Labour’s Palestine motion means Keir Starmer’s war on the left is not over

Delegate from Labour's youth section speaks in favour of the Palestine motion

JVL Introduction

The 2021 Labour Party conference saw a sustained attack on the left in the Party and the rollback or weakening of previously established positions.

The mood of conference was an almost desperate one to appear united even if this involved swallowing what many found unpopular and unhelpful changes.

But, against the grain, Party members were not prepared for their firm commitment to Palestine to be called into question, as we reported in the story of overwhelming Labour Party support for condemnation of “Israel’s continuing illegal actions”.

Here Jonathan Cook places the story in context.

“With Corbyn gone,” says Cook, “and most of his allies either purged or cowed, Starmer has begun driving the party rightwards in an attempt to reassure the establishment that, unlike the socialist Corbyn, he will be a safe pair of hands, protecting its interests at home and abroad.”

He cannot do that while Labour’s commitment to Palestine remains as buoyant as ever…

This article was originally published by Jonathan Cook's blog on Wed 29 Sep 2021. Read the original here.

Labour’s Palestine motion means Keir Starmer’s war on the left is not over

Labour leader Keir Starmer needs to look strong to win a general election but is still committed to tearing his party apart with antisemitism witch-hunt

Labour leader Keir Starmer hoped he would hammer the final nails into the coffin of support for his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn and his left-wing policies at the party’s annual conference in Brighton this week.

But delegates had other ideas.

With a resounding slap to Starmer’s face, the conference voted in favour of a motion declaring Israel an apartheid state, echoing the findings of Israeli and international human rights organisations. It also called for sanctions against Israel’s illegal settlements that usurp Palestinian land, as well as a halt to the UK’s sales of arms to Israel.

Delegates demanded an end to Israel’s belligerent occupation of the West Bank and 15-year siege of Gaza, and upheld “the right of Palestinians to return to their homes” – a right of return for Palestinians expelled by Israel since 1948 that is enshrined in international law but increasingly ignored by western states.

The success of the motion, put forward by Labour’s youth section, was a deeply embarrassing blow for Starmer, who has colluded in a campaign by the media, Jewish leaders and the Labour right to conflate support for Palestinian rights – one of Corbyn’s signature policies – with antisemitism.

As leader, Corbyn faced relentless, evidence-free claims that he indulged a plague of antisemitism in Labour, and even the implication that he might himself be antisemitic.

The campaign ultimately forced Corbyn to accept a controversial new definition of antisemitism that made it easier for the Labour right – in charge of internal disciplinary procedures – to expel members for making trenchant criticisms of Israel over its decades-long oppression of Palestinians.

Precisely the kind of criticisms of Israel the Labour conference endorsed this week.

The motion cast a long shadow over Starmer’s keynote speech on Wednesday, in what he had doubtless hoped would be a triumphant finale to the conference, stamping his authority on the membership. Instead, the very issues that plagued Labour under Corbyn continue to simmer barely below the surface.

Treated like ‘outcasts’

Corbyn argued that claims of antisemitism had been exaggerated by his opponents to undermine his socialist agenda – a statement that provided Starmer with the excuse to expel him from the parliamentary party.

With Corbyn gone, and most of his allies either purged or cowed, Starmer has begun driving the party rightwards in an attempt to reassure the establishment that, unlike the socialist Corbyn, he will be a safe pair of hands, protecting its interests at home and abroad.

Keeping Israel a close military and intelligence ally in the oil-rich Middle East, as well as not angering Washington, Israel’s staunch patron, appear to be among Starmer’s top priorities.

He has stated that he “supports Zionism without qualification” – a reference to Israel’s state ideology of Jewish supremacism over Palestinians. He has also ignored repeated calls from Palestinian groups and Palestinian party members to engage with them, leading one to observe that they have been treated like “outcasts”.

Nonetheless, Starmer has been faced with a tricky balancing act that this week’s Israeli apartheid motion will only make harder.

