Britain’s main opposition Labour party on Saturday said that Keir Starmer had been elected as its new leader, replacing Jeremy Corbyn who resigned after its crushing December election defeat.
The 57-year-old former chief state prosecutor won 56.2 percent of the vote of more than 500,000 Labour members, defeating Corbyn loyalist Rebecca Long-Bailey (27.6%) and backbencher Lisa Nandy (16.2%) for the top job. Angela Rayner becomes the new deputy leader.
“Congratulations to @Keir_Starmer, the new Leader of the Labour Party!” the party announced on Twitter after a three-month leadership campaign.
Starmer takes the helm of a defeated and divided party in the midst of the coronavirus crisis.
In his victory speech, Starmer acknowledged the party had “a mountain to climb” after four straight general election defeats. But he vowed: “We will climb it.”
He called it “the honor and privilege” of his life to be elected and vowed to “engage constructively” with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government, particularly in the fight-back against coronavirus.
Jews and anti-Semitism on the agenda
The 57-year-old Starmer apologized to the Jewish community for anti-Semitism in Labour’s ranks, calling it a “stain” and pledging to stamp it out.
“We have to face the future with honesty,” he said. “On behalf of the Labour Party, I am sorry… I have seen the grief that [anti-Semitism] brought to so many Jewish communities.
“I will tear out this poison by its roots and judge success by the return of Jewish members and those who felt that they could no longer support us.”
Starmer has previously said he would take action to eliminate prejudice against Jews in his party “on day one” in order to demonstrate “the difference that new leadership will make on the issue.”
He has also said he would look to fully cooperate with the Equalities and Human Rights Commission’s report into anti-Semitism in the party, which is currently in the works, but that he had no intention of waiting for its results in order to take action.
It’s the honour and privilege of my life to be elected as Leader of the Labour Party.
I will lead this great party into a new era, with confidence and hope, so that when the time comes, we can serve our country again – in government. pic.twitter.com/F4X088FTYY
— Keir Starmer (@Keir_Starmer) April 4, 2020
Starmer is a former director of state prosecutions and Labour’s Brexit spokesman.
His wife, Victoria Alexander, comes from a Jewish background and through her he has extended family living in Tel Aviv.
“My wife’s family is Jewish. Her dad is Jewish, their family came over from Poland. The extended family live in Israel,” he told Britain’s Jewish News in February.
He has never been to Israel but “we’re in regular contact with them and we’ve got various visits planned, basically to take our kids for the first time.”
He said he has attended Shabbat dinners with his wife’s relatives on numerous occasions and visited London synagogues to attend family bar mitzvahs and weddings.
During a campaign event organized by the Jewish Labour Movement, other party leadership candidates said they were “Zionists” while Starmer was hesitant.
“I do support Zionism,” he later told Jewish News. “I absolutely support the right of Israel to exist as a homeland. My only concern is that Zionism can mean slightly different things to different people, and… to some extent it has been weaponized. I wouldn’t read too much into that. I said it loud and clear — and meant it — that I support Zionism without qualification.”
He also told the Jewish Chronicle: “If the definition of ‘Zionist’ is someone who believes in the state of Israel, in that sense I’m a Zionist.”
Starmer is a member of Labour Friends of Palestine & the Middle East, a parliamentary group that promotes support for the Palestinians and campaigns for “peace and justice in the Middle East through the implementation of international law and respect for human rights.”
Still, it was particularly his personal ties to Judaism that brought Starmer under criticism by some for failing to do enough against anti-Semitism while serving in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet. Some even accused him of seeking to hide his connection to Judaism while the issue was contentious within Labour.
Starmer drew criticism in 2017 when he invited a controversial anti-Israel charity to speak to the House of Commons. The Camden Abu Dis Friendship Association has praised Palestinian suicide bombers who targeted Israeli civilians during the Second Intifada.
The Daily Mail on Saturday published comments reportedly made by the late London Rabbi Dr. David Goldberg, who died last year of cancer. A friend of Goldberg said the rabbi had told him he was “very disappointed with Keir Starmer.
