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Gaza war comments, ghosts of past anti-Semitism rows haunt UK’s Labour Party

In Europe, World
February 29, 2024

Voters in the northern English town of Rochdale go to the polls Thursday in a by-election that has roiled the Labour party with a new anti-Semitism controversy. Britain’s main opposition party was the clear favourite until its candidate was disowned for espousing conspiracy theories about Israel. The row recalls the party’s anti-Semitism crisis under its previous leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and comes as current party leader Keir Starmer is at pains to show that Labour has changed.

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Triggered by last month’s death of the sitting Labour MP Tony Lloyd, the Rochdale vote comes a fortnight after two other by-elections, in which Labour seized two seats from the ruling Conservatives. But it has been overshadowed by the type of controversy that Britain’s main opposition party was supposed to have put firmly in the past.

Over the weekend of February 10-11, it emerged that Labour’s candidate for Rochdale, Azhar Ali, had voiced an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory in the wake of the October 7 Hamas attacks. In the shocking remarks, made at a meeting of the local Lancashire Labour Party and obtained by the Mail on Sunday through a leaked recording, Ali claimed that Israel deliberately let the Hamas atrocities happen in order to have the “green light” to invade Gaza. While Israel did dismiss prior warnings about the Hamas attacks, there is no evidence that it knowingly let its own citizens be massacred.

For 48 hours, Labour stood by Ali, who issued an “unreserved” apology for his comments. But on February 12, after more of his anti-Semitic remarks came to light, the party suspended him and withdrew its support for his candidacy. However, the deadline had already passed to field another Labour candidate – meaning that if elected, Ali will have to sit as an independent MP in the House of Commons. To make matters worse, a second Labour parliamentary candidate, Graham Jones, had to be suspended the following day after a leaked recording emerged of him making anti-Israel comments at the same meeting as Ali.

When quizzed about the Ali debacle, party leader Starmer found himself on the back foot. “When I say the Labour Party has changed under my leadership, I mean it,” he insisted, referring implicitly to anti-Semitism.

Getting to grips with anti-Semitism

Ever since Starmer took over as Labour leader in April 2020, the 61-year-old centrist has made it a priority to get to grips with the party’s anti-Semitism problem, which reached crisis levels under his predecessor Corbyn. Starmer has come down hard on Labour MPs caught in controversy, as seen with last year’s suspension of left-winger Diane Abbott for minimising anti-Semitism in a letter to The Observer newspaper.

This month’s suspension of the two candidates suggests that Labour “is taking the issue very, very seriously”, said Steven Fielding, emeritus professor of political history at the University of Nottingham. “But there are still people in the party who at the very least are committing potentially anti-Semitic tropes, which the conspiracy talk [by Ali] clearly was.” 

He added: “There are still people on the left of the Labour Party who confuse Israel with Jews and conflate the two things together. It’s not so much [that] they are traditionally anti-Semitic, but they see Israel as part of the imperialist order backed by the United States.”

The shadow of Corbyn

During the leadership of left-winger Corbyn, from September 2015 to April 2020, Labour was plagued by allegations of anti-Semitism at all levels. Despite Corbyn’s denials, the controversies kept on coming: from Corbyn’s past defence of an anti-Semitic mural on social media, to Labour’s reluctance to embrace the full International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism. Corbyn, a self-described socialist and lifelong supporter of the Palestinian cause, was also tainted by his past associations, such as inviting Hamas and Hezbollah representatives to parliament in 2009 and introducing them as “friends” – a term he only repudiated in 2016.

Watch moreBritain’s Labour Party: No home for Jews?

In October 2020, after a 16-month investigation, the UK’s human rights watchdog issued a damning report which found “serious failings in leadership and an inadequate process for handling anti-Semitism complaints across the Labour Party”. Starmer, now party leader, apologised to the Jewish community and vowed a “culture change” in Labour. This happened swiftly: Corbyn was suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party and the wider Labour Party for failing to fully accept the report’s findings.

A few weeks later, Labour’s ruling body readmitted Corbyn as a party member. But crucially, Starmer refused to “restore the whip” to his predecessor, meaning that Corbyn has to suffer the indignity of sitting as an independent MP. And in February 2023, Starmer announced that Corbyn would not be allowed to stand as a Labour MP at the next general election. The vote is expected to take place later this year, with Labour currently holding a double-digit lead over the ruling Conservatives in the polls.

