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Labour conference: Palestine motion means the party's civil war is not over

Labour leader Keir Starmer needs to look strong to win a general election but is still committed to tearing Labour apart with antisemitism witch-hunt
Labour leader Keir Starmer gives his keynote speech on the final day of the annual Labour Party conference in Brighton, England, on 29 September 2021 (AFP)

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.

As leader, Jeremy Corbyn faced relentless, evidence-free claims that he indulged a plague of antisemitism in Labour

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.

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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.

Ken Loach
UK film director Ken Loach says he was expelled from the Labour Party in the run-up to conference for expressing support for many of those suspended over the alleged antisemitism issue, calling it a witch-hunt (AFP)

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.

Instead, Jewish leaders and the Labour right have weaponised a set of examples attached to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism imposed on Corbyn in 2018. Those examples include describing Israel as “a racist endeavour” and “requiring of it a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation”.

The Labour motion rightly takes as its starting point that Israel cannot claim to be democratic when half the population it rules over - the vast majority of Palestinians inside Israel and all Palestinians under occupation - have no voice in how they are ruled.

Hounded out

The conference vote requiring Labour to support the Palestinians appears to be a backlash from the party’s left against the onslaught they have suffered over the past 18 months of Starmer’s rule.

He has effectively banned constituencies from criticising Corbyn’s expulsion from the parliamentary party.

Groups that support Palestinian rights and challenged Starmer’s confected antisemitism narrative - arguing that it has been weaponised against them - have been proscribed.

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Leaders of Jewish Voice for Labour, set up by Jewish members to defend Corbyn’s reputation, are also being hounded out, including most recently its co-chair Leah Levane, whose entry to the conference was revoked on the second day. 

One of Corbyn’s most prominent supporters, Ken Loach, the world-renowned film director, was expelled in the run-up to the conference, again in the context of antisemitism claims. He had expressed support for many of those who were suspended or expelled, calling it a witch-hunt.

Starmer’s officials quietly tried to break the party rulebook and block a conference day for Young Labour, the party’s youth section, after it proposed the motion urging justice for Palestinians. Officials also sought to prevent a representative from the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, Britain’s foremost Palestinian advocacy group, from speaking.

Starmer rightly understood that neither could be relied on to toe his authoritarian line. But after the exposure of their move, Labour officials were forced to back down.

And finally, John McDonnell, the former shadow chancellor, berated Starmer for behaving “like Stalin” in allowing the last-minute exclusion from the conference of dozens of members identified as Corbyn holdouts. The move seemed intended to help Starmer’s measures pass, and foil embarrassing resolutions like the Palestine solidarity one.

Rooting out socialism

Starmer did manage to secure support from the conference for an independent complaints procedure to handle antisemitism cases in future - removing it from the control of party officials.

Labour members presumably hope that external adjudicators will be fairer in assessing antisemitism allegations than a Labour right bent on settling scores with the left. The celebrations of pro-Israel groups at the prospect of the disciplinary process being outsourced indicates that members may be gravely disappointed.

For Starmer, transferring the complaints procedure to outsiders means he can finally sever his responsibility for the handling of Labour’s supposed antisemitism crisis. It will be out of his hands.

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

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 shortlived 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 frontbench, 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.

But though Starmer may be winning the battle to drive Labour back to the right, the issue of justice for Palestinians looks likely to continue hounding him

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.

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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 party’s left-wing can be permanently silenced.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Jonathan Cook
Jonathan Cook is the the author of three books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His website and blog can be found at: www.jonathan-cook.net