16 February 2023

Even with Corbyn cast out, Labour still has a long way to go on antisemitism


Occasionally something will happen to remind me of the darkness of December 2019. I am not a hysterical person, but in the run up to that month’s general election I was frightened enough to have told my family that if Jeremy Corbyn became Prime Minister, I wasn’t sure whether Jews like us would be safe in our country.

We all know what happened next – Corbyn lost overwhelmingly. Even people who didn’t know or care anything about antisemitism knew this man was an extremist and they rejected him.

And then came Keir Starmer. He’s an interesting chap. He has a wife with Jewish heritage, yet sat in Corbyn’s cabinet. He claims to have frequently clashed with the Labour leader over antisemitism and yet we heard not a word from the notoriously leaky parliamentary Labour Party about those challenges at the time. 

His colleagues remember things differently.

Rosie Duffield, a Labour MP who first attracted the ire of Corbynistas when she spoke out against antisemitism and is now bullied by her colleagues for defending women’s rights (with no help from Starmer) told me: ‘One of the reasons I didn’t vote for Keir for leader was his stance on antisemitism. He seemed to believe his choice was between silence and the future leader’s job or speaking out bravely and risk being treated to the abuse that those of us who did are still getting. That was a career move and not leadership.’

As Ian Austin, who quit the Labour Party over antisemitism, put it pithily on Twitter: ‘In 1944, when the Americans liberated Paris, everyone suddenly discovered they’d been in the resistance all along.’

It wasn’t just when he served under Corbyn either. In Starmer’s first speech as Labour leader he vowed to stamp out antisemitism in the party while also calling Jeremy Corbyn his ‘friend’. Did he really not see that those two things were mutually incompatible? It was all too typical of a leader who has mastered equivocation on just about everything, from Brexit to what a woman is.

There’s no doubt the party has taken steps forward since the Corbyn era. Yesterday, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which in 2020 found that Corbyn’s Labour had illegally breached equalities legislation in areas including the ‘unlawful harassment’ of Jewish members, took Labour out of special measures. It’s also good to see that Starmer has moved on from triumphalist claims that his party has ‘closed the door on antisemitism’ and admits – as all the major UK Jewish organisations have insisted – that there is still plenty of work to be done.

Still, I can’t help thinking that is less a cause for rejoicing than a sign of just how bad things got under Corbyn. And for all the plaudits Starmer has won for changing the party, he had little choice after the EHRC’s damning ruling.

So, while I’m glad Starmer said Corbyn will not be standing as a Labour MP at the next election, that really should be the bare minimum. Corbyn’s arrogant insistence that he will fight this decision is partly Starmer’s own fault; the former leader should never have remained a Labour member. 

I talked to lots of left-wing Jewish friends for this piece, and very few of them are willing to either forgive or forget – even if they hate the Tory government and will vote grudgingly for Labour.

‘I am still heartbroken by it all,’ one told me. ‘What I can’t get over is how there were plenty of rational ‘normal’ Labour voters who threw us under the bus either actively or passively supporting Corbyn. Certain friends no longer speak to me, former colleagues dodge me. It’s been so long I don’t even know if a return to normal is possible.’

Jeremy Corbyn made antisemitism mainstream for the first time in a major UK political party. His obsession with Israel and what even his friends describe as a ‘blind spot’ on antisemitism emboldened a host of cranks and loons who felt they had free rein for their repugnant views. A fine example is the former MP Chris Williamson who, prior to Corbynism, had barely said a word about Israel but has now gone down a dark conspiratorial hole talking of Jewish ‘power’ and control on Iranian state television.

Equally striking is how many people still seem to be willing to give Corbyn the benefit of the doubt. A poll last night by You Gov found that 47% of Labour voters thought Corbyn should be allowed to stand as a Labour MP at the next election, highlighting that this problem is far from over. 

So what could Starmer have done differently? For starters, he should have spelled out exactly what Corbyn and his leadership team had done that was antisemitic, and made clear that left-wing antisemitism is every bit as pernicious as right-wing racism. But then that would have begged a very awkward question: if Starmer knew about all this, why did he stay in this man’s Shadow Cabinet? Why did he say he was ‘100%’ behind Corbyn becoming Prime Minister?

It is this lack of openness, failure to educate which is one reason why the danger with Labour is not over. It is telling that Labour has ignored calls by the Campaign Against Antisemitism to investigate 12 of its MPs, including his Deputy Angela Rayner, over antisemitism complaints. A few big, punchy speeches is one thing, but Starmer actually needs to ‘do the work’ if British Jews are going to have faith that his changes are more than cosmetic.

The best thing I can say about Starmer is that he is not an antisemite. If he wins the next election I won’t feel any of that dark fear of 2019. But my worries remain about the wider state of the party; cracks don’t disappear with a fresh lick of paint.

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Nicole Lampert is a freelance journalist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.