Keir Starmer is tackling Labour’s shanda

Labour leader SirKeir Starmer welcomes Louise Ellman to the Labour Party conference in Brighton. The former MP who quit Labour over its handling of anti-Semitism has rejoined following changes to the party's rules on discrimination. Picture date: Tuesday September 28, 2021. Via Jewish News
Labour leader SirKeir Starmer welcomes Louise Ellman to the Labour Party conference in Brighton. The former MP who quit Labour over its handling of anti-Semitism has rejoined following changes to the party's rules on discrimination. Picture date: Tuesday September 28, 2021. Via Jewish News

Since being elected Labour leader, Keir Starmer has made tackling antisemitism and rebuilding trust with the Jewish community his “first priority”. In October 2020 Britain’s independent equality watchdog confirmed the Party’s failure on antisemitism. The EHRC found Labour in breach of the Equality Act, committing unlawful harassment and discrimination against Jewish people.

In response, Labour’s new leadership have enacted institutional and cultural changes, aiming to tackle anti-Jewish racism but also make the Party safer for all members. Measures include:

But what has been the impact of these changes on the Party’s Jewish members and supporters? A year on from Labour’s EHRC shanda, JLM sought our members’ views on the Party’s progress. We analysed results from over 360 Jewish respondents (representing 15% of JLM’s total Jewish membership). Two thirds of Jewish respondents were party members, with 30% separately stating they left the Party under the previous leadership – due to concerns over antisemitism.

Our results are encouraging. For the first time, we have evidence of progress. Jewish members feel significantly safer in the Party, believe Starmer is genuine in his efforts to address antisemitism, trust the Party to tackle antisemitism, have confidence in the complaints process and feel that positive cultural and procedural changes have been made. Respondents were pretty emphatic about the contrast between the Corbyn and Starmer eras too, with feelings of safety in the Party, and trust in leadership, dramatically improved.

Regaining the trust of the Jewish community is a moral priority. Labour’s antisemitism problem was painful for Britain’s Jews, a tiny community with collective historical trauma. Many Jewish supporters felt unable to vote for the Party at the last election, despite being active members. Our survey showed that trust in the Party to tackle antisemitism has transformed, increasing by 83 percentage points under the current leadership. That Jewish respondents so overwhelmingly expressed trust in the Party, and Starmer’s sincerity, to tackle antisemitism, is immensely positive.

It’s positive too that there has been a marked change in how secure Jews feel in the Party. Fewer Jewish Labour members feel unsafe and more feel safe. Under the new leadership, the number of respondents who disagree that the Party is safe for Jewish people has fallen by 76 percentage points, and those who feel it is safe has increased by 65 points. However, there is still work to be done. 15% of members still reported feeling unsafe. Moreover, some respondents highlighted discrepancies between progress made nationally, compared to some local parties that still have toxic cultures.

In the past, many members felt unable to reconcile their Jewish identity with their Party membership. Indeed, our survey found that 54% Jewish members surveyed knew of Jewish friends or family who had left the Party over antisemitism. Our positive findings on feelings of improved safety and trust have been underscored by the return of Louise Ellman, Jewish peers and other Jews who have felt able to re-join. We hope that our findings will inspire confidence in more Jewish supporters who may want to return to supporting the Party, but have been waiting for further signs that things have changed.

Given his commitments on antisemitism, and the importance the party has placed on progress, tackling antisemitism has been seen as a litmus test of Keir Starmer’s leadership. Our survey provides an early barometer to measure Starmer’s performance against the EHRC’s recommendations and the Party’s commitments. Our survey found confidence amongst Jewish members that their complaints would be taken seriously, and nearly 90% of respondents believed the Party has ‘made positive changes to its policies, processes, rules and culture in relation to antisemitism.’ These areas were identified by the EHRC as requiring change, so progress on these issues is significant. Keir Starmer should be given credit. He has shown he is listening to the concerns expressed in the EHRC, JLM and the Jewish community. While Boris Johnson is often accused of covering up abuse, Starmer is cleaning up. 

While tackling antisemitism is primarily a moral priority, it’s also of electoral importance. Labour’s antisemitism problem has not just lost the Party Jewish parliamentarians, councillors and members, it’s lost Jewish voters. In elections where the Party gained votes, it lost them amongst British Jews, with an estimated 45,000 who voted for Labour in 2015 failing to vote for the Party in 2019. Moreover, antisemitism didn’t just affect the most recent election. It’s often mused around Friday night dinner tables that antisemitism damaged Labour’s ability to win and hold seats in 2017, in the ‘bagel belt’ of outer London constituencies with large Jewish populations. Some commentators have even speculated that antisemitism could even have cost Labour that election. With Labour needing to overturn a large Conservative majority, demonstrating improvement on this issue will only help Labour’s electoral prospects in key seats.

While our members feel significant progress has been made, they were also clear that the problem is not yet solved. As one Jewish member said, “Things are improving. Starmer is serious on this topic. It will take time but he’s making good progress.”

We should also be honest that this will always be a problem for Labour and the wider left. Historically, far too many members denied and dismissed Labour’s shanda. There is still a ‘softcore denial’ of the problem on the left.  Too many still believe that the biggest injustice is their view that the extent of the problem has been ‘exaggerated’, rather than the existence of the antisemitism problem itself. Indeed this failure to be honest about the extent of the problem under Corbyn’s leadership was integral to Labour’s failure to deal with it. We can certainly say this is no longer an issue now.

It’s often said that Labour has tested the faith of its Jewish members. One interesting finding was that a majority of respondents (70%) felt that attention to antisemitism in Labour had reinforced the importance of their Jewish identities. Stories about Jews in the news have awakened some to their own Jewish identities and encouraged them to explore them. This is something Margaret Hodge and Ruth Smeeth have movingly spoken about, but something that has been the case for many Jews up and down the country.

 Make no mistake. Labour’s antisemitism problem caused lasting damage that will take time to repair. There is still work to do to embed cultural change. Indeed, there is no panacea and we should be honest that there are still elements of the problem which might never be able to be tackled – for example the denial and dismissal of the problem, which still hurts Jewish members.

However, we can be confident that these results confirm our own feelings that the Party has been transformed and changed for the better. The dramatic contrast between perceptions of trust and safety, under Corbyn and Starmer, speak volumes.

The views of JLM members count. We’ve been part of the Labour movement for more than a century and are the only Jewish group affiliated to the Party. More importantly, JLM members have been at the coalface of Labour’s antisemitism crisis. We may have joined the Party to help make a Labour government a reality, but that hasn’t stopped us calling out the Party when it has compromised on racism, without fear or favour. So when our members tell us trust is being regained and things are changing markedly, we speak with credibility.

For many of our members, Labour’s problem was so acute that it was harder for them to focus on championing other progressive issues in the Party that were important to them. Progress on this issue will grant members the headspace to champion other causes.

Finally, once again we have evidence that Jewish Labour members and supporters have confidence that Labour can be at the forefront of tackling prejudice, rather than becoming a home for it.

With the Party’s improved poll position, Labour Jews are starting to kvell, not kvetch, around the Friday night dinner table.

We’ve published our results in more detail [here]


About the Author
Alex Richardson is JLM’s Membership Officer and a member of the Masorti Jewish community