As Fielding noted, anti-Semitism “was one of the issues that lost Labour the last election”, in a massive defeat under Corbyn in December 2019. Starmer “does not want to give anybody any grounds for claiming that he or his party is anti-Semitic”, Fielding explained. “As the Rochdale by-election has proven, [Labour is] willing to throw away a seat in order to make a stand on that issue,” he added.

But electoral calculations are only part of the story. Starmer’s wife Victoria is Jewish and the couple occasionally take their two children to the synagogue. In his new book “Keir Starmer: The Biography”, journalist Tom Baldwin recounts how at the height of Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis, Starmer began to feel the heat personally. He is quoted as saying: “People I had got to know a bit at the synagogue would come up to me, asking, ‘What’s happened to your party? Why can’t you do something? Are you embarrassed to be a Labour MP?’ I would go home feeling angry.”

Unease and division over support for Israel 

But Starmer has appeared so keen to distance himself from the party’s past anti-Semitism that he has caused deep unease with his support for Israel in its deadly offensive in Gaza.

Asked in a radio interview four days after the October 7 Hamas attacks whether Israel’s complete siege of Gaza was appropriate, he responded that Israel “does have that right” to cut off electricity and water – something that is prohibited under international law. The interview was particularly disastrous because Starmer is a lawyer by training and former top prosecutor. He later clarified his comments, saying he meant that Israel has “the right to self-defence”.

This position was at odds not only with public opinion, but also with a number of lawmakers within his own party. This disconnect culminated in November 2023, when Labour instructed its MPs to abstain on a motion in the House of Commons calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. Some 56 of 198 Labour MPs rebelled and voted in favour of the motion brought by the Scottish National Party (SNP), leading to the resignation of 10 members of Starmer’s top team. More than 60 Labour councillors have also quit over the leadership’s reluctance to call for an immediate ceasefire.

Fast-forward to February 2024 and there has been a shift in Labour’s position. In mid-December 2023, Starmer aligned himself with the UK government position by calling for a “sustainable ceasefire” in Gaza. Speaking at Scottish Labour’s party conference in Glasgow on February 18, Starmer said a lasting ceasefire “must happen now”. On February 20, Labour officially adopted the position of calling for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire”. The following day saw chaotic scenes in the Commons, with Starmer accused of pressuring the speaker to prioritise a Labour ceasefire motion over an SNP one in order to stave off another rebellion.

Cost-of-living crisis, not Gaza war, tops voters’ priorities

Back in Rochdale, Labour’s disowned candidate Ali remains on the ballot and “could still win”, Fielding noted. But populist firebrand George Galloway, a vocal critic of Israel who is standing for the Workers Party of Britain, is now the bookmakers’ favourite to take the seat. Some 30 percent of Rochdale’s population is Muslim. Galloway is openly courting those votes by focusing his campaign on the war in Gaza and channelling voters’ anger at Labour over its handling of the conflict. 

Neither candidate spells good news for Britain’s Jewish community. Galloway is “definitely anti-Israel and he’s definitely not averse to dipping into anti-Semitic waters within the Muslim community”, Fielding said. Anti-Semitic incidents reached an all-time record high in the UK last year, with most of them occurring after October 7.

But Fielding cautioned against seeing Rochdale as a bellwether for the upcoming UK general election. “Even if George Galloway does relatively well [in Rochdale], it’s very unusual circumstances,” he said. For Fielding, Labour’s wider loss of support among Muslim voters “won’t make a significant dent into what most people anticipate will be quite a big Labour majority [in the general election]. But it will cause some local worries”.

And although all of the UK’s House of Commons seats with significant Muslim populations are currently held by Labour, Fielding predicted that “the general election won’t be fought on Israel-Palestine”. Instead, the cost-of-living crisis is expected to be the key issue on voters’ minds: “Muslim voters, who are disproportionately poor [and] in insecure occupations, will benefit most materially from a Labour government. And clearly Israel-Palestine is an issue. But I think that if push comes to shove, if the choice is between Labour and Conservative, then they’ll vote for Labour.” He noted that some voters might still choose an “independent pro-Palestine candidate” as a protest vote if a Labour victory seems inevitable.

Notwithstanding Starmer’s belated change in position over Gaza, the Labour Party appears well aware of this electoral calculus. “The assumption is that Muslim voters might not like it, but they’ll still vote Labour, come the [general] election,” Fielding said of Starmer’s policy on Israel. Yet with the Conservative Party also embroiled in controversy linked to the conflict, one thing is for sure: the Israel-Hamas war is likely to permeate British politics for some time to come.

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