David Rose

It was a very different Labour on show this week

The party's firm line on Israel would have been unthinkable before


Britain's main opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer delivers his keynote address to delegates on the third day of the annual Labour Party conference in Liverpool, northwest England, on October 10, 2023. (Photo by Oli SCARFF / AFP) (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)

October 13, 2023 16:04

In a week of such horror, it seems almost impertinent to write a column about the state of British politics. But political life goes on, and what gets said and done by politicians here does have direct bearing on Israel, the wider Middle East, and our own Jewish communities. In any event, it is some comfort to be able to report that in stark contrast to what one might have expected during the ascendancy of Jeremy Corbyn, the response of the Labour Party at its annual conference in Liverpool to the atrocities perpetrated by the terrorists of Hamas last weekend was almost flawless.

Yes, I did see a few tens of protestors waving Palestinian flags and placards accusing Israel of apartheid when I arrived on Monday morning – though since they were holding their demo outside the conference security perimeter, they may well not have been party members at all. It’s also true that at fringe meetings organised by Labour in Palestine and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, speakers blamed the Hamas attacks both on Israel, for its treatment of Palestinians, and Britain, for its supposed “complicity” with “Zionist oppression”, going all the way back to the Balfour declaration in 1918.

However, these events were far from packed – attended by 100 people at most, including journalists and members of pro-Israel Jewish groups who were curious to hear what was said. It was also overwhelmingly clear that they did not reflect the general conference mood.

For me, there were three defining moments. The first came at 5pm on Monday in the vast main conference hall, when the party’s deputy leader Angela Rayner – once seen as a true Corbyn loyalist - came to the podium during a debate on local government. “I know you will all be appalled by the terrible situation in Israel,” she said. “I would be grateful now if you could stand in sympathy with the victims and the bereaved, and join us in a moment’s silence.” At this, several thousand conference delegates – I’m not sure many – rose as one. For sixty seemingly endless seconds, the hush was so total it was as if everyone had decided not to breathe.

The second came on Tuesday afternoon, when Keir Starmer’s keynote speech was interrupted by two successive standing ovations. The first came when he spoke of his continuing determination to “rip out antisemitism by the roots”, the second when he addressed the slaughter of October 7. “I utterly condemn the senseless murder of men, women and children, including British citizens, in cold blood, by the terrorists of Hamas,” Starmer said, going to pledge solidarity with Israel which “must always have the right to defend its people.”

You could, I suppose, argue that both these interventions were scripted and stage managed, televised empty gestures aimed at the folks at home. But there was no disguising the raw and genuine emotion expressed by shadow foreign secretary David Lammy at the packed Labour Friends of Israel reception on Tuesday night.

News had broken earlier that day that Hamas had murdered and mutilated babies in some of the communities it attacked. Lammy was speaking next to a table adorned with candles for the dead on top of an Israeli flag, and as he began, his voice cracked, and his normally precise syntax became ragged. “The latest stories about babies – I can’t even say what happened – those babies, the women being raped, the hostages being held – you cannot describe these people as ‘militants’,” he said, implicitly rebuking the BBCm which has continued to use this term to describe Hamas. “This is terrorism and we must call it what it is.”

Of course, Rayner and Starmer – though not David Lammy - served in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, and campaigned for him to be prime minister in the 2017 and 2019 general elections. Does that mean Jews should not trust him when he insists that since he became leader in 2020, the party really has changed? The objective record – the ruthless excision of hard left Corbynistas from parliamentary candidate selections; the suspension and expulsion of members found to have expressed antisemitism in speeches or on social media – suggests that it has.

But in Liverpool, I found evidence of a different kind, in the shape of the Jewish Labour Movement reception in the upstairs room of a pub on Monday night. Needless to say, everyone there felt scarred and traumatised by the terrorist attacks. Yet despite this, there was something they felt they could celebrate: the defeat, in which the JLM played a significant part, of Labour’s antisemites. As its national chair Mike Katz put it in a barnstorming speech: “We stayed, we fought, we won.”

Baroness Ruth Anderson, who as the Labour MP Ruth Smeeth was forced to seek police protection from the Jew-haters in her own party, recalled walking into conference during the Corbyn years to find posters of “cartoons attacking us”, and “people telling us that Labour was not our party”. But now, she went on, “it is our party again, and you [her fellow JLM members] did that”. Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting, who fought antisemitism doggedly throughout the Corbyn years, spoke next: “They thought they could beat us,” he said, “but all they’ve done is make us stronger.”

What’s good enough for Katz, Anderson and Streeting is good enough for me. There is no question that there are still anti-Semites in the Labour Party, but they have been banished to its darkest corners. We must all remain vigilant to ensure they never regain their power.

October 13, 2023 16:04

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive