With Keir Starmer's election, the fight for the soul of Labour is only just beginning

His victory is a welcome step forward but going back to business as usual is not easy, Lord Mendelsohn argues

April 05, 2020 18:23

Can the Jewish community breathe a huge sigh of relief now that Jeremy Corbyn is no longer leader of the Labour Party? Can we go back to business as usual now that the existential threat has passed? While Sir Keir Starmer’s victory is a welcome step forward, this is only the start of a protracted battle against antisemitism on the left.

The left has for decades had a growing problem with antisemitism. Too much of my time as a Labour member has been taken up with this battle from the 1980s onwards.

What changed was that while this anti-Jewish hatred was confined to the fringes of far-left politics, the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader in 2015 brought it into the mainstream, into the Labour Party’s local branches and head office, into Parliament, and into the Leader of the Opposition’s office. Corbyn’s departure as Leader does not make all this disappear in a puff of smoke. You only have to look at the data on party members attitudes to appreciate the extent of the problem.

There were those who valiantly fought this politics of hate, especially some Labour MPs, but they are now vanquished and scattered. The forces of decency that are left behind must now coalesce behind Sir Keir Starmer and strengthen his arm. There are some obvious things he must do immediately such as expelling antisemites, speeding up the complaints process, enforcing the internationally-recognised IHRA definition of antisemitism, and working with whatever the equalities watchdog EHRC stipulates in its impending report.

But even these high-profile acts will merely be the opening salvos in a much longer fight. Antisemitism runs deep in Labour’s structures and culture, and Sir Keir Starmer needs to recognise he is in for the long game. Whatever praise we heap about his shoulders for early wins but always be tempered with the demand to do further and faster in the fight against anti-Jewish racism.

Of course, driving out this racism is in Starmer’s own interests. Labour will never win back those Jewish communities, or the wider non-Jewish community who were repelled by Labour’s racism, unless Starmer fundamentally fixes the problem. This must be real and not cosmetic. Unless the voters see that the Labour Party is a decent, pluralistic, open and democratic political force, they will never trust it to run the country.

I have no doubt that there will be a real desire to rebuild relationships with the community. These overtures should be received warmly. But not cheaply. Corbyn’s inherent hostility meant that it was not a time to plead for anything other than scraps from the table such as early completion of current investigations or a decent complaints procedure.

But how likely this effort will be to make a lasting impact on the Party will be shown by the type of steps taken and the amount of effort and time devoted to it. If the approach is to try and just make friends with communal leaders – understandably eager to have someone authentic to speak to – it will understandably help the “optics” but it will be limited in rooting out the entrenched problem of left antisemitism.

And it won’t take long to see indications about how firm an ally the new Labour leader will be. If he takes separate tracks of working with the Jewish Labour Movement and the communal organisations separately you can see he is likely to invest the time in both the internal dynamics and issues of the party as well as developing an important track of relationship building with the wider community.

If he engages early with Labour Friends of Israel with real commitment to a two-state solution or whether avoids contact preferring to provide succour to the annihilationist politics of the party’s anti Zionists. He would do well to take some useful pointers here from Lisa Nandy.

If he shows some genuine concern that many of Labour’s most stalwart supporters were forced out of the party and some others were so repulsed that they found themselves unable to face the electorate with any genuine belief. The community owes all of these people a great debt. Will Labour’s new leader be prepared to reach out to them and also to many of the staff who were not willing to be bystanders and were persecuted and pursued by the most scandalous behaviour of the party’s leadership.

There is a certain expectation that the party’s procedures will be fixed and the personnel changed. But will they be prepared to act proactively, initiate investigations, and take on actions within constituency party level?

Will he be willing to move away from the people who have done their utmost to support Corbyn and played roles as enablers such as Shami Chakrabarti. Is he going to be willing to take on the newly bolstered Campaign Group of MPs? Len McClusky and the Unite Machine? Momentum?

So my last plea is to ask those who have gained the admiration of many by their extraordinary courage, commitment and leadership in confronting antisemitism in the Labour Party to carry on. There are those who will be keen just to move on. But we must get it right. The problem inside the left has just got worse and worse over the years and we have to do better to confront it. So, to those who stepped up to the battle whether it was on Facebook, twitter, or on other media. Whether they used their wits, undertook prodigious research or were prepared to confront the left at meetings and in debate. Your work has been so important to stave off our worst fears. But there is so much more to do.

I wish Sir Keir Starmer well. Certainly, we need a mature, functioning and responsible Opposition in these troubled times. But I also recognise that his election represents a beginning, not an end, and the real fight for the heart and soul of the Labour Party is just starting.

April 05, 2020 18:23

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