At the beginning of April 2020, Sir Keir Starmer was elected Chairman of the British Labour Party. He replaced Jeremy Corbyn. Starmer made it immediately clear that he wanted to steer the party into a more mainstream direction. Yet it soon became clear that it is difficult to change a structure which is fundamentally not very flexible.
One key element in the changes Starmer wants to make concerns antisemitism. He declared that there will be zero antisemitism in the party. One wonders whether that is achievable. Antisemitism is far too widely spread in the United Kingdom to expect any major party to be free of it. This is in particular true for Labour. Alan Johnson has published a study which concludes that the Labour Party is institutionally antisemitic.
Since his election, Starmer has been reaching out to the Jewish community. This is much appreciated and establishing a correct relationship was a wise move. Antisemitism was most probably not even one of the prime factors that led to Labour’s defeat in the 2019 parliamentary elections. Yet, it helped create a widespread negative image for the party.
Starmer doesn't want this to repeat itself in the next election. He can already claim some success because a number of Jews who left Labour under Corbyn have become party members again. There is also evidence that some Jewish donors may return to donating.
Still, Starmer has a sizable image problem. Only a year before he was elected leader he was among those who promoted Labour in the parliamentary elections. Had the party succeeded, Corbyn would have become Prime Minister.
It is not only as far as antisemitism is concerned that Corbyn left a complex heritage. There are many Corbynites in the party and they are an internal opposition from time to time. One important decision that Starmer took was firing Rebecca Long-Bailey as shadow Education secretary at the end of June. She had sent an approving tweet about an interview in which it was said that a US police tactic of kneeling on someone's neck was taught to them by the Israeli secret service. Her firing was condemned by the Labour Left. Long-Bailey, a Corbynite, had competed for the party leadership with Starmer.
Another highly problematic issue Starmer has to deal with are the “whistleblowers,” who told BBC journalist John Ware how poorly the party under Corbyn’s leadership dealt with antisemitism complaints. Starmer has apologized to them for the allegations of bad faith, malice and lying. These people were maligned in a leaked internal document of the party. Starmer settled financially with Ware and seven whistleblowers. Rumors have it that the amount paid was about £600,000. Other whistleblowers may still sue the party.
The financial settlement was severely criticized by the head of the Unite trade union, Len McCluskey. He said that his union was the major donor to Labour and didn't want its funds to be used for payments to whistleblowers. McCluskey said that his union was considering what to do.
Journalist John Ware was responsible for the BBC Panorama documentary “Is Labour antisemitic?” broadcast in July 2019. He may sue Corbyn personally. That led to the establishment of a private fund for the former leader’s legal fees in case this happens. This fund has collected approximately £330 000.
One major decision Starmer will be confronted with concerns Corbyn’s future. Former Foreign Secretary David Miliband recently accused Corbyn of trying to wreck Starmer’s leadership. Starmer wil have to decide whether he wlll try to expel Corbyn -- for which a reason or a pretext can easily be found -- or will he keep Corbyn in the party? That decision should be made far ahead of the May 2024 elections.
If Labour expels Corbyn, the question is how many other MPs' will leave it with him? They may start a new party. That shouldn’t worry Starmer much. The current Conservative majority is so sizable that it doesn’t matter how many parliamentarians Labour has. The Conservatives can push through whatever they can agree upon.
The real issue is what happens at the next election. Are Corbyn, his MP followers and the leftist Momentum movement adherents who will leave Labour with him able to damage the party more than if they remain in it? In other words, can Starmer find enough voters who will switch to Labour in the next parliamentary election to compensate for the loss of the Corbynites?
This is a difficult yet far from theoretical consideration. According to an August 18/19 2020 Yougov poll the Conservatives would get 40% and Labour 38% of the vote. That means that Labour under Starmer’s leadership has been able to close most of the 20% gap in support between the two parties in the few months since he was elected. The future doesn’t look rosy for the Conservatives in view of their difficulties in adequately dealing with the impact of the Coronavirus.
In the meantime, a new book has appeared by Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire titled: Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour Under Corbyn. An extract of it has been published in The Times daily. From this it becomes clear that even the closest allies and collaborators of Corbyn understood that Labour had to do more to repair the party's relationship with the mainstream of the Jewish community.
A large number of suggestions were made, almost none of which were followed up. Karie Murphy, Corbyn's chief of staff, suggested a round table summit with Jewish community organizations, a series of meetings with Jewish Labour activists and MPs' as well as outreach to Jewish communities outside of London. Murphy also suggested that Corbyn should visit Auschwitz and meet children at the London Jewish Free School. There should be a special interview with the leftist Israeli daily Ha'aretz. Corbyn should also meet with members of a progressive synagogue and residents of a Jewish care home.
A further insight into Corbyn's mentality came from another Labourite close to him, Andrew Murray. He said about Corbyn: "He is very empathetic, Jeremy, but he’s empathetic with the poor, the disadvantaged, the migrant, the marginalized . . . Happily, that is not the Jewish community in Britain today. He would have had massive empathy with the Jewish community in Britain in the 1930’s and he would have been there at Cable Street, there’s no question. But, of course, the Jewish community today is relatively prosperous."
The upcoming report of the Equality and Human Rights Commision (EHRC) on antisemitism in Labour may bring with it very important new elements. The party has already received a final draft of the investigation for comments. What is written above could well be only a preamble on future developments.
This report may well give Starmer a number of clues on how to act to close the small gap with the Conservatives the recent polls have shown..
Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld has been a long-term adviser on strategy issues to the boards of several major multinational corporations in Europe and North America.He is board member and former chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and recipient of the LIfetime Achievement Award (2012) of the Journal for the Study of Anti-Semitism. He is considered the foremost expert on antisemitism today.