Yesterday, as Keir Starmer wrapped up his first full conference at the helm, he welcomed an emotional Louise Ellman back to the party she was forced out of two years earlier over the previous leadership’s wilful failure to tackle racism.
That warmest of embraces – both from him and delegates
– couldn’t have been in starker contrast to the experiences of fellow Jewish politician, Luciana Berger, who was given extra security just to walk around conference in 2018 when the then leader struggled even to express concern.
Two Labour conferences – 2018 and 2021 – that sum up how far the party has come since Starmer took office. One where vacuous words about ‘kinder, gentler’ politics were uttered and one where they were actually put into practise.
For those still harbouring doubts about Starmer’s determination to end the hostile environment for Jewish members, this was surely the week they were, if not washed away, then seriously eroded.
The passing of rule changes to ensure an independent process for tackling anti-Jewish racism was the first significant moment. This was the crux of what community leaders had been asking for for the best part of four years. For lifelong Jewish Labourites like those in the Jewish Labour Movement who fought tooth and nail for fulsome action against antisemitism this was a rare moment of relief and vindication of what for years must have felt like a thankless task.
Then Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy came down hard against a Young labour motion accusing Israel of perpetuating an “ongoing nakba in Palestine” without once referring to the indiscriminate targeting of Israeli civilians.
Elsewhere, the buzz that had been lacking from recent Labour Friends of Israel fringe events was back, with demand so high that some would-be attendees had to be turned away. Anger or defiance were replaced by joy and relief as Louise Ellman told the packed room that the bigots who suggested there was no room for LFI had been defeated.
But just as this conference underlined the new leadership’s intent on welcoming back Jews, so too it showed, in neon lights, that the grassroots are not wholly on the same page. Many remained fixated on Israel and defied the leadership to pass a strikingly imbalanced Palestine motion. A quarter of a conference-goers voted against the EHRC rule changes – despite the fact the party was legally mandated to act by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission.
But noone following this week’s events or his keynote could be in any doubt about Stamer’s determination to banish the Corbyn years to the bins of history. It will take time but amid running battles between the leader and the hard left over the minimum wage and changes to the rulebook for the election of his successors, finally the right people are now finding Labour a hostile environment. The bakers’ union, whose president had reportedly been warned he faced possible expulsion over his links to the now-proscribed Labour Against the Witchhunt, has decided to disaffiliate from the party.
As Starmer was heckled in the main hall yesterday, it felt increasingly like the crank voices were starting to return to shouting from the fringes. If a party develops in the image of its leader, as happened gradually under Jeremy Corbyn, the signs are certainly promising.