Zaher Birawi & Robert Andrews
Middle East Monitor / April 14, 2020
On 4 April, Sir Keir Starmer was announced as the UK Labour Party’s new leader after winning the Labour leadership election with more than 56 per cent of the vote. But what does Starmer’s tenure as Labour Party leader mean for UK solidarity work on the Palestine issue, and for Labour’s foreign policy on the question of Palestine?
UK solidarity work on Palestine
Where UK solidarity work on Palestine is concerned, Starmer’s election is not a gain. Indeed, his tenure as Labour leader comes against the backdrop of a cataclysmic defeat in the December 2019 general election, which left the Labour Party in ruins with increasing calls for a “new approach”, given the seismic nature of the defeat. As there exists an almost universal consensus within the Labour Party that the “anti-Semitism issue” played a fundamental role in Labour’s election losses, the topic has become one of the central spotlights, not only for Starmer, but for all of the candidates in the leadership race.
With anti-Semitism becoming a central concern within Labour Party politics, pro-Israel groups such as the Board of Deputies of British Jews (BoD), Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) and the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) have been afforded leverage through which to dictate and monopolise the discourse on anti-Semitism. With Starmer, along with the other leadership candidates accepting the Board of Deputies’ “Ten Pledges” to tackle anti-Semitism, and playing into the climate of fear manifested by such groups, Labour politicians and members are now increasingly limited from both engaging with anti-Zionist and socialist groups, and from appearing “soft” on anti-Semitism.
Starmer’s record with regard to speaking on the issue of anti-Semitism perfectly demonstrates this new climate. For one, he repeatedly apologises for anti-Semitism within the Labour Party, and in his victory speech he called it a “stain” on the party. He has also affirmed that he intends to tackle the issue “on day one” and that he will judge his successes by: “The return of Jewish members and those who felt they could no longer support us.” In addition, Starmer has previously repeatedly pressed for a special shadow cabinet session on anti-Semitism, has backed the rule changes to allow for the immediate expulsion of those deemed anti-Semitic, and has noted that his administration will cooperate with the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)’s report into Labour anti-Semitism – but had no intention whatsoever of waiting for the report before being proactive on the issue. Additionally, in an interview with the Jewish Chronicle in March 2020, Starmer promised to “patch up” Labour’s relationship with the UK’s Chief Rabbi, if elected. He was also reported to have had ‘strategy and tactics’ conservations with JLM representatives.
Aside from this, a further indication of Starmer’s commitment to tackling anti-Semitism can be seen following his victory in the leadership contest. On 7 April, 2020, both Starmer and Deputy Leader Angela Rayner participated in a video meeting with a number of Jewish community representatives including the BoD, the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC), the Community Security Trust (CST) and the JLM. During the meeting, which was held via the Zoom video communications platform, Starmer made a number of promises which included the following sound bites: “At today’s meeting, I commit to begin work on setting up an independent complaints process, cooperating fully with the EHRC’s inquiry and asking for a report on all outstanding cases to be on my desk at the end of the week. I also discussed with the JLM my ambition to roll out training for all Labour Party staff as soon as practically possible. Over the last few years, we have failed the Jewish community on anti-Semitism.”
In response to the number of promises Starmer issued during the meeting, BoD President Marie van der Zyl, JLC Chairman Jonathan Goldstein, JLM Chairman Mike Katz and CST Chairman Gerald Ronson issued a statement which noted that: “Keir Starmer has already achieved in four days more than his predecessor in four years, in addressing anti-Semitism within the Labour Party. We want to have a normal relationship with Labour whereby we can discuss the full range of issues affecting our community, from religious freedom to Israel.”
Additionally, Starmer’s Chief of Staff, Morgan McSweeney, views tackling the antisemitism issue as a matter of extreme importance, and has been described by the ‘We Believe in Israel’ Director, Luke Akehurst, as someone who “will be a pivotal figure for dealing with Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis.” Akehurst describes McSweeney as a “solid supporter of Israel.” Indeed, McSweeney was involved in the 7 April video meeting between Starmer and Jewish community representatives. Given this, he is likely to keep the supposed ‘antisemitism crisis’ at the top of the Labour leader agenda moving forward.