On the one hand, Starmer needs to exploit and perpetuate the antisemitism smears as a weapon to continue isolating, intimidating and expelling the party’s left-wing members and Corbyn supporters.

But on the other, he must at some point show he has surgically removed the antisemitism problem, both to demonstrate he is a strong, decisive leader and to switch from waging factional war on the party’s left to presenting an image of unity in time for the next election.

The conference was clearly intended to mark that turning point. Starmer used the event to explicitly tell party activists that Labour had now “closed the door” on antisemitism.

On the back foot

Both the apartheid and sanctions components of the motion on Israel, however, serve as a gauntlet showing that the left may not lie down so easily. They put Starmer firmly on the back foot.

The Labour leader has suggested in the past that demands for sanctions against Israel – even feeble ones that punish only those industries directly implicated in the occupation – are motivated, not by principle or support for Palestinian rights, but by antisemitism.

He made that evident, for example, when he withdrew from a Ramadan event in April – upsetting Britain’s Muslim community – because one of its organisers had expressed support for a boycott of dates illegally grown by Israel on occupied Palestinian territory in the West Bank.

Most Labour members disagree with Starmer’s position. A recent YouGov poll showed that 61 per cent of them supported the boycott, sanctions and divestment (BDS) campaign launched more than 15 years ago by Palestinian civil society. Only eight per cent opposed it.

The reference to Israel as an apartheid state will prove difficult for Starmer too.

Pro-Israel lobby groups – including the Jewish Labour Movement, an offshoot of Israel’s own Labor party, which is currently sitting in a government dominated by settler leaders – have denounced any description of Israel as an apartheid state.

They have done so even though Israel’s decades-long, systematic abuse of the Palestinian population appears to meet the United Nations’ definition of the crime of apartheid.

All of this is meant to prepare the ground as Starmer, who has lagged in the polls behind a disastrously inept and corrupt Conservative government, tries to prove his electability – even if only at this stage to Rupert Murdoch and the other billionaire owners of the press.

Starmer clearly believes that the political formula that worked for Tony Blair, who led three Labour governments a quarter of a century ago in the short-lived heyday of neoliberal economics, will work for him too.

The week before conference, Starmer issued The Road Ahead, a personal manifesto chiefly intended to reassure the private sector that he would not disrupt the gravy train it has enjoyed uninterrupted since Blair was in power.

He has ruled out public ownership of key utilities, even as gas suppliers continue to go broke and the British public faces an unprecedented hike in energy prices.

Starmer pressured delegates to approve – if only narrowly – the appointment as general secretary of David Evans, a man closely identified with business-friendly Blair and the Labour right.

And to top it off, Starmer forced through rule changes – including giving MPs a bigger veto on who can stand in leadership elections – to prevent any repetition of a socialist candidate such as Corbyn winning.

Starmer’s meaning would have been entirely unaltered if the word “antisemitism” had been replaced by “socialism” as he addressed party activists: “We’ve turned our back on the dark chapter. Having closed that door, that door will never be opened again in our Labour Party to antisemitism.”

Starmer’s success – against the Labour left – was underscored on Monday, when Andy McDonald, the last Corbyn ally on the shadow front bench, resigned. He objected to being forced by Starmer’s office to reject union demands for a £15 minimum wage and statutory sick pay on the living wage – two issues the pandemic might have made a vote-winner with the public.

Starmer’s albatross

But though Starmer may be winning the battle to drive Labour back to the right, making it once again an establishment-friendly party, the issue of justice for Palestinians looks likely to continue hounding him.

He faces two opposing challenges he will struggle to contain.

On one side, Starmer is determined to shrink his party, ousting as many as possible of the hundreds of thousands of new members who joined because they were inspired by Corbyn’s populist left-wing policies.

Starmer has neither an ideological commitment to left-wing politics nor the stomach to brave the onslaught Corbyn faced – especially the barrage of antisemitism smears – as he struggled to revive socialism 40 years after big business, the establishment media and the Tory party thought they had buried it.

