Keir Starmer faces a crucial test on Sunday in his attempt to rid the party of antisemitism as delegates vote on plans for a new independent complaints process to tackle the scourge of racism.
Writing for the Observer Marie van der Zyl, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, says the choice for Labour is either is to step back from the “moral and intellectual abyss” by backing the plans, or continue to alienate Jewish voters.
While the rule change, which would prevent interference by the party high command in disciplinary and complaints cases by setting up new structures, is likely to be passed, there is nervousness among allies of Starmer at the level of opposition from forces on the left who believe the change is an over-reaction to a limited problem.
If the change were to be rejected by conference, it would amount to a huge blow for Starmer, who has made rooting out antisemitism a first principle of his leadership.
Plans for an independent complaints process were effectively made a legal requirement for the party following a highly critical report into Labour and antisemitism by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. At a meeting of Labour’s national executive committee 10 days ago, thiswas approved by a majority, but it is understood that several members representing unions and constituency Labour parties were opposed.
Successive Labour conferences have been overshadowed by arguments over antisemitism since former Unite general secretary Len McCluskey dismissed claims of a widespread problem inside the party as “mood music created by people trying to undermine Jeremy Corbyn”.
The EHRC’s report was damning of Labour’s record in tackling the problem and talked of “political interference in the handling of antisemitism complaints” and lack of leadership.
Van der Zyl writes that conference must be a turning point after years of hurt and anguish for Jews inside the Labour movement and those who had supported it.
“Both Jewish members and non-members faced not just antisemitism, but denial, downplaying and distortion from people at all levels of the party. We saw self-described ‘lifelong anti-racists’ parroting antisemitic conspiracy theories originally promoted by the Nazis and the KKK,” she says.
“We saw constant wielding of the so-called ‘Livingstone formulation’ – dismissal of even the most egregious antisemitism by claiming that those who complained about it were just seeking to silence criticism of Israel.
“We saw attacks and threats made against Jewish individuals and organisations – including the one I lead: the Board of Deputies of British Jews. It was a uniquely painful time; not just due to the bigotry aimed at us, but seeing just how many chose to ignore anti-Jewish racism in favour of pursuing a nebulous ‘greater good’.
“Labour now has an opportunity to take a further step away from that moral and intellectual abyss. We commend the leadership’s efforts in this regard and hope in the future we will be able to look back on this year’s Labour conference as a point where the party amplified its efforts to properly turn the page on a very grim period of its recent history.”