ELECTION INTERVIEW Keir Starmer: My cast-iron pledge to Britain’s Jews

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ELECTION INTERVIEW Keir Starmer: My cast-iron pledge to Britain’s Jews

Ahead of the general election, the Labour leader tells Jewish News his party in power would be 'as ruthless' in fighting antisemitism 'as we have been in opposition'

Lee Harpin is the Jewish News's political editor

Keir Starmer, Leader of the Labour Party, meets with Holocaust survivors at the Holocaust Educational Trust Holocaust Memorial Day Parliamentary Reception, in Westminster, London. Picture date: Wednesday January 17 2024.
Keir Starmer, Leader of the Labour Party, meets with Holocaust survivors at the Holocaust Educational Trust Holocaust Memorial Day Parliamentary Reception, in Westminster, London. Picture date: Wednesday January 17 2024.

Sir Keir Starmer has delivered a “cast-iron pledge” to British Jews that, if elected to Downing Street, he will continue the same “ruthless” fight against antisemitism that he waged in opposition.

Speaking to Jewish News after meeting Jewish voters during a visit to Barnet, the Labour leader pledged: “We have been ruthless in the last four and a half years in changing the Labour Party. We will be as ruthless in government as we have been in opposition. The changes I have made to Labour are permanent.”

In an impassioned interview, Starmer, aiming to be Britain’s first Labour prime minister for 14 years, revealed he would seek to “invite other political parties to join us” in the fight against Jew-hate, if he secures victory on 4 July.

In thinly-veiled criticism of the way the Conservatives had approached battling against racism directed at Jews, Starmer said the issue should never be one dealt with on a “party political basis.”

Speaking from the Oak Caffe in Whetstone, Barnet, Starmer confirmed he would match the current government’s funding commitment to the Community Security Trust of £70 million over the next four years, in order to protect synagogues, Jewish schools, and other communal events across the country.

Turning to foreign policy issues, Starmer stressed his support for the independence of the International Criminal Court (ICC) as its prosecutor seeks warrants for the arrests of Hamas leaders, and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and his defence minister.

But Starmer was also critical of chief prosecutor Karim Khan’s comments last weekend in a Sunday Times interview in which he compared the actions of Hamas with those of the IRA, saying he did not believe “comparisons like that are very helpful at all.”

The Labour also admitted he was “deeply concerned” about the impact of the 7 October Hamas terror attacks, and Israel’s subsequent response in Gaza on community relations in this country, adding it was now “vital” work began on efforts to restore trust between British Jews and Muslims.

Inside the cosy confines of the Oak Cafe in Whetstone, north London, Starmer was given a pre-election boost as a group of Jewish local voters, including Board of Deputies vice-president Edwin Shuker, confirmed to the leader that having previously voted elsewhere, they were likely to vote for Chipping Barnet Labour candidate Dan Tomlinson at the general election.

But sitting down later with Jewish News, the Labour leader was reminded that for some in the community, while they recognised what he and others on the front bench had done to turn around Labour since the dark days of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, there was still too much noise from backbench Labour MPs, particularly in terms of hostility towards Israel, that meant they could not bring themselves to back Starmer’s party.

Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party, takes a selfie with a family at the Oak Caffe, Totteridge and Whetstone, London, on the General Election campaign trail. Picture date: Monday May 27, 2024

Or that having talked the talk, and walked the walk while in opposition, was it not the case that once Starmer had moved himself into Downing Street, that he would sideline the fight against antisemitism?

Or perhaps inexplicably, allow those voices that had dragged Labour downwards under Corbyn back into the fold one again?

But pumping his fist onto the cafe table, Starmer responded saying he would give the Jewish community an “absolutely cast iron pledge and commitment” that he would not allow any of these scenarios to happen because “the change that we have made to the Labour Party is permanent.. permanent.”

He continued: “That is a really important thing for me to say. I understand only too well that the fight against antisemitism is never over. Because we must never take our foot off the pedal when it comes to antisemitism.”

Jewish News’ Lee Harpin (left) speaks with Keir Starmer

As a sign of this commitment Starmer confirmed that a Labour government would “match” Rishi Sunak’s recent announcement over funding for the CST.

“We will continue to commit to the CST and match the funding announced by the current government of more than £70 million over the next four years, so we will match that commitment,” he promised.

He stressed that if in government, he would seek to avoid claims his party were treating the Jewish community like a political football in the fight against antisemitism.

“The Tories have a tendency to be divisive in almost everything that they do, because they haven’t got a record they can stand on – they can’t say, ‘You’ve had brilliant leadership through the last five prime ministers’,” he opined.