Starmer views the Labour grassroots as an albatross around his neck. It must be removed by further curbs on party democracy, lightly disguised as efforts to root out a supposed antisemitism problem.

The Israeli apartheid motion shows that there are still pockets of resistance, especially among the young. They can use the glaring injustices heaped on the Palestinian people as a way to keep embarrassing Starmer and reminding Labour members how unprincipled their leader is.

Lobby pressure

But on the other side, Starmer also faces a pro-Israel lobby that has got the bit between its teeth after its critical role in undermining Corbyn. It expects the Labour party to serve as a cheerleader for Israel, paying no more than lip service to Palestinian rights.

For the lobby, Starmer must continue to be cowed with threats of antisemitism to make sure he does not concede, under grassroots pressure, that Israel is an apartheid state, or support sanctions, or end the UK’s arms sales to Israel – as party members want.

Even before the Palestinian solidarity motion was passed by conference, Euan Philipps, a spokesman for one lobby group, Labour Against Antisemitism, set out how much more the pro-Israel lobby expects to extract from Starmer.

He told the Jewish Chronicle newspaper that Labour must go further in dealing with what he termed “anti-Zionist antisemitism” – that is, labelling and punishing any serious criticism of Israel’s abuses of Palestinians as antisemitism.

He called for Labour to sever all ties with the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, removing the main vehicle for promoting justice for Palestinians in the party.

Philipps urged the party to punish MPs and officials who take part in “extreme” Palestinian solidarity events or protests against Israel’s occupation, describing participation as “tacitly endorsing antisemitism”.

And he demanded Starmer take an even harder line against “antisemitic” members – in this case, apparently meaning any who speak out in favour of Palestinian rights – than recommended by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission last year after it completed an unprecedented investigation of Labour over the antisemitism claims.

Labour’s civil war is not going away quite yet. It will continue to simmer, as it has at the conference, until Palestinians and the left-wing can be permanently silenced.

Comments (4)

  • Derek Taylor says:

    I don’t think … the Starmer team understand that we’re still here. Those of us who believe in civil rights for all, whatever their race, are going nowhere. We’re just as interested in the rights of Palestinians as we are of the Uyghurs in China, the Karen in Myanmar, the Tutsi and Hutu, Shia and Sunni minorities and other oppressed peoples yet only Palestinians can’t be spoken of, let alone cared about.
    The fact that so many in the Labour party can’t see the awful and obvious inconsistency and imbalance here is quite worrying. It’s as though there is so much desire for power that the whole reason Labour exists has been forgotten.
    We still have a power that can’t be taken from us, and that’s the legal capacity to vote and in 30 months time, if Starmer and Co. don’t change their attitude to the Palestinian struggle and those who support it, we need to seriously consider denying them our support – and mean it!
    There are enough of us to make a difference, illustrated by the recent votes of support for pro Palestinian motions, so a concerted effort to convince the leadership that without a drastic sea change, the lust for power of what is becoming a centre-right political party will be thwarted.

    Another Labour defeat, however painful to us would surely be a catalyst for change in a party that once shone a beacon of hope for all embattled people.

  • rc says:

    No doubt Louise Ellman, who has rejoined the LP (without any requirement for any explanation as to why and how she left so as to maximize damage to the LP? – certainly not from apologist Margaret Hodge) will be cheering on the Israel ‘Defence’ Force as they brutalize ever more Palestinian children – and adults, not to mention their livestock.

  • John Noble says:

    I am surprised this important issue has not attracted comment thus far. Reading this I can detect a fear arising among the good people of the LP that their dreams may be smashed if the right wing get their way and we are no longer ‘allowed’ to be socialists.

  • Stephen Richards says:

    The struggle against social injustice must never be neglected as long as people of integrity & virtue have air to breathe. A one State solution for Palestine where all people are equal.

Comments are now closed.