EXCLUSIVE: ‘Apologies were necessary over my role in Corbyn’s team, but judge me by my actions now’

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EXCLUSIVE: ‘Apologies were necessary over my role in Corbyn’s team, but judge me by my actions now’

Sir Keir Starmer tells Jewish News’ political editor Lee Harpin his party has undergone a seismic shift under his watch – and shares his seder secrets.

Lee Harpin is the Jewish News's political editor

Sir Keir Starmer has admitted “apologies were necessary” over his role in Jeremy Corbyn’s top team during Labour’s antisemitism crisis, but has urged the community to judge him now on his “actions taken” as party leader.

In an exclusive interview with Jewish News, Starmer insisted there had been a “considerable shift” in Labour’s ideology as a result of his leadership, both in the “battle against antisemitism” and through his zero- tolerance of MPs and party members challenging his emphatic pro-Nato stance in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Demanding recognition of the scale of the changes he has instilled in the party since replacing Corbyn two years ago, the leader of the opposition claimed: “I think every MP, every member, and every supporter now knows very, very clearly where this party stands, on antisemitism and on Nato.

“Whether it’s antisemitism or this false equivalence in relation to Russian aggression and the actions of Nato, I think it’s been very important for me to lead from the front, to be very clear what this Labour Party under my leadership stands for, and what we will tolerate, and what we won’t tolerate.”

“I think every MP, every member and every supporter now knows very, very clearly where this party stands, on antisemitism and on Nato.

Asked whether he felt he still needed to apologise to the community for the years between 2016 and 2020 – the period during which he served as Corbyn’s shadow secretary of state for exiting the European Union – Starmer said: “I think apologies were necessary, but equally, if not more important, is what action has been taken in relation to deal with antisemitism. And I hope people can see that the words I used have been matched by the actions I’ve taken.”

In a wide-ranging conversation, Starmer also admitted that the next month’s local elections in England and Wales, which include Jewish-populated councils such as Barnet, and Bury in Greater Manchester, would provide a clear indication on the success of his attempt to win back the community to Labour.

“I take nothing for granted, I know I’ve got to earn every vote,” the human rights lawyer replied when asked if he believed his party could finally triumph in Barnet and hold onto the Red Wall seat of Bury. “But to me, it matters whether those who stop voting for Labour because of antisemitism feel now that they’re safe and confident in voting for Labour, because that’s the test I set myself.”

“I take nothing for granted, I know I’ve got to earn every vote,

Starmer said he wanted to thank the community for giving him the “space to bring about change” after he pledged to “tear up antisemitism by its roots” in the party, in his first speech after becoming leader.

“I knew I had to follow that up with action,” he said. “Lots of Jewish colleagues and friends and many in the community said to me: ‘I like the words Keir, but I need to see the action.’

“That’s what we were doing in the past two years. And I hope people have seen the action we’re taking, and I’m very grateful to so many people in the Jewish community who gave me the space to show I was going to bring about that change.”

“Lots of Jewish colleagues and friends and many in the community said to me: ‘I like the words Keir, but I need to see the action.

Turning his attention to issues outside of the UK, Starmer spoke of his revulsion, both at the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and of those who have committed terrorist atrocities in Israel over the past
two weeks.

Asked for his thoughts on the Palestinian groups such as Hamas, which had issued statements celebrating last Thursday’s terror attack in Tel Aviv that killed three and injured several others, Starmer said: “We should all be condemning those acts without reservation. And I do. I think of the individuals and their families and their communities that are affected by this. Nobody, but nobody, should be supporting that.”

Starmer spoke to Jewish News after his appearance last Friday at a London Labour campaign event for party members, which included many from the Jewish Labour Movement, designed to spur them on ahead of next month’s local government elections.

It was no coincidence the event took place at Barnet College because although Labour won’t officially admit it, the Council is viewed by party chiefs as one of the key “could win from the Tories” at the elections on 5 May.

On the local doorsteps, Labour is aiming to capitalise on widespread concerns over a cost of living crisis, claims the Conservatives are no longer a low-tax party, and continued anger over the Downing Street “Partygate” scandal.

As the election draws nearer, Starmer’s political opponents, some from within the community, have once again attempted to highlight his past record serving in Corbyn’s top team.

