Well before Jeremy Corbyn – against all the odds, and against the wishes of many of his parliamentary colleagues – became leader of Britain’s Labour party in September 2015, worrying symptoms of a contagious antisemitism had begun to manifest themselves within its left wing.
In the early 2000s Ken Livingstone, an outspoken hard left politician, served two terms as London‘s Mayor. While in post he invited and showered praise on the Egyptian extremist cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who described Adolf Hitler as having put Jews “in their place”, and supported suicide attacks on all Israelis, including women. On another occasion Livingstone compared a Jewish journalist to a concentration camp guard. In May 2014, he informed the BBC that the Thatcher government had won votes in the London constituency of Finchley because the Jewish community had got richer.
Livingstone was only one manifestation of what was already perceived by many as a rising tide of antisemitism within Labour. It is scarcely surprising that in the May 2015 general election Jewish support for Labour – in the past the natural home for the Jewish vote − plummeted to 15%, compared to 64% for the Conservatives.
The specter of antisemitism was to continue to haunt Labour with increasing intensity, until the general election of December 2019 delivered a sort of coup de grace − an electoral defeat of historic proportions. Antisemitism − its generally acknowledged presence within the party, and the urgent need to eliminate it − had been a major issue during the campaign.
Shortly after the general election, Corbyn announced his intention to retire as leader. This triggered a new leadership contest. The candidates were eventually whittled down to three. Broadly speaking, they covered the spectrum of opinion within the party. Rebecca Long-Bailey, a fervent supporter of Corbyn, represented a continuity of his hard-left policies; Lisa Nandy, who had once resigned from Corbyn’s shadow Cabinet, had a more social democratic than hard-left political stance; Sir Keir Starmer, although careful throughout the campaign to avoid overt criticism of Corbyn, was perceived as a middle-of-the-road social democrat. All three were, however, agreed on one issue – the urgent necessity to eliminate antisemitism in the Labour party – and all pledged, hand on heart, to do so.
In the event, Starmer emerged from the poll as the clear winner. in his first speech as leader he said: “Antisemitism has been a stain on our party. I have seen the grief that it’s brought to so many Jewish communities. On behalf of the Labour Party, I am sorry. And I will tear out this poison by its roots, and judge success by the return of Jewish members and those who felt that they could no longer support us.” Less than three months later, he found himself having to demonstrate that he truly meant what he had said.
Immediately after his election on April 4, 2020, Starmer sought to unite the party by appointing to senior positions in his shadow cabinet both his rivals for the leadership. Rebecca Long-Bailey took up the post of shadow Education minister.
However, nothing could really reconcile Labour’s hard left to Starmer’s measured political stance. Their misgivings were probably enhanced by his decision, in the national interest, to be generally supportive of the government during the coronavirus crisis, albeit holding it to account for any perceived failings. Whatever the factors at play, within a month of Starmer’s election two leading figures on the hard left of Labour had announced their resignations – Jon Lansman, the founder of Momentum, the body that had projected Corbyn to power, and Jenny Formby, the General Secretary of the party, and a long-time colleague of Corbyn.
The first test of Starmer’s mettle came on June 25, when the well-known British film and television actress, Maxine Peake, gave a wide-ranging interview to the Independent, an on-line daily newspaper. The murder by Minneapolis police of the African American, George Floyd, was headline news at the time. Peake, who had campaigned for Corbyn in the general election, said: “Systemic racism is a global issue. The tactics used by the police in America, kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, that was learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services.”
At this point in its account of the interview, the Independent added in brackets: “A spokesperson for the Israeli police has denied this, stating that “there is no tactic or protocol that calls to put pressure on the neck or airway.”
Shortly after the interview was posted on line, Rebecca Long-Bailey retweeted it with the comment: “Maxine Peake is an absolute diamond.”
A storm of comment ensued. Jewish groups demanded Long-Bailey delete her tweet and apologize. Instead she sent another message saying she did not endorse “all aspects of the article”.
Less than three hours later, Starmer’s office announced that he had asked Long-Bailey to step down as shadow Education minister. “The article Rebecca shared earlier today contained an antisemitic conspiracy theory. As leader of the Labour party, Keir has been clear that restoring trust with the Jewish community is a number one priority.”
In an online press briefing, Starmer explained. “I did it because she shared the article which has got, in my view, antisemitic conspiracy theories in it. My primary focus is on rebuilding trust with the Jewish communities. I didn’t think sharing that article was in keeping with that primary objective.”
Starmer’s swift action brought praise from Jewish groups and from Labour MPs who had been critical of Jeremy Corbyn’s handling of complaints about antisemitism in the party.
Marie van der Zyl, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said the decision showed Starmer was “backing his words with actions on antisemitism”.
The all-party parliamentary group against antisemitism. co-chaired by Labour’s Catherine McKinnell and the Conservative Andrew Percy, issued a joint statement welcoming his “zero-tolerance approach and decisive action”.
Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP who was one of Corbyn’s most resolute critics on the issue, tweeted: “This is what a change in culture looks like. This is what zero tolerance looks like. This is what rebuilding trust with the Jewish community looks like.”
Initially, Peake’s allegation was thought to be based on a report from Amnesty International, but it was not long before Amnesty International stated: “Allegations that US police were taught tactics of ‘neck kneeling’ by Israeli secret services is not something we’ve ever reported.” By then Peake had tweeted that she had been “inaccurate in my assumption of American police training and its sources.”
Starmer’s decisive action outraged Corbyn-supporting colleagues. Long-Bailey had been their outrider in the shadow cabinet. Her removal confirmed their worst fears about Starmer’s intentions for the future of the Labour party
John McDonnell, shadow Finance minister under Corbyn, tweeted: “I don’t believe… Rebecca Long-Bailey should’ve been sacked. I stand in solidarity with her.” He later joined a petition calling on Starmer to reinstate her. Momentum’s reaction was that Starmer “says he wants party unity, then sacks the most prominent left-winger on the frontbench for no good reason. It’s a reckless overreaction”.
Meanwhile Corbyn supporters must be aware that, hovering in the background, is the soon-to-be-released report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) into whether Labour had “unlawfully discriminated against, harassed or victimized people because they are Jewish”.
The EHRC, founded in 2007, is charged with ensuring that equality laws are enforced, and that discrimination and harassment are eliminated. It was given legal powers to compel employers and organizations to cease discriminatory practices and to make such changes as are necessary to prevent future discrimination or non-compliance. In May 2019, in a highly unusual incursion into the affairs of Britain’s political parties, the EHRC announced that it was setting up an inquiry into Labour’s handling of the antisemitism issue. Its report, which will of necessity set out the results of its investigation into the inner workings of the Labour party under Corbyn’s leadership, is unlikely to make agreeable reading for his supporters.
Doubtless Keir Starmer was not unhappy to be provided with an opportunity to demonstrate that the new broom intended to sweep clean. He has started out on the hard uphill task of reshaping Labour into a political party capable of winning back the trust of the British electorate, and with it the confidence of its Jewish community.