Michael Rubin is the Director of Labour Friends of Israel.
Six years ago, at his first conference as Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn attended the Labour Friends of Israel reception and managed the remarkable feat of addressing attendees without uttering the name of the Jewish state.
Corbyn’s behaviour underlined the fact that, despite no longer being a backbencher, he intended to continue the hostile and antipathetic attitude towards the Middle East’s sole democracy which had characterised his previous three decades in parliament.
Last week’s video address to LFI’s reception by Keir Starmer could not have been more different. Warm in tone and content, the Labour leader went a long way towards shifting the party’s stance on Israel-Palestine back to the balanced, mature and constructive approach of the Blair-Brown years. Starmer unequivocally recommitted Labour to a two-state solution with Israel ‘safe, secure and recognised within its borders.’ He made clear his opposition to the BDS movement, endorsing both the International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace and the Abraham Accords. And he spoke positively about Israel’s new coalition government, welcoming Labor’s return to power and praising ministers’ efforts to repair relations with the Palestinian Authority and their proposals to ease the plight of the people of Gaza.
Starmer also praised LFI and made clear he wishes to visit Israel with us so that he can ‘listen and understand’ as soon as covid restrictions allow.
From the outset of his leadership, Starmer’s own self-imposed test of the success of his efforts to rid the party of antisemitism was whether or not they encouraged leading Jewish Labour lights, such as former LFI chair and staunch Israel advocate Louise Ellman, to rejoin the party.
By this measure, Starmer has succeeded. Ellman’s announcement during the conference that she was coming home to Labour – she later addressed LFI’s reception – came with fulsome praise for Starmer. She described the Labour leader as ‘a man of principle in whom the British people and Britain’s Jews can have trust’ and praised his ‘willingness to confront both the anti-Jewish racists and the toxic culture which allowed antisemitism to flourish.’
The rousing standing ovation Ellman received when Starmer introduced her during his keynote speech to the conference demonstrated that, for many in the party, her return shows that Labour is finally turning a page on the Corbyn era and embracing once again the politics of decency, equality and the steadfast opposition to racism.
But both Starmer and Ellman also recognised that, as the Labour leader put it, the task of tearing ‘antisemitism out by its roots’ is not by no means complete.
That was all too evident at times on the conference floor. It is nothing short of a disgrace that, with the encouragement of Momentum, nearly one in four delegates to the conference voted against Starmer’s package of measures – including an independent complaints process – to tackle antisemitism. These measures were, moreover, legally required by the Equality and Human Rights Commission following its devastating report into anti-Jewish racism within the party on Corbyn’s watch.
It was also appalling to see hard-left MPs appearing to downplay and deny the scale of the crisis inherited by Starmer with their defence of members ‘purged or set up with false allegations.’
The obsessive focus on, and effort to demonise and delegitimise Israel was apparent in the decision of delegates to pass a grossly one-sided and morally repugnant motion which embraced the BDS movement and propagated the apartheid smear.
Nonetheless, while such sentiments echoed the worldview of the Corbyn leadership, Starmer’s frontbench team swiftly and decisively made clear that the motion doesn’t reflect the party’s new approach. ‘We cannot support this motion,’ the shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy declared shortly after it was passed. ‘It does not address the issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a comprehensive or balanced way.’
Nandy’s words reflect a recognition by the leadership that tackling anti-Jewish racism within the party requires vigilance against anti-Zionist antisemitism. They also underline the manner in which Nandy and her colleagues have worked to reorient Labour’s approach towards the Middle East over the past year – offering a more nuanced and even-handed approach on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, recognising the danger posed by Iran and offering support for the drive towards normalisation between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbours. This, in turn, is part of a wider move to return Labour to its internationalist traditions as part of the democratic western alliance.
While the minutiae of the party rule changes driven through by Starmer at the conference may appear only to be of interest to political anoraks, their impact on Labour’s stance towards Israel and the Middle East could be significant. In the short term, for instance, the decision to cut the number of topics debated by conference – which was increased under Corbyn – will likely force delegates to focus on the public’s concerns rather than the far left’s obsessions.
The reversal of Corbyn ‘reforms’ which made it easier for a minority of hard-left activists to deselect sitting MPs – among whom moderate, Jewish and pro-Israel parliamentarians were a particular target in the run-up to the last general election – should also help to restore the party’s ideological balance. Finally, raising the percentage of MPs leadership candidates need to win the support of in order to get on the ballot paper also makes it less likely that a fringe candidate such as Corbyn could emerge triumphant in the future.
Labour’s road to recovery – both moral and political – will be a long one. But Starmer has shown he has both the vision and the guts to pursue it.