Starmer faces additional pressure to follow the Zionist line on the anti-Semitism issue because of his familial ties. He was, in fact, fiercely criticised by elements from within the Jewish community for his handling of Labour’s ‘anti-Semitism crisis’. The late London Rabbi Dr David Goldberg, whose synagogue Starmer’s family are members of, was said to have been extremely disappointed and actually compared his efforts to that of former Labour parliamentarians John Mann and Luciana Berger. Predictably, many within the Jewish community have called on Starmer to “prove his stripes” on the anti-Semitism issue. It is perhaps for this reason, as well as for his shortcomings – relative to other leadership candidates – on the “Are you a Zionist?” question that Keir was not endorsed by the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) as their preferred candidate during the leadership elections.
In addition to this, interestingly, president of the BoD, van der Zyl, has instructed Starmer to resolve the disciplinary cases within four months and that the BoD are “looking closely” at the leader’s office, the parliamentary Labour Party, the shadow cabinet and the party headquarters as areas in which they expect fundamental change.
Soon after becoming the Labour leader Starmer hastened to affirm his anti-BDS stance and commitment to the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. Accordingly, most influential pro-Israel groups have, on their part, adopted the view that he is actually the best person to lead the Labour party in the post-Corbyn era.
Therefore, one can expect Starmer to act decisively on the anti-Semitism question, and this, by definition, means that one can expect a continuation of a climate in which criticism of Israel on the account of Israel being an apartheid state (including comparisons to apartheid South Africa), or on account of Zionism being inherently discriminatory by nature, continues to be considered racist. One can also expect that the latter will markedly impact the capacity of UK-based Palestine solidarity campaigns to: a) make in-roads with key powerbrokers within the Labour Party, including the shadow cabinet; b) hold events in cooperation with public bodies, whether charitable or political, that criticise the state of Israel either implicitly or explicitly; c) to liaise with members of the Labour Party that are strong advocates for the Palestine cause. As leader, Starmer is likely to be at the forefront of facilitating the continuation of these developments and the shrinking space for UK-based pro-Palestine solidarity organisations.
Labour’s foreign policy on Palestine
With regards to Labour’s foreign policy position on the question of Palestine, it does not appear as though Starmer will deviate greatly from the current position. While for the pro-Israel lobby, the goal is very much to have a leader bound by the current Western economic and imperialist order, it is likely that this will happen through Starmer’s strong support for the IHRA and the agency held over him by pro-Israel groups. Indeed, this is not to suggest that Starmer will radically deviate from Labour’s position on Palestine, but rather that the goals of the Zionist lobby will be attained through Starmer rooting out from the party (under the guise of anti-Semitism) those who are staunch advocates for the Palestine cause and those who express pro-Palestine rhetoric that is in contravention to the IHRA examples.
Indeed, though Starmer has openly acknowledged that his wife’s family are Jewish and that he has extended family in Israel, he has been reticent to call himself a Zionist outright and has not suggested a deviation from Labour’s foreign policy on the question of Palestine. For instance, on 29 January, 2020, he tweeted the following: “Trump’s so-called ‘peace-plan’ is a farce. It is inconsistent with international law and human rights protections. Our government should unequivocally condemn it because it will cause even more suffering for the Palestinian people who have already endured so much.”
Furthermore, in Starmer’s campaign launch video for the leadership election, he implies support for the Palestinian cause through urging: “We can promote peace and justice around the world with a human rights-based foreign policy,” against the backdrop of a number of Stop the War campaigners holding Palestinian flags. He is also a parliamentary supporter of the Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East (LFPME) group, but not the Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) group. Starmer has also previously expressed support for an “independent Palestinian state” and has invited the Camden Abu Dis Friendship Association to Parliament to discuss the human rights situation in Palestine on a number of occasions. This is perhaps telling, and illustrates that he is likely to continue with the Labour Party position on the core issues relating to the Palestine question, such as the two-state paradigm and Israel’s settlement enterprise.
However, intriguingly, Starmer did not agree to sign up to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC)’s three pledges on Palestine, despite the fact that Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy and Shadow Secretary of State for Education Rebecca Long-Bailey pledged their support. Speculation has suggested that Starmer’s reluctance to sign the pledges was in response to receiving counsel from figures within the Jewish community.
Therefore, it appears that the approach of the new Starmer administration, vis-à-vis foreign policy on Palestine, will be to support human rights for Palestinians while stopping short of overt rhetoric on the topic that could inflame tensions within the Jewish community, and amongst those seeking to monitor Starmer’s record on anti-Semitism. In this light, it is likely that Starmer will attempt to shelve the issue of Palestine and minimise its salience across public forums, such as the Labour Party conference, without undermining his base-level support for Palestinian human rights, or returning to a more Blair-like policy on the Palestine question.