“Particularly as his wife and children are members of my synagogue. It’s their community which is under threat and yet he’s done so little. It’s pathetic,” Goldberg’s friend quoted him as saying.
Healing a divided party
The announcement of Starmer’s election was a low-key affair, with a planned special conference cancelled due to restrictions on social gatherings imposed to stem the spread of COVID-19.
Instead, the result was put out in a press release mid-morning — and candidates were asked to pre-record their victory speeches.
Smart and studious, but accused of lacking charisma, Starmer has vowed to get the party back in shape after December’s general election, when it suffered its worst result since the 1930s.
Conservative Prime Minister Johnson triumphed by winning parliamentary seats in Labour’s former industrial heartlands.
It was Corbyn’s second election defeat — the fourth for Labour since it left office in 2010 — and he was forced to resign.
Starmer has now promised to unite the party after years of bitter arguments about Corbyn’s socialist agenda, Brexit and the leadership’s handling of claims of anti-Semitism.
“We get the chance to rebuild our party and our movement and, more importantly than that, the chance to put Labour where it needs to be back, which is back in power,” Starmer had told supporters on a video conference call on Thursday.
Starmer says he is a socialist driven by the desire to reduce inequality, but his pragmatic approach has attracted support from centrists in the party — and suspicions on the left.
Anti-Semitism under Corbyn
Accusations of anti-Semitism within party ranks plagued Labour under Corbyn’s leadership, and are seen as a significant factor in its crushing defeat in December’s elections.
British Jews deserted the party in droves because they believed that Labour had become institutionally anti-Semitic under Corbyn, a pro-Palestinian politician who was elected to lead the party in 2015, with widespread accusations that Corbyn himself was an anti-Semite — something he denied.
Corbyn was accused of failing to deal with hundreds of incidents of anti-Semitism within his party. A number of former party officials accused him and his allies of interfering in efforts to address the issue, in a BBC program aired this summer.
Corbyn has come under prolonged attack — including from within the party — for allegedly allowing anti-Semitism to spread in the party and for initially refusing to adopt fully the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism in Labour’s new code of conduct.
Much of the fear of Corbyn was spurred by revelations about his past record that emerged after he became Labour leader. These included him describing Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends”; defending an anti-Semitic mural in East London; and a seeming willingness to associate with alleged anti-Semites, terrorists and Holocaust-deniers.
‘Bad blood and mistrust’
Labour grew out of the trade union movement but moved to the political center under former prime minister Tony Blair, who was in office between 1997 and 2007.
Corbyn had spent a lifetime on the sidelines because of his left-wing views, and his election as leader, on the back of a huge surge in party membership, was a shock.
MPs and party members have been locked in an ideological battle ever since.
“There’s really a lot of bad blood and mistrust,” said Steven Fielding, a political expert at the University of Nottingham. “The first challenge [of the new leader] will be to put a team together that at least looks like it has the ability to unify the party.”
Winning back voters who defected to the Conservatives is also top of the list if Labour has any hope of victory at the next election, currently scheduled for 2024.
Brexit was a toxic issue for the party, torn between euroskeptic supporters in many northern English towns and pro-EU voters in the big cities such as London.
Starmer was opposed to Brexit and played a key role in moving Labour to support a second referendum on leaving the European Union.
However, voters were not convinced and Johnson took Britain out of the bloc on January 31.
The coronavirus outbreak has brought a more immediate challenge.
Johnson’s government has imposed draconian curbs on public movement to try to stop the spread — measures backed by Labour, although it successfully pressed for more parliamentary scrutiny of new police powers.
The Conservatives have also promised eye-watering sums to keep businesses and individuals afloat, wading into traditional Labour territory.
In response, Johnson’s popularity ratings have shot up.
A YouGov survey last week found that 55 percent of the public had a favorable opinion of him, up from 43% a week earlier.
Some 72% thought the government was doing well — including a majority of Labour voters.
Ministers have been on the back foot in recent days, however, over the lack of testing for coronavirus and inadequate protection equipment for healthcare staff.
Labour has been pressing the issues, and Starmer said this would continue.
“My instinct will be to be constructive but to ask the difficult questions,” he told the Guardian podcast this week.