Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has said he will look at the possibility of readmitting people to the party, who campaigned for other parties after leaving because of antisemitism.
In a packed keynote session at the JLM conference on Sunday, more than 630 people heard Sir Keir tell an audience member, in response to a question, that “the usual rule is a five-year exclusion.But I think we need to look again at that, in terms of people who felt driven out of Labour because of antisemitism. We need to find a way of making [readmission] happen, because every rule must have an exception for exceptional circumstances”.
In an at times emotional conversation with the former Labour MP Ruth Smeeth, Sir Keir said he was aware that “the last few weeks have been really painful and hurtful for the very people that we owe so much to. I absolutely feel that and I am deeply frustrated that we are in this place”.
He said he had it made it clear in his acceptance speech when he was elected as leader in April that he was determined to do everything he could to root out antisemitism. “I felt that in the last six or seven months that we had slowly taken steps in that direction. We had put better processes in place, and I wanted the publication of the Equality and Human Rights (EHRC) report to be the defining moment, where we could move on to the ‘mend’ part of the exercise”.
He declared: “I can’t tell you how disappointed I was with Jeremy Corbyn’s response, because what he said, coming from the former leader of the Labour Party, was just about as bad as you can get. Everything that has followed in the last few weeks [Sir Keir was referring to people receiving abuse at Constituency Labour Party meetings, or being forced to leave the meetings because of antisemitism] follows from those words”.
He said that the Corbyn comments had “exacerbated the pain and the hurt. We are in a position that I did not want to be in. I still think we can mend things… we are very conscious of the atmosphere at some CLP meetings, and we are determined to deal with that. But we have to get on with the action plan, and the events of the last few weeks only underline the case for an independent process to deal with the issue”.
But Sir Keir warned that even dealing with the process would not be enough: “We have to change the culture of the Labour Party. For me, success will only be when everyone in our Jewish community feel safe in our Labour Party, and when those who have left feel safe to return, if that’s what they want to do. I’m determined we are going to get there, and I will not be deflected”.
Ruth Smeeth, however, pointed to a recent CLP meeting in Nottingham East “in which a Jewish member had to leave because of the abuse they faced… and had to call the police this morning because of the ongoing abuse they received for daring to be abused in the first place. What message do we sent to them, and how do we say that this is not a Labour Party we recognise?”
The Labour leader responded sharply: “We are not going to tolerate this. And that has to come from the top of the party. I have to be the message carrier for that, Angela Rayner does. We are not going to tolerate this behaviour in our party. It has to come from me. Words are one thing, action is another: I didn’t want to be in this position in the last few weeks, and we are only in this position because of Jeremy Corbyn’s response to the Commission”.
He argued that dealing with antisemitism was “not about whether this makes us more electorally attractive. It’s about the core values and principles of our party. We’ve got this very wrong in recent years, and I’m determined to turn this around”. The issue was about “the soul of the Labour Party… I don’t want us still to be talking about Labour antisemitism in the weeks and months to come”.
Looking forward to the 2024 general election, and acknowledging that Labour had suffered four election defeats in a row, the latest being its worst results since 1935, Sir Keir said: “The task is huge. What we have achieved in the last few months, is a change of mindset in the party, from a position of ‘it’s not possible’ [to win the next election] to people beginning to think ‘it might be difficult but it’s still possible’”.
Sir Keir warned: “The next four years of history will be written by us”, asking his audience: “Be part of the team to change the future”.
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