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Andrew Feinstein: A challenge to Starmer that could rekindle the politics of hope

Feinstein has authenticity, courage and integrity. If he stands in Keir Starmer's constituency, the Labour leader's dishonesty and lack of principles will be horribly exposed
For Andrew Feinstein, politics is about doing the right thing (Photo: Supplied)

Despite premature reports, Andrew Feinstein has not yet declared that he will stand as an independent candidate against UK Labour leader Keir Starmer in his north London constituency of Holborn and St Pancras.

And he’s not about to do so. 

When I spoke to him at the weekend, the South African activist, filmmaker and former politician told me that he was determined to engage with every part of the community - including those who have been forgotten and disenfranchised - to make sure that he can win their support.

“And if I can’t, I’ll step aside,” Feinstein told me. “And throw my weight 100 percent behind the best unity candidate."

This modesty is typical of the man. He’s not in politics to advance himself. Politics for him is about doing the right thing. The immediate impulse for his decision to stand is despair and horror at Keir Starmer’s policy on Gaza.

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But he has a wider vision of social justice, and I expect that to emerge during his campaign. That is why when all soundings have been taken, I sincerely hope that Feinstein does decide to take the plunge. 

Not just for the sake of Holborn and St Pancras, but for the sake of British politics, and public decency. 

Expect a final decision, I am told, within two weeks.

Deeply principled

Feinstein, a veteran anti-apartheid campaigner and former adviser to Nelson Mandela, is utterly authentic, totally straightforward and deeply principled.

And this is why he is so dangerous to Starmer - the ultimate machine politician who has none of these qualities.

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To make matters worse for the Labour leader, Feinstein is a fluent talker, capable of marshalling facts with force and imagination. If either Starmer or, for that matter, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, went head to head against Feinstein in a debate, Feinstein would win hands down.

And the challenge could not have come at a more dangerous time. Starmer’s decision to throw his weight apparently without reservation behind Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel as it launched the assault on Gaza has lost him many supporters.

His public support for collective punishment in Gaza lost him many more. His decision to abandon the role of leader of the opposition and join Sunak as a junior partner in a cross-party merger on Gaza has left him still more isolated.

Many people - and not just on the left - are repulsed by the pro-war coalition at Westminster. 

They want a new type of politics.

I believe Feinstein can help deliver it. I accept it is unlikely - though not impossible - that he will defeat Starmer come the next election. Starmer won 64.5 percent of the vote in 2019. But I believe he can set the groundwork for a new political party that can set the agenda in the years ahead. 

Never has such a party been more urgently needed.  

Moral clarity

Consider Feinstein’s background. He was born in 1964 in Cape Town to Viennese Holocaust survivors. Thirty-nine members of his mother’s family were murdered at Auschwitz and Theresienstadt.

As a result, he has devoted himself to the study of genocide and the arms trade. He has lectured at Auschwitz and on genocide prevention and has strongly supported South Africa in its genocide case against Israel, declaring that it was in breach of its obligations under the 1948 Genocide Convention.

In his late teens, he joined the then outlawed African National Congress, and was elected in 1994 as an ANC member of parliament under Nelson Mandela.

There was no question that he was one of the most capable rising South African politicians of his generation, but in 2001 he resigned in despair at ANC corruption and moved to London, where he is chief executive of Corruption Watch UK, and has lived here ever since.

This is a career built on high principles and political consistency.

Feinstein brings a moral clarity to politics which is utterly lacking both in Sunak’s Conservative Party and the cynical coterie which has established itself around Starmer

What a contrast with Starmer who cheated his way to the Labour leadership. 

The most notorious of these sleights of hand was Starmer’s claim, made at the height of the leadership campaign, that Jeremy Corbyn was "a colleague and a friend and he’s led us through some really difficult times… I respect him and thank him for what he’s done".

Since becoming leader, Starmer has done everything he can to distance himself from his former leader and disown him.

Most significantly, in October 2020 he withdrew the whip from Corbyn, effectively expelling him from the parliamentary Labour Party.

It’s not difficult to see why Starmer made these deceitful remarks: he wanted to attract Corbyn supporters in order to help win the leadership. Even though, as we have since learnt, he didn’t mean a word he said.

By contrast, Feinstein has stood by Corbyn, however politically advantageous it might have been to dump him as Starmar did. It would be intellectually lazy, however, to frame him as a Corbynite.

Certainly he shares the internationalism and concern for human rights that was a feature of the Corbyn years. But Feinstein is his own man and determined to build his own brand of politics.

A new politics

Starmer’s brand of cynicism leaves a bad taste in the mouth. In 2020, he ran a campaign for the Labour leadership that was fundamentally dishonest. Needing to gain the support of the party’s left-wing membership, he presented a pitch which was entirely at variance with the way he subsequently ran the party. 

All the indications are that this was done quite deliberately

He ingratiated himself with the party membership with 10 policy “pledges”, including a hike in taxes for higher earners and taking “rail, mail, energy and water” into public ownership. 

He has since abandoned almost all of them.

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As the death toll mounts in Gaza, pledge four, to “promote peace and human rights… and put human rights at the heart of foreign policy”, is the most tarnished of all. 

It’s quite impossible to reconcile it with Starmer’s statement that Israel had the “right” to withhold power and water from Palestinians - collective punishment that is a breach of international law.

To be fair to Starmer, he is no more dishonest than his Tory rival Sunak. 

But no less dishonest, either.

Feinstein, therefore, brings a moral clarity to politics which is utterly lacking both in Sunak’s Conservative Party and the cynical coterie which has established itself around Starmer. 

A moral clarity added, what is more, to a formidable brain. He is no political tourist. He’s a professional politician hardened by his brutal experience of machine politics in South Africa, and has the intellect and passion to change political discourse in this country.

So far he’s been gravely underestimated both by Starmer and his allies among the Westminster media elite. Westminster lobby journalists, fascinated as ever by party intrigue rather than the grand battle of ideas, has missed the Feinstein story completely.

The reason is telling. British politics, both inside the Conservative and the Labour parties, is only about winning. Sunak and Starmer, both lacking intellectual confidence and a strong moral sense, surround themselves with advisers who are experts in the dark art of politics. 

The stitch-ups, the lies, the stratagems, the cunning ruses and the backstairs deals, all this explains Starmer’s shambolic dithering over Rochdale

The stitch-ups, the lies, the stratagems, the cunning ruses and the backstairs deals, all this explains Starmer’s shambolic dithering over Rochdale. Instead of asking what was the right thing to do, the Labour leader asked what was the expedient thing, and has paid a heavy price.

When Starmer became Labour leader, he could have turned his back on the moral squalor of contemporary British politics. Sadly his record shows that he chose to jump into the cesspit and wallow. This is a tragedy for Labour, for Britain and of course for Starmer personally. 

That is why Andrew Feinstein matters so much.

That is why I don't totally rule out Andrew Feinstein's chances when election day comes. He’s already a hardened politician, with an unrivalled record of integrity. 

Starmer has a 28,000 majority. It looks impregnable, but I wonder.

If Feinstein runs he will prove awkward for the Labour leader, and articulate a new vision which can remind voters that Starmer is a tired and dishonest politician whose time may be running out before it’s even begun.

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

Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in both 2022 and 2017, and was also named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Drum Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was also named as British Press Awards Columnist of the Year in 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His latest book is The Fate of Abraham: Why the West is Wrong about Islam, published in May by Simon & Schuster. His previous books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran and The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism.
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