Keir Starmer facing the ghost of Jeremy Corbyn within the Labour party

The Labour Party leader is now calling for a ‘cease-fire that lasts,’ amid pressure from anti-Israel lawmakers in his party

In the latest sign that the anti-Israel left in Britain is gaining momentum, Keir Starmer, leader of Britain’s Labour party, has called for a full and permanent cease-fire in Gaza, a policy turnaround for the politician widely seen as the country’s next prime minister. 

Speaking in Glasgow at Scottish Labour’s conference on Sunday, Starmer won lengthy applause when he called for the fighting to “stop now” and called for a “cease-fire that lasts.” 

The Labour leader’s speech, in which he also warned Israel against an assault on the southern Gaza city of Rafah, came just days ahead of a vote in the House of Commons, led by the Scottish National Party (SNP), for an immediate cease-fire. Members of the Scottish wing of the Labour party had also been backing such calls.

In the immediate aftermath of Hamas’ murderous attacks on Oct. 7, Starmer was unequivocal in his support for Israel. He received a standing ovation at the Labour party conference in Liverpool that same weekend, when he forcefully condemned the attacks. 

The following month he called for a “humanitarian pause,” and asked his party to abstain on a previous SNP motion to back a cease-fire. But the issue was proving divisive, leading 56 Labour MPs to rebel over the vote and prompting many resignations from front-bench politicians. 

Some political observers feel Starmer’s hardening position is, in part, fueled by fear of losing Muslim votes — particularly with a general election drawing closer.

In a recent article in The Guardian, an unnamed senior Labour source, said: “Muslims are not only predominantly Labour supporters but they are also geographically important. There are many of them in a range of key target seats in both the south and the north-west, and we need to pay attention to that.”

The data backs up the party’s concerns. Earlier this month a Survation poll for the Labour Muslim Network revealed that support among Muslims has dropped from 86% to 60% since 2021. 

Another study, carried out by More in Common, a research agency seeking to “strengthen democratic societies by countering division and polarization,” showed most Britons have not taken a side in the conflict, with 61% saying they sympathize with both sides, neither side or aren’t sure. 

“We need to recognize that post-October 7 and the war in Gaza, there’s been a quantum change in the amount of conspiracy theories and misinformation floating around social media,” said Mike Katz, chairman of Jewish Labour Movement, in an interview with Jewish Insider. “It’s incredibly divisive and we need to ensure these haven’t been picked up or propagated by people who want to, or do, represent Labour.”

Starmer became Labour party leader in 2020 after his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, lost in a landslide to former Prime Minister Boris Johnson. One of his key pledges on taking over was to rid the party of the antisemitism it had become associated with under Corbyn. 

Months later a long-awaited report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) found there had been a “breakdown of trust” between the Labour party and the Jewish community. The party was placed in “special measures” after the report revealed evidence of “harassment and discrimination.” This was a period of monitoring during which the party was required to implement an emergency action plan to drive out antisemitism or face legal action for its “serious failings.”

Those measures were lifted a year ago and Jewish members, who had previously resigned, have been returning to Labour under Starmer. Nevertheless, since the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attack against Israel and rising antisemitism in the U.K. the issue has reasserted itself.

This month, Azhar Ali, one of the party’s nominees for a key legislative election in a constituency with a significant Muslim electorate in northwest England (Rochdale), claimed Israel had deliberately allowed the terrorists to target its people in order to get the “green light” to invade Gaza. Ali, who was defending the Labour-held seat, shared the conspiracy theory at a meeting of the Lancashire Labor Party on Oct. 31.

The Mail on Sunday reported him saying: “The Egyptians are saying that they warned Israel ten days earlier… Americans warned them a day before [that] there’s something happening… They deliberately took the security off, they allowed… that massacre that gives them the green light to do whatever they bloody want.”

What shocked many within Britain’s Jewish community and beyond, was that Starmer initially stood by Ali.  

