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Does Labour still have a problem with anti-semitism?

Peter Ladd

Keir Starmer shutterstock

It hadn't been a great week for Keir least, not until last night's by-election results.

First, Labour abandoned one of its biggest pledges, rowing back from its promise to spend £28 billion a year on green policies, despite Keir Starmer saying earlier in the week that he was standing by it and that the investment was “desperately needed.”

Then over the weekend it came to light that their by-election candidate in Rochdale, Azhar Ali had made antisemitic remarks. Initially unwilling to abandon what ought to have been a routine by-election win, Shadow Cabinet members campaigned for him and defended him in public, until eventually public pressure meant an embarrassing volte-face.

(Incidentally, as nominations for the seat had closed, Labour cannot withdraw Mr Alim’s name from the ballot paper and replace him with someone else, meaning that he appears as a Labour candidate despite their distancing from him.)

And on Wednesday night, a new poll from Savanta, conducted last weekend, suggested that the Labour lead over the Conservatives, while still substantial, had dropped from 19 points to 12, with its vote share now the lowest it had been since September 2022 (around the time the Tories imploded under Liz Truss).

The Labour lead has seemed insurmountable for months (indeed, it almost certainly still is!). But again and again, both commentators and campaigners have noted how it seems to be based on justifiable frustration and anger at the Conservatives for years of mismanagement, rather than enthusiasm for Keir Starmer and the Labour party.

Footballers sometimes joke that in the eyes of supporters, a player always improves when they are out of the team. When you’re not on the pitch, you can’t be blamed: everyone else is responsible for the mistakes which occur.

Arguably it’s a similar effect in politics. It’s all very well being in Opposition, where you can make pledges and promises about how you will improve things for the better. For Labour (or whoever wins the next election), the proof will be in the pudding.

The Conservatives are experiencing this at the moment. Rishi Sunak made five pledges at the start of January 2023, but being in power means he actually has to fulfil them. So far, it’s not going too well: the Rwanda plan is in limbo; hospital waiting lists continue to rise; and now we hear the news that the UK economy officially entered recession at the end of last year.

And Keir Starmer is already attracting plenty of attention for politically-convenient ‘changes of mind’ and backtracking on his word. From backing Jeremy Corbyn; campaigning for a second referendum; scrapping the two-child cap on child benefits; introducing Self-ID; and now the Green Economy pledge.

Changing your mind isn’t a sign of weakness. Infact being able to admit mistakes is a very good thing. It’s only right that when circumstances change, we adapt to them. But when it’s happening so much that your political opponents are able to launch their own brand of ‘Keir Starmer Flip-Flops’, you’ve got a problem: you reach the stage where no-one really knows what you think, or what you believe in.

Can a voter really have confidence in Labour when they keep changing what they say they will do? Is Keir Starmer playing the political game, or leading by his principles? (The reality, as with almost every politician, is surely somewhere in the middle).

In some ways, the Rochdale incident earlier this week encapsulates the problem perfectly.

Azhar Ali was exposed as having said some pretty horrendous things. The first recording printed by the Mail last weekend revealed that Ali, about the October 7th attacks on Israel by Hamas, said: “They deliberately took the security off, they allowed...that massacre that gives them the green light to do whatever they bloody want.” The attacks, which saw around 1,200 men, women and children killed, and more than 200 taken as hostages.

Later comments were exposed in which, in a typical anti-semitic trope, he blamed "people in the media from certain Jewish quarters" for the suspension of a pro-Palestinian MP, and in which he boasted about stopping Israeli flags from being raised at public buildings after the attack on October 7th.

There is no suggestion that Labour were aware of Azhar Ali’s views when they nominated him as their candidate. But ultimately, when they were originally faced with a decision of following their principles (which would have meant losing the by-election) or following power, they initially made the wrong choice and sent in their big hitters to defend Ali. Whatever rhetoric has been uttered since his suspension from the Labour Party about “swift action”, it came two days later than it should have done.

(Incidentally, when the Labour candidate in a council by-election, Laura Pascal, tweeted “​​Trans women are not female. By definition they are male” last month, she was suspended for transphobia).

Politicians and political parties have to weigh up all the time whether to be principled or to be pragmatic. The problem for the Labour Party in this case, is that by just about everyone’s agreement, including their own, racism, including anti-semitism, has to fit into the first category, rather than the second.

Anti-semitism has long been a weak spot for the Labour Party, most egregiously under the recent leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Under Corbyn, Jewish members of the Labour Party said that they felt hounded out and were made to feel unsafe; one particularly prominent example was Luciana Berger, the Jewish MP for Liverpool Wavertree, who, upon her resignation, described the Party as being “institutionally anti-Semitic” and said she was “ashamed to remain in the Labour Party.”

To Keir Starmer’s credit, he took immediate steps to rebuild trust with the Jewish community upon being elected leader. Upon his appointment, he said that “Antisemitism has been a stain on our party”, and within three months he had asked a Shadow Cabinet member to resign over it. Corbyn was personally suspended as a Labour MP after claiming that a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission into Labour’s handling of complaints under his leadership had been “dramatically overstated.” Diane Abbott was suspended after claiming that no white person - and she made a direct reference to Jews at this point - could suffer from racism.

Only a few weeks ago, the MP Kate Osamor had the whip suspended for comments she made in relation to Holocaust Memorial Day. This week’s initial backing for Azhar Ali seems to have been an aberration swiftly recognised, rather than the norm.

But Starmer does have his work cut out. In the aftermath of disowning Ali, a second Parliamentary candidate, Graham Jones, was suspended after he said that British volunteers in the Israel Defence Forces should be “locked up.” One newspaper this week claimed there were another five MPs or Parliamentary candidates who face investigation.

