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Why Keir Starmer failed to call out white supremacy

The Labour leader's response to a caller who espoused far-right views has raised serious questions
Britain's Labour Party leader Keir Starmer speaking during Prime Minister's Question time (PMQs) in the House of Commons in London on 4 November (AFP)

Labour leader Keir Starmer has spent the last few months trying to break with the legacy of Jeremy Corbyn, most especially in his support for causes such as Palestinian rights and opposing war. He recently refused to reinstate Corbyn as a Labour MP over the former leader’s response to the Equality and Human Rights Commission inquiry into Labour antisemitism.

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Ever since Starmer's failure to condemn racial abuse revealed in a leaked report about the actions of Labour officials, and his condemnation of the pulling down of a statue of one of Britain’s most prolific slave traders, Labour’s black members have seriously questioned his commitment to anti-racism.

Starmer and his general secretary David Evan’s pursuit of Corbyn and his supporters in the party are strong indications of a determination to place Labour firmly back in line with Britain’s pro-militarist establishment. That also means backing hawkish stances on Russia and China, and supporting Israel in the Middle East.

In his courting of the UK's pro-Israel Jewish leadership after its four-year campaign to unseat and politically destroy Corbyn, he told Jewish News: "I support Zionism without qualification.” 

This has consequences. Now it seems his insouciance about, not to say support, for Israeli occupation and apartheid has come home to roost.

White supremacy 

Starmer co-hosts a phone-in show on LBC with right-wing broadcaster Nick Ferrari, a man who famously responded to black journalist Afua Hirsch’s criticisms of British imperial icons Churchill and Rhodes by saying: “Why do you stay in this country?”

On the programme on Monday a caller described herself as the wife of one of the Millwall fans who recently booed black players taking the knee to signify their support for the black rights movement. Her comments contained a number of popular white supremacy talking points.

For the sake of clarity I will quote her: “If anything the racial inequality is against the indigenous people of Britain because we are set to become a minority by 2066…”

This is a boiler-plate example of the far-right "great replacement theory" that has justified numerous massacres by far-right extremists including the Christchurch attacks on mosques in March 2019 and the Norway attacks of 2011. The theory is so well established that there is no good reason for Starmer not to know it, and be able to recognise it.

The caller then made a further point explicitly linking her grievance to Israel: “We just have to look across to the Middle East. Israel has a state law that they [Jewish Israelis] are the only people in that country to have self determination. Why can’t I as a white British female have that same right?”

Israel's nation state law

Israel’s 2018 nation state law defines self determination as something belonging exclusively to Jews, and denying it to indigenous Palestinian Arabs and other minorities. It has been widely described within Israel and abroad as an explicit statement of apartheid, reinforcing decades of discriminatory laws and practices. 

Starmer responded to this striking statement in support of an ethno supremacist state in Britain along Israeli lines, saying: “We all have those rights, this is about recognising injustices that have been going on for a very long time. I think people were genuinely moved this year, and want to make sure that that injustice is dealt with. People will look at it in different ways but I think the vast majority of people want a more equal society.”

The caller repeated her "replacement theory" trope twice. At no point did Starmer call out the clear white supremacy behind her statements, and this is what has  shocked many, including MPs in his own party. 

In a statement released after the backlash on Monday to Middle East Eye, a Labour spokesperson said:

"Keir completely rejects the racist conspiracy theory that this caller espoused. A long history of migration has made Britain the great country it is today. Under Keir's leadership, the Labour party stands for a patriotism that is built on the total inclusion of Brits from all ethnic backgrounds.

“Keir gave a robust defence of sportspeople taking the knee to shine a light on the deep racial inequalities and injustices against Black, Asian and minority ethnic people that exist in our society.”

Yet when a person with far-right views comes on and says the UK needs to copy Israel's ethno state he passes over it without comment. It is now clear that when given an opportunity to condemn white supremacy and support for apartheid, Starmer doesn’t and perhaps can’t condemn it, in case he inadvertently criticises Israel. Criticising Israel is now something that his party has circumscribed to such an extent that it is almost impossible to do, even for the leader of the party.

This has far-reaching consequences for anything Labour says or does about racism and confronting white supremacy in Britain and across the world. The leadership has alienated many black, Asian and anti-racist Labour supporters, and for good reason. 

A thin line

Starmer’s target electorate is England’s towns, notably the so-called Red Wall, where voters deserted Labour in 2019. His strategy to win them back is to appeal to the “cultural conservatism” and patriotism of these voters, rather than offer radical economic changes that would bring jobs and hope - as offered by Corbyn’s socialist project. But the line between cultural conservatism and racism is a thin one.

The most charitable thing one can say about this encounter is that Starmer’s much advertised anti-racism awareness training lamentably failed.

Starmer is showing day by day that his support for anti-racism is largely symbolic. By contrast, his desire to win over England’s emboldened white nationalists by having nice chats with them on LBC - and writing in the Sun and Telegraph, where Islamophobic opinions are rampant - seriously compromises his ability to confront racism and ethno nationalism here and abroad.

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

Joe Gill
Joe Gill has worked as a journalist in London, Oman, Venezuela and the US, for newspapers including Financial Times, Morning Star and Middle East Eye. His Masters was in Politics of the World Economy at the London School of Economics. Twitter @gill_joe