AnalysisUK goes to the polls on Thursday

How UK’s Starmer shook off predecessor Corbyn’s far-left legacy — and unpopularity

On the verge of a sweeping win, the Labour Party is very different from the one pummeled at the polls in 2019, and Jewish Brits are as pleased as any about it

Robert Philpot

Robert Philpot is a writer and journalist. He is the former editor of Progress magazine and the author of “Margaret Thatcher: The Honorary Jew.”

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer speaks during a live TV debate, hosted by The BBC, in Nottingham, on June 26, 2024, in the build-up to the UK general election on July 4. (Phil Noble / POOL / AFP)
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer speaks during a live TV debate, hosted by The BBC, in Nottingham, on June 26, 2024, in the build-up to the UK general election on July 4. (Phil Noble / POOL / AFP)

LONDON — It has taken Keir Starmer less than a decade to climb what Benjamin Disraeli, the country’s only Jewish prime minister, once famously described as the “greasy pole” of British politics.

Starmer, whose opposition Labour Party appears on course for a landslide victory in this week’s general election, only entered the House of Commons in May 2015.

After the July 4 election results are tallied, he’s widely expected to bring about an end to 14 years of Conservative-led government — a feat all the more remarkable given that on the last occasion Britons went to the polls, in December 2019, Labour suffered its worst defeat in nearly a century.

Starmer’s first five years in parliament were spent observing Labour’s then-leader, Jeremy Corbyn, dragging the party to the far left.

Corbyn’s anti-Zionist agenda — and the antisemitism scandal that accompanied it — didn’t just lead nearly half of British Jews to say they’d leave the country in the event of a Labour victory. It also alienated enough of the wider electorate to ensure Corbyn’s overwhelming rejection.

Elected to replace Corbyn in early 2020, Starmer has spent the second half of his parliamentary career ridding Labour of the far left’s legacy of extremism and racism and planting his party’s flag firmly in the electoral center.

The result: a Starmer-led Labour government is likely to be far less antagonistic to Israel — and far more sympathetic to the concerns of British Jews — than one led by Corbyn, had he made it to Downing Street in 2019.

Former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn (C) attends a pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel demonstration outside Westminster Palace, in central London, on April 27, 2024. (Benjamin Cremel/AFP)

Indeed, Starmer’s much-vaunted “changed Labour party” no longer even counts Corbyn as a member.

“Starmer has done a tremendous amount to deal with the issue of antisemitism in the Labour Party and this has been even more visible since October 7,” Claudia Mendoza, chief executive of the UK’s Jewish Leadership Council, told The Times of Israel. “When I think back to the Labour Party conference under Jeremy Corbyn, they are worlds apart,” she added, referring to the Palestinian flag-waving and angry denunciations of Israel at the party’s annual gathering under Starmer’s predecessor in 2019.

Certainly, pre-election polls and surveys of Jewish voters show Labour’s support recovering strongly after sharp falls under Corbyn. A survey published by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research showed the party winning support from 46 percent of Jews, 16 points ahead of the Tories, while polling by Survation suggests the Tories’ 59-point lead over Labour among Jews in 2019 had been cut by Starmer to just nine points.

A break with Corbynism

While swift, Starmer’s path to Downing Street hasn’t been easy. Faced with a grassroots membership that leaned heavily to the left, Starmer’s leadership campaign four years ago gave few clues as to his future direction. Instead, he offered a program designed not to alienate those who had sympathized with many of Corbyn’s populist domestic policies if not his far-left worldview.

But no sooner had Starmer won the crown than he began to break decisively with Corbynism in all its forms.

That was symbolized by his first act after the leadership election result was declared: a fulsome apology to Britain’s Jews and a pledge to rid the party of antisemitism. Within three days, he was meeting with Jewish communal organizations.

UK Labour Friends of Israel chairman Steve McCabe (L) gives a book signed by party leader Keir Starmer to President Isaac Herzog, February 6, 2023. (Labour Friends of Israel)

However, as Starmer was well aware, words were no substitute for action and he showed his willingness to act boldly two months later when he fired Rebecca Long-Bailey, the Corbynite standard-bearer in the 2020 leadership contest, from the Shadow Cabinet after she shared on social media an article containing an antisemitic conspiracy theory.

Sacking Long-Bailey looks tame compared with what was to come. When the Equality and Human Rights Commission delivered its brutal verdict on antisemitism in the Labour Party in November 2020 — the equalities watchdog had launched the unprecedented probe while Corbyn was still in office — Starmer showed his ruthlessness. Shortly after his predecessor issued a statement on the EHRC’s findings — in which he claimed that the scale of the problem had been “dramatically overstated for political reasons” — Starmer removed Corbyn from the Labour parliamentary party, forcing him to sit as an independent.