“But I don’t think things like antisemitism should be dealt with on a party political basis.

“I think there is a genuine consensus across the parties and I would try to perpetuate this, to say, ‘this is not a political football, this is something we can stand on as parties together’.”

Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party, and his wife, Victoria Starmer, after casting their votes in the local and London Mayoral election. Picture date: Thursday May 2, 2024

Starmer pointed out that last year, both he and then Home Secretary Suella Braverman made speeches at the CST’s annual dinner, saying many he met that night had told him how it was important and encouraging to have senior figures from both main political parties present.

Were he to be elected, Starmer confirmed, he would “invite other political parties to join us” in the fight against antisemitism.

He refused also to criticise the police force over their handling of the pro-Palestinian marches that have taken place across the country.

“I acknowledge that this is really difficult for the police on the ground,” he said. “On the one hand they need to allow the protests to take place, but on the other, they have to come down very hard on the elements that are extremist, that are clearly breaking the law, and are antisemitic.”

Often arrests would be made after the event, Starmer said, when officers reviewed video footage although “on the day, it might have appeared that nothing had been done. So I give them my support as they go about what is a very difficult job”.

Chipping Barnet candidate Dan Tomlinson speak to Keir Starmer and local voters in the Oak Caffe

Since the Hamas terror attack, Starmer and those close to him within Labour leadership were quick to express solidarity and support for the state of Israel, and its right to defend itself after the atrocity.

But as Israel’s response drew increased and ever more hostile criticism, Starmer was asked about his view of the ICC prosecutor’s decision to seek warrants, not just for the arrest of Hamas leaders, but also those of Benjamin Netanyahu and his defence minister.

“My position on this is that I’ve long been an adherent to international law, and we have signed up through the Rome Statute to the International Criminal Court, and therefore I support the independence of the court,” he said.

“Now obviously the prosecutor has applied for the warrants, and it will be up to the court to make a decision, though we don’t know when that decision will be.

“I reject the notion that there could ever be an equivalence here. You’re dealing with terrorists in Hamas, and with Israel a state that has got a right to self-defence, so there’s no equivalence at all there. But we’ll have to wait and see what the court decides.”

But asked for his thoughts on comments made by ICC chief prosecutor Karim Khan during an interview with the Sunday Times last weekend, in which he appeared to compare Hamas with the IRA, Starmer was also clear.

“The offensive in Rafah has just got to stop, given the circumstances where you’ve got people who can’t move anywhere, who are now trying to survive safe in places that are designated as safe

“I don’t think comparisons like that are very helpful at all,” he said. “The circumstances are very different, but in the end it will be for the court to look at the material put before it and decide whether it does or does not issue warrants.”

But the Labour leader stressed that he did not believe Israel should continue with its military offensive in Rafah, because the “inevitable consequence” of strikes there would be the loss of innocent lives, regardless of whether Hamas terrorists were being targeted.

“The offensive in Rafah has just got to stop, given the circumstances where you’ve got people who can’t move anywhere, who are now trying to survive safe in places that are designated as safe – that’s exactly why this can’t go ahead, and so my message is, ‘stop’,” he said.

“What happened this week was shocking, this was a safe area, and Israel says it was a mistake, but in a sense it was an inevitable consequence of trying to carry out that sort of operation in that kind of space, and therefore I do think the world has to say stop.”

Starmer stressed that while Labour was no longer committed to immediate recognition of a Palestinian state if elected into government, he believes his party has a “moral obligation” to attempt to spark a renewed diplomatic and political process in the Middle East.

“I do think there is a political and moral obligation on an incoming Labour government to play its part in resolving the conflict in the Middle East,” he said.

“I think that in the last decade or so, political leaders have tended to look away, and that in the past, they have put more political capital into resolving the issues.

“Over a decade ago there were initiatives being put forward, but these have been lost. That’s what I mean by turning a page, being prepared, through a sense of duty to play our full part.”

Keir Starmer at JLM conference at JW3 (pic Ian Vogler)

Starmer, whose wife Victoria is from a Jewish family, and who has relatives living in Israel, also clearly feels a Labour government would also have a duty to attempt to heal divisions between communities in this country in the aftermath of 7 October.

He said he was deeply concerned that relations between Britain’s Jewish and Muslim communities had become strained and that interfaith work which he had supported “didn’t have the strength to withstand the pressures of the last seven months.”

Starmer continued: “Relationships that I thought were stronger, understanding that I thought was deeper… these were not as strong or deep as I thought they were.”

But, he went on: “That means we’ve got to redouble our efforts, and I think it’s vital to do so.”

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