I am not for a moment claiming that Labour is unique in facing problems around racism, prejudice and intolerance. It is not. The Conservatives have been accused of Islamophobia in recent years, and elected a Prime Minister who compared women wearing the hijab to letterboxes. A couple of years ago a Liberal Democrat mayor was elected amid accusations of racism. Reform UK’s strong anti-immigration stance has been highly controversial. Even the co-leader of the Green Party had to deny that the party was “institutionally racist” earlier in the year.

Racism - and anti-semitism, for that matter - can be found across society. On Thursday this week, the front pages of both The Times and The Guardian ran headlines on the record-breaking numbers of anti-semitic hate incidents in 2023. 4,103 incidents were recorded, almost double the previous record. Some Jewish schools have been forced to increase security. Just this week I read a story of a comedy show in a Soho theatre, in which the comedian abused a Jewish audience member who refused to applaud a Palestinian flag, and incited those intending to shout “Get out” and “Free Palestine” until they left. Another Jewish witness to what happened said: “It felt like we were welcome in the theatre as long as our identities [as] Jews weren’t known, and the minute our identities were known, we felt threatened.”

How might we process all this from a Christian point of view? While I hesitate to make sweeping statements in an area in which I’m not fully equipped to do so, here are a few principles which I hope will be helpful.

Racism is an evil

Racism is a real evil. The starting point from which we must approach our interactions with any other human being, whether they be friend or foe, male or female, black or white, is that we are all made in God’s image, and are of equal (and infinite) worth and dignity and value. “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them”, as Genesis 1 proclaims, in verses which were fundamental to the civil rights movement in America.

There are no exceptions, and there are no special privileges. Creed and colour do not matter. It is from “every tribe, nation, people and tongue” that the “great multitude” that will stand before the Lamb is drawn. Although this is now largely taken for granted across the world - as a result of Christian teaching filtering through - in its original context, this was a groundbreaking, earth-shattering message. Sadly, Christians have not always modelled this as we should have, whether through the slave trade, apartheid or yes, anti-semitism, of which even the great reformer Martin Luther was a prime culprit.

Indeed, anti-semitism should be a particular type of racism we watch particularly keenly. The Jewish people have been particularly persecuted throughout their history; we see examples of it in the Bible, such as Haman’s attempt to persuade Xerxes to eradicate the Jews in Esther. It has been a stain on European history, in which Jews were hunted in the pogroms of the Middle Ages. And above all, we think of the Holocaust, in which more than 6 million Jews were brutally murdered by the Nazis in an incomparable genocide in world history.

And we know that the Jewish people are particularly close to God’s heart. They are the nation God chose among all the nations, the people he once called his “treasured possession.” We see Jesus Himself lament over Jerusalem. Luke writes, “When Jesus drew near and saw [Jerusalem], He wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace!”. In Matthew 23, He says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”

God loves the Jewish people, whether they live in Israel or across the world. Racism is always an evil we should oppose. And that goes for anti-semitism just as much as any other kind of racism.

Be care­ful where you compromise

No one is expecting a politician to never have to compromise. That’s not how politics works. But there may be a lesson in the events of the last week about what that might look like.

There are times to compromise, and times not to. When Daniel and his friends were taken to Babylon, they served king Nebuchadnezzar, and seemingly didn’t resist being given Babylonian names: Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.

Indeed, these names had a particular meaning, which we might be surprised that they didn’t shy away from. They actually incorporated the names of the Babylonian gods. Belteshazzar means “May Baal protect the King”. Shadrach means “Command of Aku”, even though Aku was the Babylonian god of the moon. Yet there were other points on which they did not compromise: they refused to defile themselves with the royal food and wine, or to bow before the golden statue of Nebuchadnezzar, and Daniel refused to stop praying to Yahweh as commanded by Darius.

There are times to compromise, and times not to. Wisdom is discerning the difference between them: what are the principles on which one cannot compromise.

If Labour is assessing its Green Economy policies, and decides that even though it wants to prioritise stewarding the climate, it just isn’t financially prudent, one can understand why they have changed their mind. But if Labour (temporarily) supports someone who has spouted anti-semitic conspiracy theories because it doesn’t want to lose a by-election, that is different.

Racism should not be a point of compromise in order to gain power.

Free speech has its limits

At CARE, we believe in free speech. God designed human beings as people who communicate. When Jesus appeared announcing the Kingdom of God and restoring what had gone wrong, as part of his healings, he gave a voice to people who are mute. And we recognise that for free speech to work, it has to work for everyone: that means that we might have to put up with things we don’t like said, in return for being able to say things ourselves.

But we also believe in speech that is gracious and good, and we recognise the immense capacity of the tongue for evil and harm. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen”, Paul writes in Ephesians 4. Just because one can say something, it doesn’t mean that one should.

And when it comes to certain positions or roles, it is reasonable to expect that there are limits to free speech. We hold our leaders to higher standards, precisely because they lead. Within the church, for example, leaders are expected to be “blameless”, and to be “self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined.” The Bible is not a political handbook; it does not lay out such requirements for our political leaders, but when we are considering our Members of Parliament who represent us, it is reasonable to hold them to a higher standard of speech.

To criticise Israel’s conduct in its war against Hamas is an entirely reasonable thing for a Member of Parliament to do (as many have). To resign from the Labour frontbench when Labour does not call for a ceasefire is equally legitimate (even if you disagree with the policy position).

To peddle conspiracy theories, however, is not.

I’m glad that Labour eventually suspended Azhar Ali. Let’s pray that such a situation does not happen again.

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