Since becoming Labour Party leader in March of this year, Keir Starmer has made tackling anti-Semitism a top priority. In his acceptance speech he promised to “tear out this poison by its roots”, and one of his first actions was to set up a video conference with Jewish leaders, in which he told them he would create an independent complaints procedure. They welcomed these actions, and said that he had “achieved more in four days” than Jeremy Corbyn had “in four years”.
The extent to which Starmer is determined to address anti-Semitism was clear in June 2020, when he sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey, Shadow Education Secretary, for retweeting an interview with the actress Maxine Peake. In it, Peake had said an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, namely that the tactic deployed in the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis “was learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services.”
Upon becoming aware of Long-Bailey’s Retweet, Starmer acted quickly and decisively in sacking her, winning praise from people across the political spectrum. After years of Corbyn’s ineffective ways, it was quite a change.
Even in spite of these efforts, though, recent events demonstrate just how difficult it will be for Starmer to stamp out anti-Semitism in his party, due to disagreements about Corbyn’s tenure. The factionalism of Labour was highlighted this week after the party apologised and paid damages of around £200,000 to a group of ex-staffer whistleblowers, who Corbyn’s Labour had criticised for appearing in a BBC documentary titled Is Labour anti-Semitic? During this they’d spoken about various incidents within the party, only to be accused of having “personal and political axes to grind”, hence why legal action was brought forward.
Starmer no doubt believed the settlement would help everything. “I made it clear that we would draw a line under anti-Semitism. Settling this case was important in that respect”, were his words. Case closed, some might think (Starmer was a barrister, after all.)
But instead, Corbyn contradicted his successor’s words, issuing a statement in which he called the decision “disappointing”, a “political” not “legal” one, which risked giving “credibility to misleading and inaccurate allegations about action taken to tackle anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in recent years.”
John Ware, who made the documentary, and some of the whistleblowers have since instructed Mark Lewis to pursue a defamation case against Corbyn. (Lewis, incidentally, has said he’s been approached by 32 individuals who want to take action against Labour).
In response to this, some have called for Starmer to withdraw the whip from Corbyn, suspend or expel him. But he is clearly wary of doing this, as it would lead to an “uncontrollable civil war”, as Tom Harris put it for The Telegraph, “that would conceivably split the party and leave each half as unelectable as the other.” Other Labour figures, such as Len McCluskey, have already argued against the court settlement. It has met strong resistance.
The other thought that will linger at the back of many people’s minds is that Starmer, for all his decisiveness now, campaigned for Corbyn to be Prime Minister. He did this at the same time that Jewish MPs, such as Luciana Berger, were the targets of anti-Semitic abuse and death threats.
MPs and many party members couldn’t stand by as this happened. Frank Field quit the party, saying that the leadership had become “a force for anti-Semitism in British politics”, and nine MPs left in 2019 for the same reason.
In essence, Starmer can apologise and try to correct things all he wants, but that legacy of doing nothing – when it mattered the most – will stay in hearts and minds.
With Starmer recently receiving a draft report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission as to how Labour handled anti-Semitism allegations under Corbyn’s leadership, there will be significant pressure for him to continue to “tear out this poison”, as he put it. He reassured parliament on Wednesday that Labour was “under new management”, and he clearly believes that he is the man to end this dire era.
Let’s hope so, of course. But due to the instabilities in his party, along with his past lack of action on anti-Semitism, his wish to “draw a line” under it will be harder than he thinks.