There are repeated claims Starmer failed to speak out properly against the former leader as Jewish MPs, such as Luciana Berger and Louise Ellman (who has subsequently rejoined the party), were hounded out of Labour by anti-Jewish racists.

Photographs from the Corbyn era can be used to show Starmer looking relaxed alongside the former leader, although claims they were friends at any time appear to be wide of the mark. Asked by Jewish News if he considered Corbyn a friend, Starmer’s quickfire response was a one-word answer of “no”.

Asked by Jewish News if he considered Corbyn a friend, Starmer’s quickfire response was a one-word answer of “no”.

And a scan through records of newspaper reports from the Corbyn era confirms that Starmer did make some noise over the on-going fallout with the Jewish community, including in a shadow cabinet session the day after the Enough Is Enough protest in Parliament Square on 27 March 2018, during which he berated the then leader for failing to engage properly over the issue.

That April, Starmer had attacked Unite general secretary Len McCluskey after he claimed Corbyn was being “smeared” with antisemitism claims. Starmer hit back, suggesting that those who denied the party had an issue with antisemitism were “part of the problem”.

In an appearance on BBC’s Andrew Marr Show in October 2019, when asked by the presenter if he was suggesting Dame Louise Ellman had been wrong to quit Labour after citing Corbyn’s failure on antisemitism, Starmer admitted: “I am not saying she is wrong.”

But he told Marr he believed “personalising” the issue purely around Corbyn would not “take us far.” Starmer then conceded to Marr: “We have got an issue with antisemitism in the party, we’ve got a problem that there is antisemitism. We’ve got a bigger problem that some people don’t acknowledge it. “

A senior BBC source also confirmed to Jewish News that on more than a dozen occasions, Starmer appeared on programmes such as Radio 4’s Today and when questioned on Corbyn’s failure on anti-Jewish racism, he failed to come to the leader’s defence.

But others, including MPs who were familiar with Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, continue to suggest Starmer was often “too timid” and “too much like a thoughtful lawyer” in his showdowns with Corbyn on the issue.

“It is incorrect to say Starmer did not speak out at all on antisemitism,” one senior Jewish Labour figure said this week. “It would be more accurate to say he failed to speak up loudly enough at a time when Luciana Berger and Louise Ellman decided enough was enough and walked out of the party.”

Another former MP insisted: “The fact Luciana has yet to rejoin Labour, as many expected her to do, speaks volumes.”

Starmer reiterated to Jewish News this week that, after he became leader on 4 April 2020, he had not been slow to apologise for what had previously gone on. “The first thing I did as Labour leader was to apologise to all our Jewish communities in relation to antisemitism,” he stressed.

“I wanted those to be the first words I uttered as Labour leader. I repeated that at the Labour Friends of Israel lunch [in November 2021], and again recently [in an interview last week].”

As he has done previously, Starmer also hailed the return of former Liverpool Riverside MP Ellman as “a clear signal to me we’d made progress”.

Asked if he felt he could have done more to try to convince another high-profile casualty of the party’s antisemitism crisis, Luciana, to return to the Labour fold, Starmer said: “Look,  I think there’s plenty of discussions to be had with Luciana and others who felt driven from our party, because of antisemitism.

“And whether it’s Luciana or anybody else, I want those who felt that they couldn’t be part of the Labour Party any more, to have the confidence, to feel it’s a home for them, and therefore that’s the spirit in which I’d have any conversation with Luciana or any other of the people who have moved away from the Labour Party.”

I want those who felt that they couldn’t be part of the Labour Party any more, to have the confidence, to feel it’s a home for them

Berger, who quit Labour in February 2019, eventually stood unsuccessfully as the Liberal Democrat candidate in Finchley and Golders Green later that year.

One former senior Labour organiser called on Starmer to “do more” to bring MPs previously supportive of Corbyn in line with his ideological stance.

“Yes, Labour must always represent a broad church of opinions,” they added. “But had some of Starmer’s more rebellious Labour MPs been councillors, they would already have been expelled from the party. He’s done the high-profile stuff, but he doesn’t seem willing to take on some of the other MPs who still hang around with really dangerous people.”

But to dwell only on the antisemitism issue as a measure of both Starmer’s credibility and ability would seem dangerous and misguided.