Despite the entreaties of the left’s dwindling band of supporters in the party, Starmer refused to let Corbyn back into the Labour tent, leaving him to defend his Islington North constituency as an independent at this week’s election.

Polls indicate a close race for the seat. But, for Starmer, the price of potentially losing the safe Labour seat is well worth paying. Removing Corbyn from Labour’s ranks has been a key building block in reassuring Jews — and the country at large — that Labour has really changed.

Behind the scenes, Starmer’s team has also done the hard organizational work. As the EHRC demanded, Labour’s disciplinary procedures have been overhauled and the huge backlog of antisemitism investigations bequeathed by Corbyn cleared. The party has banned seven hard-left groups from its ranks, five of which either claimed that the problem of antisemitism had been exaggerated or suggested that it had been manufactured as part of an Israeli-organized smear campaign.

As high-profile heads have rolled, the leadership has telegraphed a clear message: Labour’s political culture has changed and being a part of, or sympathetic to, the radical left will no longer be tolerated, appeased or rewarded.

Supporters applaud as Keir Starmer, the leader of Britain’s Labour Party, makes his speech at the party’s annual conference in Liverpool, England, September 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Jon Super)

This “purge” of the left was epitomized by the manner in which Starmer used Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s decision to call a snap election to remove some of his hard-left critics as parliamentary candidates while promoting his moderate allies instead. Among their number is a phalanx of Jewish and pro-Israel rising stars, such as Luke Akehurst, a leading figure on the Labour right and former director of the grassroots campaign group We Believe In Israel, and Josh Simons, ex-head of the pro-Starmer Labour Together think tank.

“I think Labour under Keir Starmer has fulfilled his promise to tackle antisemitism in the party in a serious, effective way,” said one Jewish community figure granted anonymity to speak about politics. “In many respects, he has gone further than he needed to or than anyone expected — the recent pattern of handing safe seats to Jewish and pro-Israel candidates is an example.”

What’s under the moderate veneer?

For his critics on the far left and in the Conservative Party, Starmer is little more than an opportunist. The former believe he won the Labour leadership on a false left-wing prospectus and then yanked it to the right. The latter contend that, beneath the moderate veneer, lies a “flip-flopper” who simply cannot be trusted.

Certainly, there are seeming paradoxes in Starmer’s career. He first made his name as an attorney who mainly worked on criminal defense cases and specialized in human rights. But then he became a tough-minded director of public prosecutions and head of the Crown Prosecution Service, pursuing a series of counter-terrorism cases.

As party leader, the liberal North London former lawyer has made the pursuit of conservative working-class voters in once solidly Labour “red wall” seats his overriding priority. As a result, Starmer has touted his support for Britain’s nuclear deterrent, pledged to crack down on crime, and rarely appears without the UK’s Union Jack flag behind him.

And, despite serving in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet for three years, Starmer has become a scourge of antisemitism and arch-foe of the far left.

In reality, however, Starmer’s record, beliefs and roots are far more complex. “Human rights and effective protection from terrorism are not incompatible,” he argued after the 2017 London bombings. “On the contrary, they go hand in hand.” Starmer noted, for instance, that, when he was Britain’s top prosecutor pursuing terrorism cases, “the fact that suspects’ pre-trial rights had been observed… knocked out any possibility of a challenge to the prosecution as ‘unfair.’”

As to his background, Starmer’s University of Oxford postgraduate degree and stellar legal career rather obscures the fact that his father was a toolmaker and mother a nurse. The lower middle-class family were staunch Labour supporters and young Keir was an activist in the party’s youth wing.

And Starmer’s relationship with Corbyn was never a meeting of minds. In 2016, he joined a revolt of Labour MPs against their leader and resigned his frontbench post. When Corbyn was then re-elected by party members, the fiercely pro-European Starmer accepted his offer to become Labour’s spokesperson on Brexit. He now says he campaigned for Labour in 2019 because he wanted to see moderate colleagues re-elected and did so safe in the knowledge that Corbyn’s unpopularity meant there was no chance of him becoming prime minister.

Starmer’s hatred of antisemitism also has a personal element. His wife, Victoria, is Jewish, the family are members of London’s Liberal Jewish Synagogue, and Friday night dinners, the Labour leader says, are strictly guarded.

Britain’s Labour Party leader Keir Starmer arrives with his wife Victoria Starmer to attend the Platinum Jubilee Pageant outside Buckingham Palace in London, June 5, 2022. (Ben Stansall/Pool Photo via AP)

Like any individual on the verge of becoming prime minister, Starmer is undoubtedly ruthlessly ambitious. Before entering parliament, he is believed, for instance, to have turned down a seat in the House of Lords because it would have effectively precluded him from reaching the pinnacle of power; not since 1902 has a prime minister sat in the unelected second chamber.

