Israel is not an apartheid state, says Keir Starmer as he apologises for the Corbyn years

In his first interview with the JC since becoming leader, Sir Keir appeals for Jews to return to Labour


Would Prime Minister Sir Keir Starmer be, as they say, “good for the Jews”? Since the Corbyn years, this has become an inevitable question. And it is possible to argue that he would.

Sir Keir and his Jewish wife, Victoria, are members of St John’s Wood Liberal Synagogue and are bringing their children up with a sense of Jewish identity. He has repeatedly vowed to tear out antisemitism “by the roots”. When we met on Monday in a comically cramped cloakroom in a nursery in Harrow, he made a point of mentioning that he had extended family in Israel.

Yet for much of the community, the jury remains firmly out on the former head of the Crown Prosecution Service. A recent poll has suggested that 65 per cent of Jews still find Labour unwelcoming, as the shadow of Corbynism continues to darken local branches. It darkens parts of the Opposition benches in Parliament as well.

It’s hard to forget that Sir Keir was one of Jeremy Corbyn’s longest-serving shadow cabinet members, clocking up 1,559 days under his leadership. In July 2019, he said he had “full confidence” in Mr Corbyn as — believe it or not — the right man to root out Jew-hatred in the party.

Sixteen months later, however, once Sir Keir had been elected leader, he stripped Mr Corbyn of the whip for saying that antisemitism was “dramatically overstated for political reasons”.

A supporter would say this was effective political pragmatism. A cynic may cry political opportunism. At the very least, it’s deeply ironic (but what would I know, right?).

In person, the Labour leader is bright-eyed, pink-skinned and exudes a sense of well-fed robustness. As he strides up the path towards the Brightkidz preschool, the windows of which display posters peppered with errant apostrophes, his smile is sunny and disarming and his suit looks very blue.

He is visiting the nursery to highlight Labour’s analysis of the soaring cost of childcare. It could be seen as an apt setting for our interview too, as Sir Keir is celebrating his second birthday.

We are ushered into the cramped cloakroom. Sitting knee-to-knee, flanked by rows of pegs, I try to break the ice.

The JC, I tell him, is also marking a birthday — its 180th — making it the oldest Jewish newspaper in the world. Mazals are in order all round.

“Happy birthday, that’s fantastic,” he enthuses. “That’s a fantastic achievement.” But it’s not the paper’s achievements that we are here to discuss.

Back in 2019, in an interview with BBC Radio 5 Live when he was shadow Brexit secretary, Sir Keir denied that Mr Corbyn was antisemitic. Does he stand by that position now?

“Jeremy Corbyn made his views very clear when he was leader of the Labour Party,” he tells me. “When I took over, I made my views very, very clear.

“In my acceptance speech, which was two years ago today, almost to the minute that we’re having this interview, my first words as Labour leader included an apology. So that tells you what I thought of Jeremy Corbyn’s record on this.”

The proof that Labour is leaving antisemitism behind, he adds, is that some Jewish members are coming back. Dame Louise Ellman, who quit in 2019 with an attack on Mr Corbyn for allowing antisemitism to “flourish”, rejoined last year. This, he says, is a sign that things are going well.

The problem, however, is that Sir Keir’s record is intertwined with that of Mr Corbyn. In an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, just after Dame Louise’s sensational resignation from the party, Sir Keir declared: “I’m 100 per cent behind Jeremy Corbyn. I am working with Jeremy Corbyn to try to win the next General Election.”

At the time, Mr Marr challenged him. “You’re loyal to Jeremy Corbyn and you’ve spoken in his defence just now,” he said, “but Louise Ellman says he is a danger not just to the Labour Party but to the entire British Jewish community.”

In words that may come back to haunt him, Sir Keir replied, emphatically: “I don’t accept that. I don’t accept that.”

Statements like these will be ringing in the ears of many Jewish voters as May’s local elections loom. Which version of Keir Starmer are JC readers supposed to believe, I ask him?

“I think it’s very important to put on record that I spoke out on antisemitism when Jeremy was leader of the Labour Party on a number of occasions,” he says.

He wants to continue, but I can’t help but interject. He supported Mr Corbyn, I point out. He tried to put the man in Number 10. Undaunted, Sir Keir continues with his picture of political pragmatism.

“[I spoke out] both publicly and in the confines of the shadow cabinet,” he insists, “and it’s very important that there were people there to make that argument.”

But there were other ways. In contrast to Sir Keir, Lord (Ian) Austin spoke up heroically — and consistently — against Mr Corbyn from the backbenches, before leaving the party in February 2019 as a matter of conscience. Sir Keir did not even attend the Enough is Enough rally in Parliament Square.

Lord Austin has told me privately that he believes the Corbyn project would have collapsed overnight if other moderates had joined him in fighting tooth and nail, instead of serving in the Corbyn team. But supporters of Sir Keir say that without staying in the shadow cabinet, he’d never have wrested back control of the party.

How did his Jewish wife and family feel when he was campaigning to put make Mr Corbyn prime minister? “They know my position in relation to antisemitism. There’s never been any doubt about that. They know I was speaking out publicly and in the shadow cabinet.”

The heart of Labour’s difficulties with Jews lies in its feelings towards Israel. In February, Amnesty International branded the country an “apartheid state” despite evidence to the contrary, including Arab ministers in government. Many Labour members, especially on the left, enthusiastically embraced this label.

Did Sir Keir agree with them? “No. I’ve been very clear about that,” he says, without missing a beat. “That is not the Labour Party position.” He presented his stance at the Labour Friends of Israel lunch before Chanukah, he adds, which was strongly and unapologetically pro-Israel.

It’s all very well to talk this way to a friendly crowd, I counter. But would he say as much at party conference, in front of members from all factions?

“Yes, I’ve got no reason not to,” he says. Recalling the moment when party conference voted to accept the EHRC’s advice to set up an independent complaints process for antisemitism, he adds: “It was an emotional moment for the Labour Party to make those rule changes.

“What gave me great heart on that Saturday evening when we were there discussing antisemitism in the Labour Party was that there were a few hecklers, a small minority. But it wasn’t the panel or those chairing the session that had to tell those hecklers to be quiet.

“The whole room got up, thousands of ordinary Labour Party members got up and said, we’re not putting up with that any more. For me, that’s the best evidence I’ve got today of the huge change we have brought about in the Labour Party.”

Be that as it may,  more members voted to debate Israel that year than Covid, public services, social care, transport, the motion on “fire and rehire” and workers’ rights.

The parents are clamouring at the door to the tiny cloakroom. But Sir Keir still hasn’t expressed a clear view on Jeremy Corbyn and antisemitism.

Will he apologise for the harm caused to Jews while he was in Corbyn’s team? “I will apologise,” he says. “I have already apologised and I’m happy to repeat that apology.

“I think and I hope that the actions of the last two years will begin to persuade people that the Labour Party is the party that shares their values, shares their aspirations, shares their concerns, and is a safe space for them.”

Maybe it is true that by remaining a loyal member of Mr Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, Sir Keir laid the groundwork for expunging Jew-hate from the party. Maybe he was clever to play it the way he did.

Yet something troubles me about that narrative. It’s all very well making that argument in hindsight; but what if it hadn’t worked?

Or, to put it another way, what if Sir Keir and his moderate colleagues had been more successful in putting Mr Corbyn in Downing Street? Where would British Jews be now?

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