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Home » No, Jeremy Corbyn: Response to Hamas Attack Shows How UK Labour Has Changed

No, Jeremy Corbyn: Response to Hamas Attack Shows How UK Labour Has Changed

by Flynn Owen
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War in the Middle East has often meant war on the British left.

But this week’s Labour Party conference has been notable only for moments of solemn silence, and a broader theme of harmony, emerging from the dockside at Liverpool.

The opposition party’s unified reaction to the crisis comes at a critical moment — Labour are 17 points ahead in the polls, with an election looming next year — and is the clearest sign yet of leader Keir Starmer’s vice-like grip on his party, and of how far Labour have travelled since left-winger Jeremy Corbyn resigned as leader.

“I think we’ve seen a party that has changed beyond comprehension,” said former Labour MP Luciana Berger — one of several Jewish members who left under Corbyn amid bitter complaints of antisemitism within the party.

As news broke Saturday of an unprecedented attack by Palestinian militant group Hamas on Israel, it was clear the renewed conflict would at the very least overshadow Labour’s annual get-together, traditionally used as a moment to amplify new policies to the watching public.

But war in the Middle East also had the potential to trigger much deeper ructions within Labour, just as Starmer seeks to convince the public his party is ready for government once more.

Support for Palestinians has long been an established cause within U.K. Labour, but expressions of what that should look like became more strident — and in some cases extreme — under Corbyn, who led the party from 2015-2019.

This formed the backdrop for a rise in antisemitic abuse of Jewish Labour members and ultimately the resignations of multiple MPs and members. Corbyn himself was eventually suspended — once Starmer had assumed power — after refusing to accept the scale of the problem. 

Any confrontation between Hamas and Israel therefore had the potential to reopen some of the party’s most painful wounds — but that moment has not come to pass at this conference in the way many feared. 

Corbyn isolated

When journalists tracked down Corbyn himself, now an independent MP operating on the margins, he predictably failed to condemn Hamas, saying: “All attacks are wrong.”

But Corbyn cut an isolated figure in this position.

Even his long-standing ally John McDonnell — still a Labour MP, unlike the suspended Corbyn — said that “I do condemn the killing of the innocents by Hamas” and the killing of “all innocents.” Other Corbyn allies also failed to publicly back their old boss.

Conference attendees marvelling at the lack of public friction between Labour’s opposing wings have credited Starmer’s endeavors to clamp down on any apologism for terrorism or antisemitism since he took power.

Since winning the leadership in 2020 Starmer has suspended or expelled several high-profile MPs accused of perpetuating antisemitism.

Left-winger Rebecca Long-Bailey was sacked from the shadow Cabinet in 2020 for sharing an article Starmer deemed antisemitic. Labour left grandee Diane Abbott was suspended from the party last year for a letter she wrote suggesting Jewish people do not experience racism. Abbott swiftly retracted her comments, but has not been reinstated.

Starmer’s enforcers, led by Shadow Chief Whip Alan Campbell, were therefore on high alert as the horrific events of the weekend unfolded, determined to ensure their reputation for ruthlessness would be upheld.

One Labour MP granted anonymity to discuss internal matters said there had been a clear effort from the party leadership to keep MPs on-message. “It was a ‘be careful what you say’ sort of thing, because of people obviously looking to twist and turn things.” 

A Labour Party official confirmed they had “reached out” to people who they believed would be “particularly affected … due to constituency profiles,” but insisted the outreach was focused not just on left-wing MPs but across Labour’s political spectrum. 

Numerous pre-arranged conference fringe events on Israel and the Palestinian territories were carefully managed by the party, each beginning with a minute’s silence and with no questions allowed from the floor. 

For some, the sense of relief was palpable.

A Jewish Labour member who did not want to be named said: “I think that under Corbyn’s leadership there would have been a sense of dread coming here. Today with Keir it couldn’t be more different — there is just so much more care being taken.”

A Labour MP who also asked not to be named, added: “Put it this way, if we were under Corbyn, I wouldn’t be here.”

Danger ahead

Starmer made a point of highlighting his efforts in his own conference speech Tuesday, saying he had “ripped antisemitism out [of the Labour Party] by the roots” in a bid to put “country first; party second.”

But his regime could not stop cracks from forming altogether. 

Demonstrations still took place outside the conference venue, including a confrontation between a lone Jewish delegate and protesters who waved Palestinian flags and shouted “shame on you.”

Dawn Butler, a left-leaning MP, shut down all questions on the subject of Corbyn and Hamas, telling POLITICO: “I’m not going to comment or get into that discussion.”

And just down the road from the main conference hall, at an unaffiliated left-wing festival called The World Transformed —where some Labour MPs chose to appear — one speaker referred to the weekend attacks as “revolutionary moves.” Israel was described as “a terrorist state.” What was dubbed the “McCarthyite levels of silencing” of Palestinian allies inside Labour was condemned.

The Conservative Party did not miss the chance to call attention to those Labour MPs who chose to appear alongside the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. One senior Tory official claimed: “The problem of antisemitism is still there.”

The same Labour MP quoted above described such attempts to smear Labour as “pretty low” — but admitted party unity may come under further strain in the weeks ahead, as Israel continues to bomb Gaza in response to the attacks.

But for now, at least, Starmer’s determination to impose discipline upon a once-wayward party has survived its biggest test.

Source : Politico

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