But, unlike Corbyn, Starmer is no ideologue with a worldview shaped by the politics of the late 1960s New Left. Before being Labour leader, he appears to have largely subscribed to the thinking of the party’s “soft left” wing but he was never closely associated with any faction. Like a number of his predecessors, Starmer has swung to the right after assuming the party’s top job, as his focus has shifted to winning the support of those who have deserted Labour in the last four general elections.

Echoes of Harold Wilson

Although named after Labour’s first leader, Keir Hardie, the predecessor Starmer perhaps most closely resembles is Harold Wilson. Wilson, who served as Labour leader in 1963-1976, also ended a long stretch of Conservative rule by winning, albeit narrowly, the 1964 general election. He would go on to beat the Tories three more times. Unsurprisingly, Starmer has seemed keen to invite comparisons with the pragmatic, unthreatening and reassuring figure of Wilson.

That comparison should be a comforting one for Britain’s Jews.

Wilson traveled light ideologically but consistently proved a staunch friend to the community and ally to Israel.

During a short spell out of office in the early 1970s, for instance, Wilson led the charge against the then-Conservative government’s decision during the Yom Kippur War to ban arms sales to both Israel and the Arab aggressors who had attacked it.

A banner reading ‘Keir Starmer: Will Labour Stop Arming Israel?’ is hung over the side of Westminster Bridge, in front of the Palace of Westminster, in London on June 3, 2024. (Henry Nicholls/AFP)

Like the last two Labour prime ministers, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Wilson was “a strong friend to the Jewish state,” said Michael Rubin, director of Labour Friends of Israel.

Confident that Starmer will follow in their footsteps, Rubin cited a speech Starmer delivered to LFI in which he “rightly condemned anti-Zionist antisemitism as the antithesis of the Labour tradition.”

But Rubin said that it is Starmer’s “principled stance” since October 7, when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists murdered 1,200 people in southern Israel and kidnapped 251 to the Gaza Strip, which has shown “just how transformed the party is from the dark days of Corbyn.”

One Jewish community figure believes that Labour’s sympathetic stance towards Israel has lasted “for longer than expected” during the continuing Gaza conflict — which has seen 38,000 Palestinians killed according to unverified figures released by the Hamas-led Gaza health ministry, which does not differentiate between civilians and combatants — “given the pressure that [the party] will have been feeling from their grass roots [and] the challenge from Muslim voters.”

In an interview during the election campaign, Starmer — who is so intensely private that he never publicly refers to his children’s first names — briefly touched on the family’s Israeli relatives. No one was directly affected by October 7. “Thank God,” he told The Guardian. But he hinted they had been affected by the war. “No doubt about that.”

Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, right, and Labour Party leader Keir Starmer pass through the Peer’s Lobby to attend the State Opening of Parliament, at the Palace of Westminster in London, November 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant, Pool, File)

Passing the political football

Starmer’s current position couples support for a ceasefire and calls for greater humanitarian aid with an insistence that Israel has a right to defend itself, the hostages must be released and Hamas “cannot form part of the government of a Palestinian state.” As such, it largely echoes that of the current Conservative government.

This positioning reflects Starmer’s desire not to turn an international crisis into a domestic political football — a stark contrast with the Corbyn years when Labour wasn’t willing to provide a united political front even during the 2017 London terror attacks or when Russian agents used nerve agents during a botched assassination attempt in the southern English city of Salisbury a year later.

Like the UK government, Labour’s position has also broadly tracked that of the Biden administration. That’s likely to continue in office. Corbyn’s hostility to the West and sympathy for the “anti-imperialist” “global south” would likely have shattered Britain’s longstanding “special relationship” with the United States.

Starmer’s team, however, has an altogether far more Atlanticist hue — David Lammy, the party’s likely foreign secretary, studied at Harvard and is well-connected in Washington — and a greater concern with defense and national security issues.

Starmer has pledged to “emulate and enhance” the Blair-Brown government’s relationship with Israel and the Jewish community.

The party has repeatedly made clear its opposition to the BDS movement and its clearsighted view of the threat posed by Iran both in the region and domestically. While the government has shied away from proscribing Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Lammy has called for tougher action, a message that was repeated in the party’s recent manifesto which, citing the IRGC, said Labour would “take the approach used for dealing with non-state terrorism and adapt it to deal with state-based domestic security threats.”

