Jason Reed
Writer and broadcaster on politics and policy

Keir Starmer has more to do before the Labour party is ready for government

Photo by Samuel Regan-Asante on Unsplash: https://unsplash.com/photos/a-red-and-yellow-vote-labour-sign-in-front-of-a-house-_ebq5am7_jE
Photo by Samuel Regan-Asante on Unsplash: https://unsplash.com/photos/a-red-and-yellow-vote-labour-sign-in-front-of-a-house-_ebq5am7_jE

If the polls are to be believed, 2024 will be the first time the UK’s Labour party wins an election since Tony Blair’s last election victory in 2005. With a general election likely in the autumn, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer looks all but certain to become British prime minister by the end of the year, bringing Labour back into government just a few short years after countless antisemitism-related scandals under Jeremy Corbyn. He has embarked on a project to reform his party, but is Labour ready for government?

When Sir Keir Starmer took over the leadership of the UK’s Labour party in April 2020, he was in an unenviable position. Boris Johnson’s Conservatives had just won a landslide election victory, so he was staring down the barrel of a long period in opposition presiding over a fractured, bruised, and unhappy party. Covid lockdowns had just begun, so he had to find a way to perform effectively as an Opposition leader while the government was doing extraordinary things in the face of a viral pandemic. And worst of all, he had to uproot the antisemitism which had become intrinsic to the party during Jeremy Corbyn’s four years at the helm.

To some extent, the antisemitism of the Corbyn years has been conveniently posted down the memory hole of British politics. It is hard to overstate how dire the situation was between 2015 and 2019. British Jews simply did not trust Jeremy Corbyn to be prime minister as a direct result of the antisemitism he presided over as party leader and the apparent culture of tolerance from the party leadership, or at least impotence in dealing with it.

Corbyn’s reign saw many on the left of the party emerge from the nooks and crannies to take up senior leadership positions, such as the radical Corbynite group Momentum all but taking over the powerful National Executive Committee (NEC). The results were dreadful. At least one MP, Luciana Berger, quit the party because of the issue, citing the “volume and toxicity” of left-wing antisemitism she witnessed and suffered. Labour became only the second political party to be investigated by the UK’s human rights watchdog, after the racist British National Party.

Purging Labour of antisemitism and transforming the party back into a credible government-in-waiting was always going to be a mammoth task for Starmer. Since his election to the party leadership, he has made clear his no-compromise approach on the issue. Jeremy Corbyn is no longer a Labour MP. Rebecca Long-Bailey, a key Corbyn ally and Starmer’s chief rival for the leadership, was unceremoniously ejected from the front bench in June 2020, just a few months after Starmer became leader, for sharing an article which suggested the US police had “learnt” to kneel on people’s necks “from seminars with Israeli secret services”.

Besides high-profile sackings, Starmer’s main job since 2020 has been to gradually roll back the influence of the left-wing factions of his party and reclaim its many institutions for the moderate wing, which is both less radical in its economics and less inclined toward antisemitism. An impartial observer might tentatively say he has done a good job so far, with the party’s institutions mostly back in safe hands, but it still feels like a bold stretch to confidently proclaim that Labour is ready for government so soon after such an appalling and scarring era.

There have been public, embarrassing blips in Starmer’s fight against antisemitism which have served to show that the job is far from over. Unsurprisingly, violence in Israel has inflamed tensions on the Labour benches and, disappointingly, offered some Labour MPs a chance to slip back into old habits, which so often went unpunished under Corbyn. At a recent session of prime minister’s questions, PM Rishi Sunak was afforded an open goal when a Labour MP claimed that by refusing to call for “an immediate ceasefire” in Gaza, Sunak has “the blood of thousands of innocent people on his hands.”

“That’s the face of the changed Labour party,” retorted Sunak, as Starmer awkwardly stared ahead. Tahir Ali, the Labour MP in question, later apologised for the remark, with a Labour party spokesperson piling in to call it “clearly inappropriate”. Nonetheless, the episode offers a glimpse into the challenges PM Starmer would face. However unpopular the government may be, the poll gap is likely to narrow as the election nears.

Starmer is likely to end up with a majority, but probably not an enormous one. It will only take a few dozen disgruntled backbenchers to coalesce around a cause, such as MP Apsana Begum objecting to strikes on Houthi rebels, to bring Starmer’s government to a standstill. What can he do then? In Opposition, he has so far succeeded in standing firm and adopting sensible positions, such as backing the government’s strikes on Houthis. But if Labour’s backbench rebels become organised enough, there are still enough of them who lean far-left on foreign policy issues to cause Starmer a real headache – which, if he is in 10 Downing Street at the time, would have significant consequences for all.

About the Author
Jason Reed is a writer and broadcaster on politics and policy for a wide range of media outlets around the world.
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