics. So basic are they, that each September the UK Parliament goes into recess simply to allow what is known as the conference season to take place. Every year each of the main political parties organizes an event lasting several days at which politicians, party members, lobbyists and affiliated groups gather together with the aim of re-energizing their membership, rallying support and attracting media attention.

Being British, the whole affair is arranged in a very gentlemanly fashion. The main political parties have long agreed on two vital matters – the conferences are staggered so that each party can have its time in the sun; and the sequence is invariably Liberal Democrats, followed by Labour and finally the Conservatives. 

This year the Labour conference, running for four days from September 25, was especially significant. COVID restrictions had led to the cancellation of the event in 2020, so Sir Keir Starmer, Labour’s new leader, would be addressing conference for the first time in his new role.

 BRITAIN’S LABOUR Party former leader Jeremy Corbyn in Brighton last month. (credit: HANNAH MCKAY/ REUTERS) BRITAIN’S LABOUR Party former leader Jeremy Corbyn in Brighton last month. (credit: HANNAH MCKAY/ REUTERS)

Following Labour’s disastrous showing in the general election of December 2019, its worst for 80 years, its leader Jeremy Corbyn resigned. A complex and extended leadership election procedure followed, finally won by Keir Starmer in April 2020. He came to the post declaring his utter determination to address the issues which, by general consent, had led to his party’s rejection by the British electorate. High among them was the failure of the leadership under Jeremy Corbyn to deal effectively with persistent and increasing instances of antisemitism within the party.

Dissatisfaction with the failure of Corbyn and his officials to address the issue grew among Labour members of parliament. Finally in February 2019 nine of them, some Jewish some not, resigned en bloc. 

Perhaps the most distinguished Jewish Labour MP at the time, Dame Louise Ellman, did not join them. She had represented her Liverpool constituency since 1997, and was awarded her damehood in 2018. She was the Honorary President of the Jewish Labour Movement, and Chair of both the Labour Friends of Israel and the All-Party Britain-Israel Parliamentary Group. Her long-standing loyalty to the Labour party inhibited her from acting at the time. But the continued lack of effective action by the Labour Party led her, in September, to say she “shared the fears” of other Jews living in the UK about the prospect of a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn.

Clearly perceived by grassroots activists as a powerful threat, in early October 2019 a motion of no confidence in Ellman was submitted for discussion at a branch of her constituency Labour Party – a first step towards deselecting her as their MP. They scheduled it to take place on the evening of Tuesday, October 8 – Yom Kippur. Ellman called the move “particularly insidious”; and Marie van der Zyl, President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said it should be “a source of deep shame.” 

So on October 16, 2019, Ellman resigned from the Labour Party. She wrote that “under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, antisemitism has become mainstream in the Labour Party. Jewish members have been bullied, abused and driven out. Antisemites have felt comfortable, and vile conspiracy theories have been propagated.”

Starmer came into office reiterating his utter determination to stamp out the scourge of antisemitism from the party. 

“Antisemitism has been a stain on our party,” he said. “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.”

From very early in his leadership Starmer demonstrated his resolve. Two months after coming into office, he summarily dismissed his shadow education secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey, for approving an interview about the death of George Floyd in which actor Maxine Peake said the US police tactic of kneeling on someone’s neck was taught by the Israeli secret service – an assertion emphatically denied by Israel, and later retracted by Peake. 

Following Long-Bailey’s dismissal, Labour MP Margaret Hodge, one of Corbyn’s fiercest critics on the antisemitism issue, tweeted: “This is what a change in culture looks like. This is what zero tolerance looks like. This is what rebuilding trust with the Jewish community looks like.”

Over the following months Starmer proved his good faith on the antisemitism issue time and again. As a result, when addressing his party conference for this first time as its leader, Starmer was able to announce within the first two minutes: “Louise Ellman, welcome home,” and to relish the prolonged applause that followed.

The antisemitism issue that had dogged the Labour party since Corbyn’s election as leader in September 2015 was in fact only one manifestation of the deep chasm within the party – the divide between the moderate social democratic mainstream and the hard-left “pure Socialist” wing, whose activists subscribe to every aspect of left-wing dogma. One fundamental belief is “intersectionality” – all oppression is related, and those perceived to be oppressed must be supported. The Palestinians are deemed to be oppressed, and Israel is considered their oppressor. With no regard for the complexities of a decades-long political problem, nor of the many efforts to resolve it, unequivocal support for the Palestine cause and denigration and delegitimization of Israel is the approved line. Anti-Zionism morphs easily enough into antisemitism.

Historically Britain’s Labour party, while always containing a wide spectrum of left-wing opinion, has generally pursued moderate left-of-center policies when in government. The record shows that whenever the hard left gained sufficient clout to influence policy, the result was electoral defeat. Starmer clearly has little time for left-wing extremism, and that wing of the party has come increasingly to realize that he intends to devise a strategy aimed at winning back the voters that deserted Labour in droves in the December 2019 election. As a result their opposition to him has become ever more overt.

His speech to conference – heckled throughout by Corbyn supporters determined to rain on his parade – had been preceded by the opportunely timed resignation of a member of his shadow Cabinet, and an equally opportunistic debate sponsored by Jawad Khan, of Young Labour, condemning “illegal actions” by Israel’s government against Palestinians.

Said Khan: “The motion before you today will… send our uncompromising solidarity with the Palestinian people by calling for sanctions against the state that is practicing war crimes.” The motion condemned the “ongoing Nakba in Palestine,” labeled Israel an apartheid state, resolved to support “effective measures” including sanctions, and included the right to return for Palestinian refugees. It did not need a card vote. It gained a clear majority on a show of hands.

The motion was immediately condemned by shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy: “We cannot support this motion”. In a later statement she wrote: “We owe it to the people of Palestine and Israel to take a fair and balanced approach that recognizes there can only be peace through a safe and secure Israel existing alongside a sovereign and viable Palestinian state.”

The two-state solution is Labour’s firm and settled policy on the Israel-Palestine issue. “There must be a negotiated, diplomatic settlement,” said Nandy in a statement to the media supported by Starmer “a safe and secure Israel, alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state. We will continue to be strong and consistent advocates for justice, human rights and international law in this conflict, and to condemn the unacceptable use of violence against civilians on all sides.”

The anti-Israel activists within the party can generally be identified with the those on the hard Left, dubbed “Corbynistas.” They represent a sizable minority, and Starmer’s task between now and the next general election, scheduled for no later than May 2024, will be to weaken, undermine or circumvent their influence. Only then can he present himself to the electorate as the leader of a party united behind his policies for government. And only if he succeeds in this can he hope to win the election and emerge as Britain’s next prime minister.