Crucially, the party’s apparent determination to ban the IRGC — if necessary by passing new legislation — is backed by both its likely home and foreign secretaries. (Tory Home Office ministers backed proscription but were blocked by the Foreign Office, which feared complicating Britain’s diplomatic ties with Iran).

Pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel demonstrators protest outside of a speech by Labour leader Keir Starmer at Chatham House in central London on October 31, 2023. (Daniel LEAL / AFP)

Stance on the declaration of a Palestinian state

Like the Blair-Brown governments, Starmer has returned to a more balanced and evenhanded approach toward its support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Labour’s manifestos in 2017 and 2019 pledged the party would unilaterally and “immediately” recognize a Palestinian state. But Labour has now adopted a more nuanced position. “We are committed to recognising a Palestinian state as a contribution to a renewed peace process which results in a two-state solution with a safe and secure Israel alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state,” it states.

Questioned on the topic in a radio interview during the election campaign, Starmer emphasized that Israel “needs to be safe and secure” and “it is not at the moment.”

“There really isn’t a huge amount to choose between Labour’s position on the recognition of a Palestinian state as part of the negotiating process towards a two-state solution and that of the Conservative Party and the policy of the Foreign Office under Lord Cameron,” said Dr. James Vaughan of Aberystwyth University, an expert on British policy towards the Middle East.

“For more radical approaches to the current conflict and the question of Palestinian statehood, you are really looking more towards the Liberal Democrats or the Greens,” he said. “Starmer’s stated policy on Israel/Palestine appears to be far more in the tradition of Gordon Brown’s manifesto pledges in 2010 than the anti-Israeli radicalism of his immediate predecessor.”

Reports during the election campaign further emphasized Labour’s shift away from any unilateral action on Palestinian statehood, with Starmer apparently only keen to act in “coordination with allies.”

Starmer has also attempted to avoid being drawn into the controversies surrounding the International Court of Justice probe into South Africa’s allegations that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza and the International Criminal Court application for arrest warrants against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, as well as Hamas’s leaders. While emphasizing his respect for international law and the independence of the ICC and ICJ, Starmer has nonetheless said: “There’s no equivalence, we’ll never accept equivalence between Hamas and Israel, which has its right to self-defense.”

Anti-Israel protesters hold placards addressed to Britain’s Labour leader Keir Starmer as they walk past his office during the ‘Day of Action for Palestine,’ a march from Chalk Farm to Camden Town, in London, on November 18, 2023. (JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP)

Starmer will enter Downing Street with the enhanced authority of an election-winner. Thanks to his team’s firm grip on candidate selection, the ideological center of the parliamentary party after the general election will undoubtedly be more moderate than that which was elected in 2019 with Corbyn at the helm.

But the new government’s approach towards Israel is unlikely to be without tensions.

“Policy towards Israel is a big challenge for the UK right now, whoever is in power,” said Dr. Toby Greene, a visiting fellow in the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics and a lecturer in the political studies department at Bar-Ilan University. “UK policymakers need to navigate between support for Israel in its fight against the Iran-led axis, and opposing harmful actions and rhetoric of an Israeli government that includes far-right parties.”

But, as Greene notes, the challenge facing Starmer is even greater because of the domestic potency of this issue on the left.

“He wants to avoid undoing his achievements in distancing Labour from the antisemitic Corbyn legacy, but will remain mindful of the importance of Palestinian rights for many in his party and wider left circles,” Greene said.

Greene, author of “Blair, Labour & Palestine: Conflicting Views on Middle East Peace After 9/11,” suggests there are also some parallels with Labour’s last stint in office.

“Like the last Labour government in the wake of the Second Intifada, a Starmer government will be part of an international effort to promote stabilization and recovery,” he said. “The scale of challenge is unprecedented, but there are lessons to be learned from past experience in building up the credibility of the PA, and harnessing the interests of Arab states for promoting stability and normalization.”

Like Blair, Starmer is likely to govern from a position of political strength. If the polls are right, his parliamentary majority will rival the landslides Blair achieved in 1997 and 2001. He has effectively neutered and cast out the hard left, and a weakened Conservative party is likely to provide little by way of political opposition as it seeks to recover from electoral shellshock.

But, like Blair, Starmer will also be keenly aware that — however much voters say they want party politics to stop at the water’s edge — foreign policy has a habit of making waves at home.

Blair’s backing for the US invasion of Iraq and the “war on terror” eventually weakened him politically — although it was Blair’s staunch support for Israel during the 2006 Lebanon war which finally led nervy Labour backbenchers to force their once all-powerful, election-winning leader into an early retirement.

Having learned much from him about winning power, Starmer also won’t forget how Blair ended up losing it.

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