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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 rule book 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.
This content originally appeared on Dissident Voice and was authored by Jonathan Cook.