A tweet from Labour Against Antisemitism on Feb. 11, said: “The Labour Party should be moving swiftly to replace or stand down Azhar Ali, their candidate in the Rochdale by-election, following evidence of his antisemitism. Anything less is a reversion to the darkest days of the Corbyn era.”

Starmer faced intense pressure to act against his candidate’s antisemitic behavior and eventually Labour took the highly unusual step of withdrawing its support. Ali will now run as an independent, leaving Labour without an official candidate. 

Two days later, Starmer withdrew his support from another Labour candidate who attended the same meeting. Graham Jones, the candidate for Hyndburn, was recorded talking about “f***ing Israel” and said British volunteers to the IDF “should be locked up.”

Katz, the chairman of the Jewish Labour Movement, told Jewish Insider that the episode “was not our finest hour,” but firmly dismissed suggestions that Corbynism is back to haunt the party.

“It’s ludicrous to suggest that — as [Prime Minister] Rishi Sunak and other Tories have — that the party hasn’t changed since Corbyn’s leadership,” he said. “The difference is like night and day.

“Keir has shown a deep personal commitment on tackling antisemitism. Just last week marked a year since the EHRC took Labour out of special measures, following its unprecedented, damning report into Labour antisemitism. 

“People will see the Tories are acting out of desperation on this; and for the Jewish community, we’re just tired of being used as a political football.”

Dame Louise Ellman, a long-standing Labour MP who quit the party in 2019 after 55 years, said she returned to Labour after Corbyn was ousted because of Starmer’s leadership.

“I left the party because of Corbyn and antisemitism. I fought it for a long time but in the end it became unbearable,” the former MP and Labour party grandee told JI. 

She said she would “never join another party” but that “if Labour ever dealt with its antisemitism I’d return.”

“On the day that he [Starmer] was elected leader of the Labour party he actually phoned me up and said he would make it his first priority to deal with antisemitism and he hoped I’d feel able to rejoin,” Ellman said. “I rejoined two years later in 2021 at the party conference because I could see that he was dealing with antisemitism.”

Although antisemitism “isn’t entirely dealt with” and “will always be ongoing business,” Ellman believes Starmer “has changed the party in a very radical way and antisemites are no longer welcome.”

The episode in Rochdale was particularly shocking, she said, as she worked closely with Ali for 20 years on issues such as antisemitism and extremism.

She was “astounded” when she heard his comments, which ultimately made it “untenable” for Labour to continue to support him.

On Starmer’s calls for a cease-fire, Ellman said: “Some of the words might be a bit tougher, but I don’t see any change in position.” She pointed out that he has called for a “sustainable cease-fire,” which must include the release of hostages and dealing with Hamas. 

This has been echoed by Labour Friends of Israel, who posted an update on its website saying: “Keir Starmer is right: we urgently need an end to the fighting and a permanent and sustainable ceasefire in Gaza.”

It called for the protection of civilians in Gaza and “genuine progress towards a negotiated two-state solution,” but emphasized that hostages must be released, rocket attacks stopped and, critically, “Hamas must be disarmed and have no role in the future governance of Gaza.” 

As Starmer’s Labour party deals with antisemitism in his party’s ranks, it continues to rise in the U.K.. Last week a report from the Community Security Trust (CST), a charity protecting the U.K. Jewish community and monitoring antisemitism, revealed that anti-Jewish hatred is at its highest point since records were tallied. Researchers found that 4,103 antisemitic incidents were reported in 2023. They suggested the rise was due to  “the unparallelled volume of antisemitism perpetrated following the Hamas terror attack.” 

“Antisemitism, as the saying goes, is a light sleeper,” said Katz. “That’s why we as JLM need to support the party in being ever-vigilant for left antisemitism, and to continue to educate members and elected representatives on what antisemitism looks like, how to engage with it critically and — most importantly — how to call it out.

“This isn’t difficult: there are plenty of Labour MPs who advocate strongly for Palestine without being antisemitic, even in these heightened times of tension,” Katz continued. “Both the Jewish and Muslim communities are here to stay in this country. “We have to, as a party that seeks to lead on multiculturalism and tolerance, demonstrate leadership in bringing the two together.”

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