If his first 18 months in charge of Labour were dominated by the national response to the Covid issue, the past few weeks have dragged politicians, as well the public, into the appalling spectre of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine.

Starmer said it was “absolutely abhorrent” to watch Putin level the “Nazi” slur at Volodymyr Zelensky, the Jewish president of Ukraine, while the Russian troops faced allegations of committing war crimes.

His condemnation of Putin stands in stark contrast to the actions of the former Labour leader, who, still with the party whip removed, has refused to distance himself from the anti-Nato stance of the Stop The War group to which he remains attached.

“Putin needs to be held to account and everybody who acts on his behalf needs to be held to account,” the Labour leader said.

He added he was “strongly supportive of military equipment being provided to Ukraine in their courageous defence of their cities and their country”. Starmer also said he was “strongly supportive of even stronger sanctions.” He added: “I also want to be clear that what’s happening in Ukraine are war crimes.

“I also want to be clear that what’s happening in Ukraine are war crimes.

“I want to ensure that, if we do speak with one voice, they are hunted down or they know from this day onwards that they will never have a good night sleep again, knowing they will be held to account in the International Criminal Court.”

Acknowledging that the Jewish community in the UK has been at the forefront of efforts to welcome refugees from the war in Ukraine, Starmer breaks from his call for one national voice to criticise the response of Boris Johnson’s government.

While accepting the premise of providing homes from desperate Ukrainians here, he says the Homes for Ukraine scheme is “too narrow, too slow, and frankly too mean”.

the Homes for Ukraine scheme is “too narrow, too slow, and frankly too mean”.

He added: “I want to see the generosity of the British public matched by the genuine support of the government in relation to this.”

On his approach to Israel, and the unresolved, and unfortunately still violent, conflict with the Palestinians, Starmer’s approach again stands in stark contrast to his predecessor.

Asked for his thoughts on the anti-Zionists who claim Israel has no right to exist, or even call for the destruction of the Jewish state, he says sternly: “I have no truck with that at all, I want to see a safe and secure Israel.”

Even amid the current wave of violence in Israel, Starmer said he still harboured hope for a two-state solution to the conflict, including
the eventual formation of a “sovereign Palestinian state”. He added that while “progress had been halted”, he did not think “we should lose the ambition to make progress”.

He said he would also listen to those Jewish voices that continued to speak out over the impact of the Israeli government’s settlement policy. “In the speech I gave to Labour Friends of Israel, I made very clear my support of Israel and determination to tear-up antisemitism,” said Starmer. “But there was a passage in the middle of that where I said, if we’re going to be friends, we need to be honest.

“And I dealt with the question of settlements and other issues that need to be resolved.”

He also confirmed that his first visit to Israel as Labour leader, postponed last year after he contracted Covid, is now being rescheduled.
He said his “extended family in Israel” meant that “we’re very close through the family to what’s happening on the ground”.

Turning to the topic of seder night, Starmer, whose wife Victoria is Jewish, revealed he was “looking forward” to spending tomorrow  evening with “family and friends”. He said they both wanted their son and daughter “to know the tradition, know the family history, and therefore we do have these special moments”.

He reconfirmed how the family was used to “quite often” hosting Friday night Shabbat dinners at which prayers were said. “My wife’s father’s family is Jewish and he comes very often to us on a Friday night,” he said.

My wife’s father’s family is Jewish and he comes very often to us on a Friday night

Discussing the Pesach menu, Starmer said he was a fan of matzah, but on bitter herbs he admitted: “Whether they would be first on my list is another matter.”

He opened up about his thoughts on another big question being mulled over by north London’s Jewish community – who will grab the fourth place Champions League slot  in the Premier League: his beloved Arsenal, or their bitter rivals, Spurs.

Speaking one day before Arsenal slumped to a home defeat against Brighton, and Spurs romped to victory away at Aston Villa, Starmer said: “So you have left the toughest question for last. It’s going to be Arsenal.”

The politician, a season ticket at the Emirates, revealed he would be attending the 12 May  game at Tottenham’s stadium against Arsenal with family and with David Lammy, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, a massive Spurs fan.

Although he said there was “usually a unity of messaging” with Lammy, he admitted to having “a feeling the messaging might go in different directions” at the match.

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