The new shadow cabinet and Palestine
Starmer’s Shadow Cabinet illustrates a marked break from the past. Notable left-leaning politicians such as Dawn Butler, Richard Burgon, Barry Gardiner and Ian Lavery are gone. In their place, Starmer has sought to appoint a “balanced” cabinet that seeks to represent the diversity of the modern Labour Party. To what extent, though, does this new cabinet represent a positive development for those working for Palestine? The following will look at the new Shadow cabinet through three positions that have a degree of agency over discourse and politics regarding Palestine and Israel: the deputy leader and chair of the Labour Party, the shadow foreign secretary and the shadow international trade secretary.
Deputy leader and chair of the Labour Party – Angela Rayner
Angela Rayner is widely revered as being part of Labour’s “soft-left” wing. With regards to her previous actions vis-à-vis Palestine, in July 2019 Rayner, together with Margaret Hodge and Ruth Smeeth, signed an Early Days Motion condemning Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem. She has also condemned the killings of Palestinians during the Great March of Return and has repeatedly cited Israeli violations of human rights against Palestinians on social media. Additionally, she has previously referred to Norman Finkelstein’s book, The Holocaust Industry, as a seminal work. However, with reference to the latter, she quickly backtracked on her comments regarding the Finkelstein book, following pressure from the BoD. She has also been overt in her criticism of Jeremy Corbyn’s handling of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party, and is on record stating that she is “absolutely embarrassed” by the party’s failure to deal with the “crisis”. Indeed, in this context, it is no surprise that she has spoken at a number of JLM hustings and enthusiastically boasted about signing the BoD’s Ten Pledges.
While Rayner is somewhat progressive on Palestinian human rights, she appears to be easily pressured into retracting her rhetoric on Palestine, and could be interpreted as being somewhat committed to remedying the anti-Semitism issue.
Shadow foreign secretary – Lisa Nandy
Also a “soft-left” candidate, in 2018 Lisa Nandy took over from Grahame Morris to chair the LFPME parliamentary group. She recalls that her decision to take over from Morris stems from her visit to the West Bank, where she witnessed a 15-year-old Palestinian boy “being shackled by the ankles who had been in administrative detention for months” and a “three-year-old child who was surrounded by the Separation Wall and was growing up without daylight.”
In Nandy’s capacity as chair of the LFPME, she has sought a commitment from the government to guarantee that Israeli settlements would be taken off the table in any prospective trade deal. She has also commemorated numerous days of salience to the Palestinian people, such as Nakba Day. She is a staunch supporter of the two-state solution and has criticised the so-called Deal of the Century for proposing a non-continuous, non-sovereign state as a future Palestine. Nandy has also spoken at events pertaining to the Palestine issue, such as the September Labour Party conference, where she spoke alongside MP Diane Abbott and trade unionist Len McClusky.
Nevertheless, Nandy received the backing of the JLM during the leadership election cycle and referred to herself as a “Zionist”. She has even gone so far on the issue of anti-Semitism to create her own “seven-point plan” to “root-out” anti-Semitism from the party. The plan includes setting up a “task force” made up of “current and former staff and officials” to implement the conclusions of the EHRC report. When interviewed about the task force, Nandy noted that her plan was to involve the CST, the JLM and a number of those featured in the BBC Panorama documentary on anti-Semitism. The BBC Panorama documentary included a number of individuals, such as Ella Rose, a former PR officer at the Israeli embassy, and JLM membership officer Alex Richardson, featured in Al Jazeera’s undercover documentary, The Lobby.
Yet, Nandy subsequently received criticism from the JLM for signing a series of pro-Palestine pledges. This led to accusations by JLM officials that she is “playing both sides”. The truth, however, appears to be that she is someone who may not be self-assured enough to definitively adopt one position without contradiction, and is clearly ideologically committed towards the fight against anti-Semitism.
Shadow international trade secretary – Emily Thornberry
Emily Thornberry, a centrist MP, previously the shadow foreign secretary under Corbyn’s tenure in office, is, on the surface, supportive of the Palestine advocacy movement and of a progressive UK foreign policy towards Israel/Palestine. Indeed, she has previously urged the British government to recognise the state of Palestine “while there is still a state left to recognise,” and has gone on record in an interview with Israeli channel i24 affirming: “We have yet to see a Palestinian state.” She has opposed the UK’s decision to veto Human Rights Council resolutions on Israel under the Item 7 Agenda, arguing that the move was akin to vetoing resolutions on South African apartheid.
