On antisemitism, this year’s Labour Party conference has exemplified the tension between public relations and substance and continues to raise questions about how and why the Party’s leadership is tackling the issue. Sir Keir Starmer’s follow-up comment this morning defending his backing of the antisemite Jeremy Corbyn by arguing that a Labour government is better than the alternative is a case in point.
Asked about his effort to de-Corbynise the Labour Party, Nick Robinson asked Sir Keir on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning about a comment that he made during the 2019 General Election backing Mr Corbyn “100%”. Mr Robinson observed to Sir Keir that “you presented to the country with something that was not a plan for serious government…and not a man who was a serious candidate to be Prime Minister.”
Sir Keir responded, saying: “I am a member of the Labour Party and a Labour MP and like every member of the Labour Party and every MP we support a Labour Government. A Labour Government is always better than the alternative. And all of us supported a Labour Government at the last election, and quite right too.”
Sir Keir conveniently omitted that numerous Labour politicians of principle had by that point left the Party in disgust at its institutional racism and in solidarity with their Jewish peers who had been hounded out of the Party under Mr Corbyn’s leadership. Although Mr Robinson’s question was not specifically about antisemitism, Sir Keir mentioned earlier in the interview that antisemitism was one of the reasons that the electorate did not consider Labour under Mr Corbyn fit for government, and Sir Keir’s infamous “100%” backing for Mr Corbyn was never diluted by Mr Corbyn’s or Labour’s racism.
Sir Keir has now explained why he backed a Corbyn government while others left: because loyalty to party trumps fighting racism.
The comment comes the morning after the conclusion of Labour’s annual conference, in which Sir Keir claimed repeatedly to have “closed the door” on antisemites in the Party and on Labour’s “shameful chapter”, even though there was plenty of evidence that this was not remotely the case, with fears for the safety of Jewish attendees and Jewish former Labour MP Ruth Smeeth stating that “this is my 22nd Labour conference, and yet I feel sick about the idea of being in Brighton, knowing I will be a target for yet more racist abuse”; reports of expelled members permitted access to the conference; a speaker who has allegedly promoted Rothschild conspiracy theories invited to address the main conference hall; another outrageous fringe event hosted by the antisemitism-denial group and sham Jewish representative organisation, Jewish Voice for Labour; and Labour backbencher and one-time member of Sir Keir’s Shadow Cabinet, Lloyd Russell-Moyle, apparently complaining that Labour members were being “purged or set up with false allegations”.
In addition, illustrating the persistence of a particular mindset that continues to strain the Party’s relations with the Jewish community, delegates approved a provocative motion using extremely inflammatory language about the Jewish state that was proposed by the controversial faction Young Labour. Sir Keir and Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy tried to distance themselves from the motion.
Then there was Mr Corbyn himself, who reportedly still refused at the conference to apologise for the comments that got him briefly suspended from the Labour Party and indefinitely suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), while apparently continuing to bring other MPs down with him, with longtime ally, Andy McDonald MP coming under fire for appearing alongside him at a conference event. Mr McDonald subsequently quit the Shadow Cabinet, ostensibly over a policy issue.
Sir Keir apparently reiterated that Mr Corbyn needs to apologise to be permitted to rejoin the PLP (and new rules may mean that Mr Corbyn may never otherwise become a Labour MP again), but the charade of his concurrent membership of the Labour Party and exclusion from the PLP is a constant reminder of how broken Labour’s disciplinary process is. Is it tenable to argue that Mr Corbyn’s offenses are at once so great as to exclude him from the PLP but not so great as to prevent his membership of the Party? Is Labour’s message to be that racists are welcome in the Party but simply not as its public face?
It is that tension between public relations and substance that has become a theme of this year’s Labour Party conference.
Certainly, there were some welcome steps, such as the introduction of a semi-independent disciplinary process, as mandated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) after it found Labour to be institutionally racist toward Jewish people following an investigation in which Campaign Against Antisemitism was the complainant. Yet although this change was legally required, over a quarter of those attending the Labour conference voted against it (as did eight members of Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee in the days preceding the conference) and some affiliated groups (such as the second-largest union, Unite) abstained. Evidently, for them loyalty to their version of Labour trumps not only fighting racism but also the law.
But Sir Keir’s claim to have “closed the door” on antisemitism in the Labour Party is not only absurd but a worrying insight into how he views the problem. At the beginning of the conference, Sir Keir heralded the new disciplinary process as “a major step forward in our efforts to face the public and win the next general election” (because he recognises, as he told BBC Four’s Today programme this morning, that antisemitism was one of the reasons Labour lost the election in 2019), rather than as a sadly necessary means of delivering justice for Britain’s Jews because his Party was found to have been so grotesquely racist as to have broken the law.
Later, at the end of the conference, he delighted in Dame Louise Ellman’s return to the Party — announcing at the beginning of his keynote speech, “welcome home Louise” to an ovation (and some hissing) — but that was the only nod to antisemitism in his entire address.
Sir Keir will have to show that he sees fighting Labour antisemitism as more than just a public relations stunt necessary to win elections.
Joe Glasman, Head of Political and Government Investigations at Campaign Against Antisemitism, said: “Sir Keir Starmer believes that he has closed the door on the shameful chapter of Labour antisemitism, but he is worryingly mistaken. Far from being the end of the matter, approving a semi-independent disciplinary process, as required by law, is merely the beginning of the real challenge of purging racists and their enablers from his Party and delivering justice for the Jewish community. That means implementing that new process, investigating our complaints against Jeremy Corbyn, Angela Rayner and others, and encouraging a major culture change in a Party that, as this conference has shown once again, remains obsessed with Jews and the Jewish state.
“It also means Sir Keir himself admitting that the period of Mr Corbyn’s leadership, which he actively supported, were inimical to his Party’s ideals. In this respect, his claim on Today that a Labour government led by an antisemite is ‘better than the alternative’ is not encouraging.
“Just as Dame Louise Ellman left the Party years after its antisemitism had taken institutional root, so the remedial process, if undertaken in good faith, will take years after her return to run its course, as she herself acknowledges.
“Above all, waging a public relations campaign and actually fighting antisemitism are two different things. Sir Keir has spent the last several days showcasing his ability to do the former, but he cannot pull the wool over the eyes of Britain’s Jews. He will be judged over whether he really reforms the Labour Party and delivers justice for the Jewish community.”
Campaign Against Antisemitism has lodged a complaint against Jeremy Corbyn, holding him responsible for conduct that is prejudicial or grossly detrimental to the Labour Party, as the Leader during the period of the EHRC’s shameful findings. Given the serious detriment that this conduct has caused, we are seeking Mr Corbyn’s immediate resuspension and, if the complaint is upheld, we will be requesting his expulsion. On the day of the publication of the EHRC’s report, we also submitted a major complaint against Mr Corbyn and other sitting MPs, including Angela Rayner. These complaints are yet to be acknowledged by the Party, and they must be investigated by an independent disciplinary process that the EHRC has demanded and Sir Keir has promised but has yet to introduce.
The Labour Party was found by the EHRC to have engaged in unlawful discrimination and harassment of Jews. The report followed the EHRC’s investigation of the Labour Party in which Campaign Against Antisemitism was the complainant, submitting hundreds of pages of evidence and legal argument. Sir Keir Starmer called the publication of the report a “day of shame” for the Labour Party.
Campaign Against Antisemitism’s Antisemitism Barometer 2019 showed that antisemitism on the far-left of British politics has surpassed that of the far-right.
Campaign Against Antisemitism advocates for zero tolerance of antisemitism in public life. To that end we monitor all political parties and strive to ensure that any cases of concern are properly addressed.