Starmer vs. Antisemitism: 18 Months In

Henry Mendoza summarises the Young Fabians BAME Advocacy Group’s panel event from late last year discussing antisemitism in the Labour Party, 18 months on from Keir Starmer’s election as leader.

On the 7th December 2021, just after the conclusion of Chanukah, I chaired the Young Fabians BAME Advocacy Group’s discussion, ‘Starmer vs. Antisemitism: 18 Months In’.

Joshua Garfield began by stating the difference between Starmer and Corbyn’s responses to antisemitism were stark - from Starmer’s constructive engagement with JLM, to the Board of Deputies and other Jewish communal groups. Miriam Mirwitch, meanwhile, highlighted while antisemitism in Labour didn’t start under Corbyn, it worsened under his leadership; her concern in recent years had been for future generations of Jewish activists - had many of us been told, prior to joining, what being in Labour would be like, we may have thought twice about getting involved, despite believing in Labour as a vehicle for positively changing the country. Miriam spoke of the positive steps forward under Starmer, but we shouldn’t rest on our laurels - particularly important, I felt, was her point Labour members shouldn’t excuse antisemitism or bigotry just from our mates, or because the Tories might be deemed worse - we should hold ourselves to a higher standard. 

Luisa Attfield, meanwhile, said for all her criticisms of Starmer, on antisemitism he’d remained consistent throughout his leadership - being introduced by Ruth Smeeth for his first conference speech was a statement of intent. 

Finally, Stephen Bush expanded upon Miriam’s points about how Labour antisemitism predated Corbyn; while Starmer has been great on early 21st Century manifestations of antisemitism, he’s yet to speak to the roots of left antisemitism generally, nor fix Labour’s institutional problems that exacerbated its antisemitism crisis - its tendency for the leading faction to target its opponents with the rulebook, or protect factional allies and senior figures from consequences of poor behaviour. Unless Starmer tackled this, he wouldn’t succeed in preventing ‘Labour’ and ‘antisemitism’ from appearing in the same sentence.

Stephen also discussed the changing nature of the Jewish community’s attitude towards Labour - as Chair of the Board’s Commission on Racial Inclusivity, he described mixed-race Jews like himself feeling their Jewish identities more acutely with the rise of antisemitism - they’d begun to experience antisemitism in spaces they’d previously regarded as ‘safe’ - like, in some cases, the Labour Party - and this had, conversely, made them feel ‘more Jewish’. Despite positive steps forward - Stephen mentioned recent encounters with Jewish Labour voters from 2015 who are now more anxious Labour might not win an election than they might win - Starmer still faces challenges among the community, including sympathetic outsiders like Stephen, due to serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, and he feels Starmer has not yet done enough to reassure the majority of the Jewish Labour vote that had deserted the party in the last decade.

On internal party culture regarding antisemitism, there was a consensus that things had improved somewhat under Starmer, with Luisa raising proscription of groups like Labour Against the Witchhunt - there’s a tendency of some on the left to defend such groups simply because of Starmer proscribing them, and factionalism across the Labour Party can be a driver (if not cause) of antisemitism and other bigotries. Miriam, meanwhile, raised the importance of solidarity between minorities - Muslim comrades and other people of colour in the party would often be first to check in on her upon seeing she’d received antisemitic abuse, and Jewish Labour activists should return such solidarity in kind, and be alert to the other bigotries in Labour, including anti-Black racism, Islamophobia and transphobia. 

Finally, in relation to Luisa’s point of factionalism driving antisemitism, and that Starmer had, at times, behaved in a factional manner (though not in his proscription of groups from Labour), I raised the example of Rachel Reeves having previously unapologetically praised Nancy Astor, without reference to her own antisemitism. Though this is often used as a ‘gotcha’ by some on the left, I felt it important to discuss among people not implacably opposed to Starmer.

For Stephen, there was no comparison between, say, Reeves’s praise of Astor and the infamous mural Corbyn defended, but not addressing the issue spoke to Labour’s wider problem with ‘the culture war’; discomfort discussing history’s complexity, whether Astor’s antisemitism, or pertinently, as Luisa highlighted, the Fabians’ history with eugenicism,  means Labour vacates the field when Conservatives stoke the culture war, leaving Labour less able to move the discussion to its preferred terrain of the state of the public realm. Joshua added that while Reeves’s unnuanced praise of Astor was ill-advised, it happened in a vacuum, as opposed to the pattern of behaviour Corbyn and others exhibited on antisemitism - indeed, Miriam highlighted Reeves’s history of supporting her personally when she faced antisemitism, and the important thing is people demonstrate capacity for learning and growth when called out for bigoted comments or behaviour, the way figures like Naz Shah have done - in stark contrast to Corbyn’s refusal to apologise for his EHRC report response.

This barely scratches the surface of our wide-ranging discussion, from audience questions on whether these tentative steps forward are leadership-contingent, to what those leading within government can do to combat societal prejudice. But it was an honour and privilege to chair the discussion, with such a distinguished panel, and it felt a brilliant way to end the year for the Young Fabians BAME Advocacy Group; a great event, and only our second back in person. Here’s to many more important events with our group, as we hopefully, gradually, emerge from the other side of this pandemic in 2022.

A full recording of the event can be watched here. The BAME Advocacy Group will be holding their AGM on Tuesday 8th February at 7pm, which you can sign up to here

Henry Mendoza is the outgoing Chair of the Young Fabians BAME Advocacy Group. He tweets at @VortiGan_ (due to the nature of his job, Henry currently accepts followers by request).

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