Starmer described antisemitism as a stain on his party and pledged to stamp it out. “On behalf of the Labour Party, I am sorry,” he said, “I have seen the grief [antisemitism] brought to so many Jewish communities.”
This sounded like a very good start. Under the leadership of the crank Corbyn, antisemitism had seeped into the fabric of the Labour Party. Not only did Corbyn face serious questions about his own associations with raging antisemites, figures from the far left fringes, where conspiracy theories that depend upon antisemitic tropes flourish, had taken over the Labour machine.
For five years, we listened to Corbyn promise to take on the antisemites in his party, all the while knowing that he would do no such thing because if he did, he’d be taking on his most enthusiastic supporters. Starmer’s election as Leader of the Opposition looked like the beginning of the end for the bigots who have shredded Labour’s reputation in recent years.
Those of us who took Starmer at his word may have been mistaken.
Last week emerged that two pro-Corbyn MPs – Diane Abbott and Bell Ribeiro-Addy – had taken part in an online forum with some of the most notorious characters from Labour’s antisemitism scandal. The former shadow home secretary and her colleague dialled in to a video-conference alongside people including Jackie Walker, who was thrown out of the party for gross misconduct after claiming Jews financed the slave trade, and the veteran hard-left activist Tony Greenstein, also expelled over allegations of antisemitism.
During the Labour Party leadership campaign, Starmer was among the candidates to sign up to a series of ten pledges set out by the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Among the pledges agreed by Starmer was that any MPs who provide a platform for people who have been suspended or expelled by the Labour Party over antisemitism should, themselves, be suspended from membership.
Surely, then, Abbott and Ribeiro-Addy have been suspended by the Labour Party pending a full investigation into this provocation?
Of course, they haven’t. Rather, as Starmer told the BBC, the MPs have been “spoken to in the strongest terms”.
This is hardly the zero-tolerance approach to antisemitism that we were led to expect from Starmer.
Nor has his deputy, Angela Rayner, lived up to the promise she made while campaigning to be Starmer’s second-in-command. While trying to drum up support, Rayner said: “The first line in the sand is antisemitism. Cross that line and you’re out. Apologies are worthless without action.”
The Board of Deputies agrees with the point Rayner made.
Board president Marie van der Zyl says that the actions of Abbott and Ribeiro-Addy clearly breach the pledges Starmer and others signed up to. If the Labour leader wished to prove that, under him, the party had entered a new era, he should take swift and decisive action.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Goldstein of the Jewish Leadership Council said that the party’s response to the participation of MPs in this event felt inadequate.
Supporters of Starmer tell me that he’s in an impossible position. They say that the hard-left in the party is trying to provoke the leader into a divisive battle.
This might be an adequate explanation for anyone with a dog in the Labour fight but I’m not sure it’s going to do much to persuade voters who abandoned Corbyn’s Labour over antisemitism that the party is now a safe space for Jews.
Sometimes, politics demands the toughest action. Remember the shockwave that ran through politics last year when Boris Johnson stripped a number of MPs including Ken Clarke and Sir Nicholas Soames of the Conservative whip? This was brutal stuff, the effect of which was to bring the rest of the party briskly into line behind Johnson. A little bit of fear really can sharpen the mind.
Starmer should take his lead from Johnson and get his expelling hat on. Examples need to be made not only for the reassurance of the Jewish community, not only to satisfy the wider electorate that Starmer takes antisemitism seriously, but to make clear to Labour MPs that this is not a game.
Under Corbyn’s woeful leadership, the cancer of antisemitism was allowed to grow, largely unchecked. When asked why he hadn’t taken tougher action, Corbyn would hide behind weasel words about process and the role of the leader. According to Corbyn, it would have been inappropriate for him, as leader, to get involved.
That was always nonsense. A political party leader worthy of the description will do whatever he or she feels necessary to assert their authority. Corbyn was able to flex those muscles when it came to installing cronies at every level of the party machine.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s investigation into antisemitism in the Labour Party is expected to conclude in just a few weeks. A number of party members are resigned to the EHRC findings being hugely damaging.
Some expect the commission to find that the party has become institutionally antisemitic.
If this is so, Starmer will finally have no excuses not to act against members – including MPs – implicated in allowing this culture to flourish.
But it’s easy to be reactive. Real leadership would have been Starmer withdrawing the Labour whip from Abbott and Ribeiro-Addy last week.
Starmer should know that it is not Jews alone who look to the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council for guidance on this issue. Many of us will hear the reactions of those bodies to Starmer’s handling of this issue and conclude that he has failed the test he set for himself. Once the EHRC report into the Labour Party and antisemitism is published, Starmer will have no choice but to commence disciplinary actions.
A stronger leader would have started last week with the suspension of Diane Abbott and Bell Ribeiro-Addy.