Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has expressed reservations about some Israeli policies – though he did not specify which — that he feels breach international law. But, he says, he is prepared to challenge Israel’s treatment at the United Nations “where I feel it is wrong”.
Sir Keir made his comments this week in a wide-ranging conversation with members of South Hampstead Synagogue, which falls into his constituency of Holborn and St Pancras. In a genial conversation with the synagogue’s rabbi, Shlomo Levin, whom he knows well, Sir Keir — a passionate Remainer in the Brexit debate — nevertheless ruled out Labour support for rejoining the European Union, saying it was important for Britain to do whatever it could to move forward on its own account.
He said: “I don’t think there’s any appetite for a second referendum and I don’t think there’s a case for rejoining. We have left and we have to make a success of that — and that’s what I am determined to do. We have to accept where we are, and build on what we have got”.
If there was one theme to Sir Keir’s remarks — made to nearly 400 viewers at the online event — it was “we must make progress, we must go forward, rather than going backward”. It was a mantra he applied to many of his responses, including how Labour deals with the business world, antisemitism in Labour, Brexit, and the Iran nuclear agreement.
On Iran, the Labour leader regretted that because of Brexit and the pandemic, the issue had “somewhat dropped off the political agenda and has not got the coverage it needs”. The world “needs to recognise what Iran is and what the risks are in relation to it — but we need to find a way to move forward… on the nuclear agreement I think it’s important that we make progress rather than going backwards.But we must never underestimate the threat that comes from Iran”.
Sir Keir robustly defended his decision to stay in the Shadow Cabinet during the Corbyn years, though he did not address a question about why he had “electioneered” for Corbyn as a potential prime minister in 2019.
He insisted that he had repeatedly raised the question of antisemitism in the Labour Party both inside and outside the Shadow Cabinet, but acknowledged that Jewish friends and organisations had told him that he would be judged on his actions, and not merely on his words. He believed, he said, that the “vast majority” of Labour members did not espouse antisemitic ideas, despite Rabbi Levin’s gentle insistence that antisemitism had “become part of the political philosophy” of a significant part of the party.
Smiling, Sir Keir admitted: “There is a mountain to climb — and we are in the foothills”.
Asked about the issue of free speech and “cancel culture”, Sir Keir stood by his decision to “take the knee” in support of the Black Lives Matter campaign. He deplored the slave trader record of the 18th century merchant Edward Colston, whose statue was overturned and pushed into Bristol Harbour in June 2020. But while he loathed the fact that Colston had made his fortune in the slave trade, he did not agree with the way the statue had been removed.
“I’m not a big fan of stopping people speaking and what they can and can’t say”, he said, “but I am a big fan of having an honest discussion about history and individuals in a calm environment”.
Later, he was asked about Labour’s view on trade with China in view of what is happening with the Uyghur Muslim population there. Sir Keir, a former human rights lawyer, said Labour’s ethical foreign policy had to be based on human rights and international law. “We tried to win amendments in the trade bill going through parliament the other week — together with some Conservatives. Now we are outside the EU we have to conduct our own trade arrangements and have to decide who we trade with and what trade agreements should include within them. There ought to be some guidance which makes it clear that if any country has engaged in something which amounts to genocide, we would not be trading with them. We need to make clear the parameters of trade and the human rights considerations. I do think the government is going to have to go down this road because it can’t stay in this values-free world when it comes to trading with other countries.”
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