News that bitter factionalism may have undermined Labour’s handling of antisemitism is likely to unsettle Keir Starmer, who has made resolving the issue his top priority. On the day he assumed leadership of the party, Starmer wrote to the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Marie van der Zyl. “I hope that you are keeping well in the context of the Coronavirus pandemic,” he told her, promising to implement the Board’s Ten Pledges to End the Antisemitism Crisis “as soon as possible”.
Over the past half-century, and supported by a British media that likes to think of Jewish opinion as a monolith, the Board of Deputies has cemented a reputation as the gatekeepers for British Jewry and, by extension, the moral arbiter of antisemitism.
In January, the Board presented Labour leadership candidates with a manual for repairing the Party’s relationship with the Jewish community. Starmer committed to the pledges on the day they were released; not only this, he made them a prerequisite for joining his shadow cabinet. True to his word, the only three leader and deputy candidates excluded from Starmer’s front bench – Dawn Butler, Richard Burgon and Clive Lewis – were those who refused to sign.
It is, of course, entirely possible that other considerations sealed the fate of Richard Burgon, who was always likely to exit the cabinet along with other Corbynite stalwarts such as Jon Trickett, Barry Gardner and Ian Lavery; the bad blood building between Burgon and some Jewish groups is unlikely to have helped, either. Starmer may have had concerns about the sexual harassment allegations against Clive Lewis, or taken issue with his strong advocacy for open selections. Dawn Butler’s sacking, however, seems harder to justify. Her experience as a minister under Gordon Brown and latterly Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities – during which time she co-authored Labour’s widely-praised Race & Faith Manifesto – should have been enough to retain a place in the shadow cabinet. Butler’s fault, it seems, was electing not to sign the pledges.
Given his reputation as a pragmatist, it is unsurprising that Starmer adopted the pledges with such alacrity. Antisemitism has proven a Gordian knot for the Labour Party and the Board was offering to help untie it. Furthermore, as a member of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, Starmer witnessed first-hand the damage caused by Labour’s previous ambivalent handling of antisemitism – particularly when it came to adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)’s definition of it – and may therefore have been keen to toe the line.
However, even a cursory read of the pledges reveals that Dawn Butler had good reason to doubt their utility. While some are eminently worthy (“Resolve outstanding cases”, “Provide no platform for bigotry”), others – such as giving Jewish bodies regular, detailed updates on ongoing disciplinary cases – are incompatible with confidentiality and due process. The majority seem more concerned with freezing out the left than fighting antisemitism. Among these is a pledge to adopt in full the IHRA definition of antisemitism, a document criticised by its own author for suppressing Palestinian solidarity. Another is a pledge that Labour only engage with the Jewish community “via its main representative groups and not through fringe organisations or individuals”; a pledge which, given that most mainstream Jewish organisations fall somewhere between the political right and centre, could be read as an attempt to further marginalise left-wing Jews.
In his determination to end the long-running feud over antisemitism and reestablish convivial relations with the Jewish community, Keir Starmer has forgotten why doing so was important in the first place: antiracism. The composition of his shadow cabinet makes this clear. Despite bragging about verbally abusing Labour’s only black Shadow Home Secretary, despite calling the police on a traveller community in her constituency, despite openly praising transphobic groups, Jess Phillips has been made a shadow Home Office minister, a brief which now, post-Windrush, contains not a single Black MP. Meanwhile Rachel Reeves, who failed to apologise for praising Nazi-sympathising former MP Nancy Astor, has been rewarded with another shadow cabinet role. By focusing on antisemitism – and more than this, antisemitism as interpreted by one particular group – as the primary axis of racism, Starmer has made other bigotries permissible in his cabinet.
Jeremy Corbyn was often met with sighs when asked if he was an antisemite, he would reply that he was opposed to “antisemitism and all forms of racism”. Corbyn’s refrain, however frustrating, made an important point: fighting one form of racism in isolation is futile. For both moral and strategic reasons, Starmer has prioritised antisemitism. Yet as the leaked dossier makes clear, this is not the only bigotry with which the Labour Party is grappling. From sharing Douglas Murray’s hate-filled tracts to calling Diane Abbott “a very angry woman”, anti-black racism and Islamophobia, not to mention transphobia and anti-traveller bias, continue to afflict the party, as they do the rest of society. By adopting the Board of Deputies Ten Pledges, Keir Starmer has inherited its myopia, the same it exposed by complaining to a black woman that “no other minority would be treated that way” – that is, an inability to see the broader antiracist struggle of which antisemitism is just one part.