Sir Keir Starmer has vowed to restore Labour’s “important relationship” with Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis — and to deal with those within his party who continue to deny there is a problem with antisemitism.
In a wide-ranging interview, the overwhelming favourite to replace Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader recalled the moment the Chief Rabbi made an unprecedented intervention ahead of the last general election.
“I certainly would not want that to happen ever again,” said Sir Keir of Rabbi Mirvis’s insistence in December that Mr Corbyn was “unfit for high office”.
Promising to meet him if he is elected as new party leader next month, Sir Keir said he believed the decision by the Chief Rabbi to issue a scathing attack on the Labour leader in The Times just weeks before the election had been met with “mixed views in the community”.
But he spoke of his desire to fix relations with British Jewry’s de facto religious leader, saying: “It is an important relationship and it has to be restored. I would meet with anybody to restore trust.”
Speaking to the JC from his Westminster office this week as Labour members cast their votes in the party’s own election race, Sir Keir accepted that there was still a massive problem with anti-Jewish racism in the party.
Some Labour figures have suggested that up to 20,000 members of the party should face automatic expulsion for what would appear to be clear-cut examples of antisemitic conduct.
“I just don’t know where people are getting the numbers from, I just don’t know — but there are clear cases,” said Sir Keir.
“We have all seen them and they have to be dealt with robustly and swiftly and there’s no reason they can’t be.
“And one of the arguments I was making was, if you can be swiftly removed from the Labour Party for supporting another political party at a general election, then you could be swiftly removed from the Labour Party for being clearly antisemitic.”
Tellingly — and in an apparent acknowledgement of the negative activities of groups like Jewish Voice For Labour — Sir Keir conceded that there was another major problem within the party from those “that have denied we’ve got a problem”.
He added: “To my mind, they are part of the problem. So you’ve got those who are antisemitic, then you’ve got those who tend to suggest that we don’t have a problem.
“That is part of the problem. So that needs to be dealt with.”
Hailing the role that the Jewish Labour Movement would play as “the vehicle we work with within the Labour Party” to tackle antisemitism, Sir Keir stressed that he believed that the vast majority of party members were not antisemitic but were “yearning for us to sort out this problem”.
Less emphatic was his response to questions about which Labour figures he would surround himself with if he becomes leader.
“I can tell you honestly, I haven’t had a discussion with any Member of Parliament about what role they might or might not play in the future,” he said.
Last week, Mr Corbyn had appeared to suggest he would favour a role as shadow foreign secretary under a new leader.
Such a role would infuriate many in the Jewish community.
“Whatever name is put to me — and there are plenty of names floating around — I have not had any discussions,” insisted Sir Keir.
“I have not had a discussion with anybody, and that includes Jeremy Corbyn. I am entirely focused on winning the leadership race.”
Last weekend, Sir Keir led Labour’s attack on bullying claims against Home Secretary Priti Patel — but he rejected suggestions he displayed a certain amount of hypocrisy given repeated allegations of bullying in own party, particularly against staff who blew the lid on the cover-up around antisemitism.
“I did speak out about that the very next day,” he said. “I thought it was appalling to treat staff in that way, not just the staff that appeared in the programme but actually all of the staff.
"Once you go down that route you’re sending a message to your wider staff in the organisation.”
Returning to Ms Patel, he added: “I personally think it’s important to see it in its context. There are always going to be arguments within any departments.
"This is the nature of government. But this to me is no ordinary spat. I think that part of the political projects that Johnson and [his adviser Dominic] Cummings are involved in, is one that tears away at the sort of institutions and culture that have supported our democracy for a very, very long time.”
Sir Keir said one giant test of his ability to lead Labour — if, as expected, he wins on April 4 — will be how he executes his plan to rebuild the trust with Britain’s Jewish community “so we no longer talk just about antisemitism”.
He speaks of “the very big issues that we need to discuss”, including the crisis in social care.
“I know this is a big issue for the Jewish community here in terms of how social care is delivered the providers, the traditions that have to be in there, and the difficulties that are obviously there,” he said.
“I know this through Jewish friends, family and colleagues. Jewish Care is an example of that and the sooner we can have that discussion the better. Social care is in a real crisis across the country.”
He promised to be “on the front foot” over the issue from the very start and to ensure that he has “line of sight” over the party’s disciplinary processes.
“I am clear that if I am Leader of the Labour Party I will be wanting those reports on my desk regularly,” he said.
“And by that I don’t mean every six months, I mean every week.
“My experience leading the Crown Prosecution Service and as Director of Public Prosecutions is if you want to demonstrate your values and cultural change within the organisation, you have to model it.
“And I think the leader of the Labour Party also has a personal duty to rebuild that faith, that trust with the Jewish community.”
Sir Keir said reaction from the community, especially at the packed JLM Labour leadership hustings last month and during visits he has made to synagogues, have left him with the impression that if trust can be re-won, there are many within the community who would return to voting Labour.
“I can only judge what I pick up on the doorstep and from what I pick up from Jewish friends and colleagues who tell me pretty directly what they think,” he says.
“From my visits to synagogues in recent months there’s a strong interest when a prominent Labour MP is there and some strong and interesting conversations take place.
“If that trust can be restored then it is quite possible that people will think again and vote Labour again. But we have to rebuild that trust.
“Not just because we want these votes again but because we should never have breached that trust.”
He also speaks of the galling experience of campaigning for Labour candidates outside of his own Holborn and St Pancras constituency in north London and coming face to face with furious Jewish voters.
“It genuinely breaks my heart to have to knock on doors and to have the door opened by a Jewish family who said to me we have always voted Labour in this household but we are not going to vote Labour because of antisemitism,” he said, recalling days campaigning in the Chipping Barnet constituency.
“I also don’t want our members and our activists ever to have that experience on the door again.”
He said he spoke to Jewish MP Dame Louise Ellman after she quit the party she had joined 50 years ago ahead of the last election.
“I had been focused on the IHRC definition of antisemitism and on rule changes — advocating that we should have automatic expulsion and clear cases on the procedure for the Equalities and Human Rights Commission.
“I was saying, we have got to hand over all of the documents and give access to all of our staff so that the commission to get to the bottom of this.
“When I spoke to Louise when she left I changed my test to whether people who have left the party would feel comfortable returning.”
Sir Keir also said that if he is in charge of Labour he would take action on antisemitism before the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)’s report into the party is published.
With the leadership race to be decided on April 4, he said he did “not want to see a gap” before the report’s expected publication some time the following month.
“I think it is very very important for the incoming leader to demonstrate on day one, the difference that new leadership will make on the issue of antisemitism,” he said.
“I would speak to the EHRC straightway.”