If a week is a long time in politics, then a month in lockdown must be worth a lifetime or two.
One month ago, a leader anew was elected to chief Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition. The frontrunner throughout, Sir Keir Starmer ran on a unity platform. By promising not to trash our time in government under Blair and Brown, nor the last five years under Jeremy Corbyn, he successfully juggled the expectations of more left-wing members with the aspirations of moderates. For five years the Labour Party has operated a protest movement with passionate but often ill-judged pitches on a national podium, but Starmer appears to be re-focussing on a streamlined route to power, even if the uphill struggle is a stubbornly steep one.
Much of the discourse surrounding who should have succeeded Corbyn focussed on how the next Labour leader should appear and sound, as opposed to who might work hardest to right the wrongs of Corbynism. Debated was how we win back the red wall and what constituted a Labour heartland – is it safe Labour seats like West Ham, where I live, or seats like Blyth Valley in the North East, which returned a Conservative MP for the first time at the December poll? Instead, for the first time in ten years of party membership, my priority as a voter was selfish and singular: how will the new leader work to rid Labour of antisemitism?
For many Jews still fighting within the Labour movement, our optimism was all but wholly diminished at the beginning of the year. The leadership hustings held by the Jewish Labour Movement and Labour Friends of Israel in February served as a turning point. The need to tackle anti-Jewish racism head-on was palpable and all four candidates declared themselves supporters of Zionism. Coupled with similarly unwavering commitments on broadcast media and an eagerness to sign up to the Board of Deputies’ ten pledges on antisemitism, there was a renewed hope that Labour could turn over a new leaf with the Jewish community. Nobody displayed a greater understanding of how Corbyn’s Labour had found itself in this mess than Lisa Nandy, who won JLM’s nomination but ultimately came third in the final ballot. As Labour’s new Shadow Foreign Secretary, Nandy has already made progress improving a political agenda where the previous incumbent sought to impose simplistic analysis on conflict regions without real-world understanding of how to achieve peace.
Foreign policy, where the cracks of the previous Labour leadership most showed, is not the only arena where Labour under-new-management appears to be getting its ducks in a row. A far cry from the 2019 manifesto wish list, Labour’s new Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Bridget Phillipson, indicated in a memo to front bench MPs a sharp return to the disciplined approach to public spending commitments last seen under the chancellorship of Gordon Brown. Improving the credibility of Labour’s economic image, something both Corbyn and Miliband failed to do, will be at the top of Starmer’s agenda. Though, this doesn’t necessitate a departure from our opposition to austerity, proven by Anneliese Dodds’ appointment to Shadow Chancellor. Starmer’s shadow cabinet is a wholescale rebrand on the last five years in opposition, but that doesn’t guarantee an instant remedy for Labour’s institutional prejudices.
We have long proclaimed that Labour’s failure on antisemitism was as much a crisis of culture as it was a failure of procedures. By meeting with the Board of Deputies and JLM in his first week, it has been widely touted that Starmer achieved more in his first four days to forge positive relationships with the Jewish community than Corbyn did in four years. A new face at the helm is not an quick fix, however. Among very vocal left-wing activists in the Labour Party, Starmer’s fresh approach to leadership has been rejected rather than welcomed. While much of the outrage is contained to Twitter, where only the slightest fraction of the UK electorate actually reside, it’s important to remember that a chunk of these people are constituency party chairs, officers, and councillors – the reactionary Corbyn cheerleaders who secured a foothold in the institution. Meetings and local organising is moribund amid the pandemic, but some of the most vociferous opponents to the new leadership are using their last shred of influence to cast doubt on every move Starmer makes, while continuing to pour venom on the motives of campaigners who only wanted a movement free from hostility towards Jews.
Since leaving office, disgraced former MP Chris Williamson’s online commentary has become more brass band than dog-whistle, and he still has a significant – if not more clandestine – following among Labour members. Meanwhile, there are members who remained silent witnesses to antisemitic, anti-Black, sexist or homophobic attitudes in their local parties but will attempt to reinvent themselves as allies, side-lining those who put their necks on the line defending the values that Labour should never have abandoned. From debating the deadliness of a wreath to overlooking antisemitic conspiracies on their digital forums, these people should be forced to explain themselves – but, Jewish Labour members like myself always knew our struggle, even if successful, would be without forthcoming vindication. The test is whether the new Labour Party can make us feel that this is our political home once again, and not a movement within which we have to constantly justify our existence.
The advancements Labour is making under Keir Starmer, though may appear slow to some, is largely due to the hard-fought campaigning of JLM, our allies, and members like myself who simply haven’t given up. As we transition from a problematic protest movement to a respectable opposition and, eventually, a credible party of government, Jewish readers can rest assured that it is fervent antisemites most incensed by Labour’s new leadership. May they continue to scream into the Twitter void.