UK: Labour Party and the anti-Semitism discussion

Nigel Smith

Recent events in Gaza have not only revealed the blatant hypocrisy of Western governments, but also the deep pro-Israeli bias at the very top of the Labour Party. The comments of Keir Starmer (the leader of The Labour Party) go further and suggest an anti-Palestinian sentiment. Following his recent interview on LBC Radio, Starmer has been called out for making the most glaring pronouncement on Israel’s strategy towards Gaza, following the Hamas attacks. When asked about the situation in Gaza, Starmer said, predictably, that Israel had every right to defend itself and that this included “doing everything it could to recover hostages.” When asked, By Nick Ferrari, if this meant that “a siege was appropriate – cutting off power, cutting off water?”, he replied that he thought that “Israel does have that right”, as long as it is “done within international law.” As an ex-lawyer, it therefore seems, in the eyes of Starmer at least, that the law is more important than humanity and the means of survival of the Palestinian people. What he said reveals a true lack of humanity towards Palestinians and an instinctive prejudice against them. How else could such a callous conclusion be reached by anyone who understood anything about the nature of what a siege of Gaza would mean or who had any sympathy with the plight or ordinary Palestinians? Later he was to seek to “clarify” what he had meant by saying that, ”Israel has the right to self-defence…I was not saying that Israel had the right to cut off water, food, fuel or medicines.” Starmer, lying about what he said on public media paints him in an even less favourable light. Lies form the tapestry around which the issues of Israel / Palestine have been shrouded for generations and Starmer’s lies just add to the litany. His comments led to a series of resignations by Labour councillors and strong condemnation from many in his own party and beyond.

Anti-Semitism and Labour

The issues around anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, as a serious issue, arose prior to Starmer’s leadership. It is well documented, that accusations of anti-Semitism were used as a weapon to undermine Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and as an excuse to expel Labour Party members who didn’t fit with the Blairite vision held by the vast majority of the leadership of that party. There was a witch hunt conducted against anyone who criticised the state of Israel’s actions. Chris Williamson’s (former Labour MP for Derby North) crass comments about Israel having “forfeited its right to exist” were used as a means of closing down any discussion of Israel, with the erroneous view being promulgated that to criticise Israel was antisemitic. UK law and the rules of the Labour Party are very clear that criticism of the state of Israel’s actions are not antisemitic, but that the denial of Israel’s right to exist is. According to this definition, Williamson’s remarks could therefore be interpreted as antisemitic, but the right-wing of the Party chose to brand Corbyn as allowing antisemitism within the party because Labour Party members, including Corbyn, criticised the actions of Israel. This view, that Israel cannot be criticised, is irrational in its conception but quite widespread nowadays. It is completely illogical to equate criticism of the actions of the Israeli state with antisemitism.

Indeed, the Labour Party’s own rules allow for criticism of Israel. Whilst accepting that the subject is contentious and sometimes may cause offence, the Labour Party Policy on Antisemitism states that, “In general terms, the expression of even contentious views in this area will not be treated as antisemitism unless accompanied by specific antisemitic content (such as the use of antisemitic tropes) or by other evidence of antisemitic intent. In short, the Party will encourage considered and respectful debate on these difficult topics, but will not tolerate name-calling and abuse.”

Jeremy Corbyn commissioned the Chakrabarti report to look into antisemitism and racism in the Labour Party, following Naz Shah and Ken Livingstone being accused of antisemitism. The report presented its findings on June 30th, 2016, and found that the party “is not overrun by anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, or other forms of racism,” but has suffered from an “occasionally toxic atmosphere” and “too much clear evidence [of] ignorant attitudes”. These finding, although somewhat concerning, were blown up by the media and the conclusions exaggerated by those opposed to Corbyn as a means of weakening him still further. What the attacks on Corbyn around this issue were also to reveal was a push towards a pro-Israel stance across the Party, and by implication, an anti-Palestinian one. There has been a long history both on the left in the UK and within the Labour Party of sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians. The situation in Israel / Palestine is widely seen as being unfair to the Palestinians and that their democratic and human rights are negatively impacted by the actions of an increasingly right-wing Israeli regime. The pro-Israeli lobby in the Party sought to change this narrative and found a key ally in Keir Starmer.

“Don’t attend events on Gaza”

Corbyn’s fall as Party leader took place and Starmer came to be made leader on a platform of promises which he has systematically broken. Starmer’s platform seemed radical and supported most of the social democratic policies that had been in Corbyn’s previous manifesto. Party members voted for him, believing that he would follow through on these commitments and keep the Party on the left of the political spectrum. It is intellectually incredible to think that Starmer had any real intention of keeping these promises once he had got into the leadership role. Starmer has proved to be a neoliberal with almost every utterance he has made since becoming leader and went after the Lefts in the Party ruthlessly and relentlessly. Labour Party members have been expelled in their hundreds with no right of appeal and no reason given. They simply receive an email stating that their membership has been terminated. Starmer from the very beginning said that he would be ruthless in transforming the Party – he has certainly kept that promise at least. What he meant was he would cosy-up to big business and the Tory media, in an attempt to be a better choice for the capitalist class in the context of a Tory Party and government tearing itself apart and proving its incompetence.

This neoliberal approach has been revealed in a long list of broken promises but also through a confrontational tone towards the Left and a culture of bullying those who challenge his authority. The recent situation in Gaza shows this clearly. A letter was sent to all Labour Party elected officers, strongly suggesting that they avoid attending demonstrations. The message said that, “elected representatives have been given strong advice not to attend any of these events and I would urge you to exercise similar caution.” It also prohibited the tabling of motions on the subject because they, “may infringe the Labour Party code of conduct on antisemitism and Islamophobia.” This seems to deny a basic understanding of their own policy, which allows for such discussion. As a side issue, the code of conduct does not include a specific reference to Islamophobia, only antisemitism. This authoritarian line has been widely ignored. One leading Labour Party activist told me that they ignored this “advice” and went to the demonstration in support of Palestinians only to find that their Palestinian friend’s sister and family had been massacred by Israeli bombing the previous day.