Additionally, Thornberry has numerous times during her tenure in the shadow cabinet criticised Israel’s attacks against Palestinians. Notably, in a speech in the House of Commons, she called Israel’s killings of Palestinians during the Great March of Return, a “deliberate policy”, and condemned the Israeli Defence Force’s use of specific ammunition as evidence of their intention to injure and kill Palestinians. She has also exclaimed that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has “ignored the human rights of Palestinians in Gaza” and has “moved away from democracy and the rule of law.” Thornberry accused Netanyahu of attempting to: “Turn Israel into an apartheid state.”
Nevertheless, Thornberry is privately believed to be a staunch supporter of Israel, has also referred to herself as a “Zionist”, and is an ardent opponent of the BDS movement, calling campaigners “bigots”. She has previously stated that she had to “battle” Corbyn aides while in her position as shadow foreign secretary to keep a condemnation of rocket attacks on Israel in the Labour Party 2019 election manifesto, and has called the willingness of Corbyn’s team to dismiss attacks on Israelis as “disgusting”. Recently, she praised Israel’s response to the coronavirus and has suggested that the UK could “learn lessons from Israel”.
Labour’s changing of the guards has mixed implications for progress on the Palestine issue in the UK. For solidarity organisations, Labour’s new leadership comes at the worst possible time. The Labour Party is largely dishevelled following the tremulous defeat in December 2019, and the anti-Semitism issue is widely seen as being central, alongside Brexit, in fuelling Labour’s demise. The centrality of the anti-Semitism question in contemporary discourse, has therefore allowed new actors to enter the frame and closely dictate Labour Party policy moving forwards. This is best exemplified by the fact that during the leadership elections, Starmer was reported to have met with the JLM for “strategy and tactics” discussions. It can also be viewed, though, through a number of other developments which have seen new actors aim to mend the apprehension caused by the danger of appearing feeble on anti-Semitism – most notably the BoD’s Ten Pledges, and the coercion of leadership candidates on the issue of anti-Semitism during the campaign cycle.
Therefore, with anti-Zionist and progressive Jewish groups sidelined from having any real influence in the Labour Party’s advancement, the likelihood is that the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism will increasingly become set in stone, and will prove to be difficult to lobby or argue against. This sheer fact presents a bleak picture for solidarity organisations, and will likely result in a dilution of the general campaign messaging on Palestine in the UK, for the fear of strong messaging campaigns being regarded as anti-Semitic or verging on anti-Semitism.
This should alert all solidarity organisations working for Palestine, and should perhaps trigger a series of collective restrategisation meetings. Without a common and cohesive understanding on the best method of progressing within this challenging terrain, the impact of the recent developments will go without serious objection at a time when an immediate unified response is vital.
However, room for optimism can be found in the knowledge that the Labour Party foreign policy on the issue of Palestine will probably remain unchanged. Seen as an issue separate from anti-Semitism, the party is likely to continue previous Labour policy regarding the conflict in the Middle East and will not revert to “Blair politics” on Palestine. For example, on issues such as the legality of settlements, the Deal of the Century plan, the sanctity of the two-state solution, property demolitions and on general incursions and human rights abuses, Labour will continue to adopt a progressive position in line with the consensus of its party members and with international law. This conclusion is supported by the above analysis on the record of both Starmer, as well as Shadow Foreign Secretary Nandy.
One area of debate remains unanswered however: to what extent Labour policy will change on its core issues, and to what extent will Palestine be a central issue in the Labour Party across the next four years. Will the party centralise the issue of Palestinian human rights at this critical time? Does the Deal of the Century need to occur for that to happen? Or, will the party and its new leadership, many of whom have a record of inconsistency on the issue of Palestine, seek to minimise debate and action on Palestine for fear of provoking its new partners in the “fight against anti-Semitism”, and for fear of being compared to Corbyn-style politics? This may be the most significant area of analysis as we move forwards and seek a more holistic understanding of the direction of Labour’s new leadership on the question of Palestine.
Zaher Birawi is the Chair of the EuroPal Forum
Robert Andrews is the PR Officer for EuroPal Forum