Small but important steps from Starmer over Israel

Labour seems to be more in touch with reality in the Middle East than it has been at any point since 2010


LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 8: Sir Keir Starmer, Leader of the Labour Party of the United Kingdom talks with others in the meeting on September 8, 2023 in London, England. Labour's six Metro Mayors and the Leader of the Labour Party met with candidates Richard Parker (West Mids) and Claire Ward (East Mids) ahead of Midlands Mayoral Elections due to take place next May. (Photo by Belinda Jiao/Getty Images)

October 05, 2023 14:00

It’s a sobering thought for those of us for whom the 1980s feel like yesterday that at the next election there will be people voting who had barely been born when Tony Blair was prime minister.

Under Blair – and his successor as PM, Gordon Brown – Labour was as solidly behind Israel and its security as anyone could reasonably, and realistically, have hoped for. Indeed, there is a golden line of Labour PMs from Wilson onwards who have stood firmly in support of the Jewish state.

If only the same could be said of the party in opposition. Under Ed Miliband and then Jeremy Corbyn things went from bad to worse. Labour became fist ambivalent about Israel but then actively hostile - and that’s referring only to the party’s official line. The free reign given to antisemitic members added an even deeper dimension to this.

So as the party prepares to gather in Liverpool this weekend, it’s refreshing to see that while the halcyon days of Blair and Brown have clearly been and gone, never to return, the poison does seem to have been removed from Labour’s attitude to Israel.

It was under Ed Miliband – ironically, the party’s only Jewish leader – that Labour first began its drift away from Israel. In 2013 he told a Board of Deputies meeting that he was a Zionist, which led to anger from Labour MPs over his embrace of the Z-word. Within 24 hours his office issued a statement “clarifying” his words; he had they said, “not used the word Zionist to describe himself”. The following year he condemned Operation Protective Edge in Gaza. As one former Labour minister told this paper at the time: “Just look at his record. He likes to pretend he’s driven by some moral compass but the truth is he’s the most cynical leader Labour has ever had. Syria, now Israel. He’ll sell anyone out for a vote.”

The Jewish Leadership Council felt the need to call him out with an unprecedentedly strong statement attacking a mainstream party leader: “It is not credible to suggest that the situation can be resolved simply by calling for a cease fire, when over recent weeks Hamas has brazenly breached six ceasefires, each accepted and observed by Israel, and abused them to perpetrate further attacks. Political leaders in the United Kingdom have an important role to play in bringing about a sustained end to the current violence and a demilitarization of the Gaza Strip. This is a critical issue and we hope that such an important matter will not be used to create domestic political points of difference.”

With hindsight, that JLC statement can be seen as merely a warm up for what followed under Miliband’s successor, Jeremy Corbyn.

I don’t propose to go through Corbyn’s time, save to say that Labour plunged into the sewer with a leader who described Hamas as his friends.

It is entirely valid to point out that Keir Starmer actively and willingly campaigned in 2017 and 2019 to make Corbyn prime minister, and that many Labour MPs still support the former leader and his brand of politics. Labour was toxic, and you do not detoxify yourself by simply declaring yourself to be clean. You have to earn that label. But it is equally important to note when the party demonstrates that it is indeed learning.

In that context, we should note a small but telling decision this week in advance of conference.

The party has removed “end apartheid” as the final two words of the title of a fringe meeting being organised by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign for next week. It will now be called simply: “Justice for Palestine”. Commenting on the deletion of the apartheid smear, a Labour spokesman said: “Keir Starmer has been clear that this is not the position of the Labour Party.”

Now one deletion does not a rehabilitation make but, my word, it is certainly better than anything we saw from Labour under its previous two leaders. And there is now an element of sanity in the party’s official policy, too. Labour has made clear its 2024 manifesto will not commit it to immediate recognition of a Palestinian state, as the party has been demanding previously in opposition.

These are small steps, but they matter. A Labour Party that recognises reality in the Middle East is a good start.

October 05, 2023 14:00

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