Broken promises

Indeed, it seems that Starmer is quite sanguine about admitting that he will break promises. The Independent on 28.09.21 reported that Starmer said that, “he is willing to tear up the promises he made during the Labour leadership election if it is needed to make the party electable.” This denies the popularity of socialist policies on the one hand and on the other proves a clear breach of any sense of integrity. For the record, Starmer has broken most of the promises he made during the leadership contest and all that might be considered to have a socialist content or benefit ordinary working people. Of the ten promises he made he has gone back on:

  • refusing to scrap the charitable status of private schools,
  • refusing to end the two-child limit on benefit payments,
  • refusing to scrap tuition fees,
  • refusing to abolish the House of Lords,
  • refusing to increase tax on the top 5% of earners,
  • refusing to nationalise public services,
  • cutting back on Labour’s Green New Deal,
  • to allow the opening of new oil and gas platforms,
  • refusing to allow freedom of movement,
  • and with the current situation in Gaza, Starmer is clearly failing to promote peace and human rights.

On top of all of this Starmer has been a strong supporter of the private sector’s exploitation of the NHS and a supporter of nationalist symbols – the royal family, the union flag etc.

The contradiction between taking a position that Ukraine should not go into Russia to rescue hostages and a free reign to Israel to do the same also seems lost on him.

The need for a new workers party

The future for the Labour Party is bleak under Starmer and he has made it clear that there is no way back for former supporters of Corbyn. The Lefts that remain inside the Party forlornly try to do their best via trade union and local activism. This is now proving futile. What these activists should be doing is getting behind initiatives to build a new workers party. Instead, various pressure groups such as People’s Assembly and Enough is Enough and numerous others are set up, which essentially distract the movement from this central task. It is probably correct to asses that it is only with a Starmer government that the shackles can be taken off some of these comrades and that they can truly commit to a new initiative. In the mean-time it is up to those outside the Labour Party to do the groundwork required to build analternative. This means working broadly with other socialists and socialist groups, including standing in elections where this is possible. Formations such as TUSC (Trades Unionists and Socialist Coalition), should stand where they are strong, but other groups, such as Newham Socialist Labour (NSL) should stand in the communities they serve. Individuals can also stand in situations where they are well known. It looks increasingly likely that Corbyn will stand against Labour in his own constituency.

A new worker’s party cannot however be built around an individual or small group of ex-Labour personalities. A new worker’s party needs to come from the movement itself. It needs trades unionists, some of whom have been tested by the current strike wave or other struggles, activists and others from communities to step forward and say that the time is right for a new worker’s party. This is a huge project to undertake, but the progress that has been made in other countries around new left formations shows that momentum around a new party can build quickly. However, it needs to be clear that an over-emphasis on an iconic individual to group around as with Podemos or a move to the right in order to satisfy the capitalist class, as with Syriza, must be guarded against. Any new workers’ party will require a new approach to democracy where the ideas across the Party are shared and built upon and no group of individuals at the top is responsible for handing down a ready-made policy and strategy to the membership. It needs to go out into communities and argue for radical ideas. When Corbyn was able to put his ideas to the British people prior to the 2017 election they proved incredibly popular and could have proved decisive, if there had been more time and more opportunities to elaborate on them. Truly socialist ideas could prove to be even more popular with a population that has been taken into an ever-deepening cycle of austerity and falling living standards. Capitalism does not have the answers for ordinary people and efforts to build consciousness of the alternative could prove decisive. It is true that socialist ideas are popular amongst younger age groups, although it is also true that such ideas get very little exposure.

Ideas on the way forward

The current situation in Gaza is an example of a problem produced by capitalism – a problem without a solution under capitalism. This is a metaphor for the global crisis of capitalism. The working class needs its independent voice across the globe and that voice can be built in the case of the UK from small beginnings across towns and cities by people who break with the old traditions; people who will make a new political movement based on community engagement and democratic processes. Some on the left are going to have to learn that they do not have all the answers. They need to learn that a revolutionary begins by listening. The answers are not held by any individual or small group, but will spread across the movement if they are allowed to do so by a structure of debate that is open and welcomes differences.

The first meeting of a group in the north of England took place on 23.10.23 seeking to discuss what a new worker’s party might look like. This group will seek to talk to others with similar ideas and also speak to established groups who may already have structures. The formation of a new worker’s party in the UK has been tried several times before. The weakness of some of these groups, e.g. under the leadership of George Galloway, is that an individual held too much influence within them. TUSC, which came out of the Rail Maritime and Transport union (RMT), was a better attempt, but unfortunately wasn’t able to broaden out across the movement. This isn’t to say that a new worker’s party can’t assimilate groups as part of a federal structure as long as the idea of getting rid of capitalism and replacing it with a democratic organisation that fights for the rights of the working class are central. What we need today is a movement that will challenge capitalism. Anti-capitalists, who would not necessarily describe themselves as socialists could also form part of this movement as part of a federal structure. The ideas can be discussed and refined and a programme agreed that could bring together many who are in the process of developing their ideas and through that process would be likely to move towards socialism as the most coherent alternative to capitalism. These discussions would not be easy but a will be relished by young workers who have found debate stifled by the Labour Party, other left parties and organisations such as Peoples’ Assembly and Extinction Rebellion.

Individuals and groups within such an organisation will lose debates and not always get their way. This will prove refreshing because maybe, as part of this process they will learn, that they were not right in the first place. Once cohering around a set of ideas they can go onto the streets and spread them.

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