Rafael Behr

Starmer’s stance on the Corbynites looks tough but it’s vague

Moderates are more comfortable denouncing antisemitism than articulating why hardline socialists should be kept away from power

June 15, 2023 09:37

One measure of political volatility is the rate at which the improbable starts to seem inevitable. When Sir Keir Starmer won the Labour leadership, his chances of becoming prime minister in a single term looked close to zero. The electoral mountain was too high.

The ascent was doubly daunting because the party was overloaded with baggage from Jeremy Corbyn’s reign. The former leader’s supporters didn’t want any of it discarded. To secure their support, Starmer vowed continuity with the old regime.
Three years later, Corbyn is banished, his movement has been marginalised and Labour has a double-digit lead in opinion polls. The left denies any correlation there. They see Conservative self-sabotage as the force propelling Starmer towards Downing Street, which casts his centrist swerve as a needless diversion.

What the current leader views as political hygiene — scouring away the stain of antisemitism to make the party electable — Corbynites call a witch-hunt, with antisemitism as the pretext for a more thorough ideological purge.

The battle has so far been fought in the small arena of local politics and candidacies for parliamentary seats. The only case to register on Westminster radars is that of Jamie Driscoll, currently Labour mayor of the North of Tyne combined authority, and one of Corbynism’s last remaining standard-bearers.

Driscoll has been blocked from running for a newly devolved North East regional mayoralty. The ostensible reason is a public display of comradeship with Ken Loach, the film director, who has been expelled from Labour for supporting hard-left factions that are proscribed by the party. Loach happens also to be a disciple of the Corbynite school of denial and deflection where antisemitism is concerned.

When asked in 2017 whether it was acceptable for delegates at a Labour Party conference to debate whether or not the Holocaust happened, Loach replied that “history is for all of us to discuss”. When pressed on this equivocation, he launched into a non-sequitur on Israel.

Except it’s never a non-sequitur in the radical Marxist doctrine that sees Zionism as the most sinister form of imperialism, and the most aggressive iteration of capitalism. That is how, under Corbyn, Labour became an ideological conveyor whisking people from socialism, via rage against Israel, to conspiracy theories about Jews pulling the strings of global power.

To his credit, Starmer recognises the moral imperative in dismantling that apparatus, although, like many Labour MPs, he found it noticeably easier to reject Corbynism only after the electorate had slapped it down.

The moderate left is also more comfortable denouncing antisemitism — a self-evident evil that even most antisemites notionally disavow — than articulating other reasons why hardline socialists should be kept away from power.

There was nothing in Labour’s 2019 manifesto about Jews. There was a lot about public ownership and making things free: broadband; dentistry; social care; university tuition. Certainly leftwing but hardly Bolshevism.

Starmer has binned the whole programme, having previously described it as the foundation for his agenda. When asked to account for the volte-face, he cites the need to adapt to a tough economic climate, exacerbated by Tory misrule.

That is a sensible thing for an opposition leader to say and, when it comes to Britain’s straitened fiscal outlook, true. There is also an explanation based on election tactics. Starmerites worry that Labour’s brand is so weak when it comes to budget discipline that voters might take fright even at pledges to spend on things they want.

But those are reasons why Labour feels it can’t promise to nationalise the waterworks, not an argument that it shouldn’t. Maybe the difference is academic. If the outcome is a Labour party that doesn’t spook swing voters, and they put Starmer into Downing Street, does motive matter? From a Jewish perspective, if the job of brand decontamination necessitates a ruthless purge of antisemitism, how relevant is it that the leader’s gut instincts on tax-and-spend are opaque?

Starmer is spared those questions for as long as the hard left fails to distinguish itself from the personality cult that made Labour a magnet for Jew-hating cranks. They say there is more to Corbynism than Corbyn, but they can’t decide whether the man himself is a martyr or an embarrassment.

That uncertainty suits Starmer. With zero tolerance for antisemitism, he gets to distance himself from Corbyn and the wider radical left as a bundle. That excuses him from a much harder task: mapping the leftmost boundary of tolerable opinion on a range of other subjects.

Labour can probably win an election with that line still blurred in places. But I suspect Starmer doesn’t clarify it because he isn’t quite sure yet where it goes. He should probably decide before becoming prime minister.

Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist. His book, ‘Politics: A Survivor’s Guide’ (Atlantic), is out now

June 15, 2023 09:37

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