Keir Starmer has returned western imperialism to the core of Labour policy

Two years in, the Labour leader’s war on the left has shifted to ideological tests that even Pope Francis and Amnesty International would fail

Middle East Eye – 16 May 2022

The local authority election results earlier this month in the UK were as bleak as expected for Boris Johnson’s government, with the electorate ready to punish the ruling party both for its glaring corruption and rocketing high-street prices.

A few weeks earlier, the police fined Johnson – the first of several such penalties he is expected to receive – for attending a series of parties that broke the very lockdown rules his own government set. And the election took place as news broke that the UK would soon face recession and the highest inflation rate for decades.

In the circumstances, one might have assumed the opposition Labour Party under Keir Starmer would romp home, riding a wave of popular anger. But in reality, Starmer’s party fared little better than Johnson’s. Outside London, Labour was described as “treading water” across much of England.

Starmer is now two years into his leadership and has yet to make a significant mark politically. Labour staff are cheered that in opinion polls the party is finally ahead – if marginally – of Johnson’s Tories. Nonetheless, the public remains adamant that Starmer does not look like a prime minister in waiting.

That may be in large part because he rarely tries to land a blow against a government publicly floundering in its own corruption.

When Johnson came close to being brought down at the start of the year, as the so-called “partygate scandal” erupted with full force, it was not through Labour’s efforts. It was because of relentless leaks presumed to be from Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former adviser turned nemesis.

Starmer has been equally incapable of cashing in on the current mutinous rumblings against Johnson from within his own Tory ranks.

Self-inflicted wounds

Starmer’s ineffectualness seems entirely self-inflicted.

In part, that is because his ambitions are so low. He has been crafting policies to look more like a Tory-lite party that focuses on “the flag, veterans [and] dressing smartly”, as an internal Labour review recommended last year.

But equally significantly, he has made it obvious he sees his first duty not to battle for control of the national political terrain against Johnson’s government, but to expend his energies on waging what is becoming a permanent internal war on sections of his own party.

That has required gutting Labour of large parts of the membership that were attracted by his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, a democratic socialist who spent his career emphasising the politics of anti-racism and anti-imperialism.

To distance himself from Corbyn, Starmer has insisted on the polar opposites. He has been allying ever more closely with Israel, just as a new consensus has emerged in the human rights community that Israel is a racist, apartheid state.

And he has demanded unquestioning loyalty to Nato, just as the western military alliance pours weapons into Ukraine, in what looks to be rapidly becoming a cynical proxy war, dissuading both sides from seeking a peace agreement and contributing to a surge in the stock price of the West’s military industries.

Broken promises

Starmer’s direction of travel flies in the face of promises he made during the 2020 leadership election that he would heal the internal divisions that beset his predecessor’s tenure.

Corbyn, who was the choice of the party’s largely left-wing members in 2015, immediately found himself in a head-on collision with the dominant faction of right-wing MPs in the Labour parliamentary caucus as well as the permanent staff at head office.

Once leader, Starmer lost no time in stripping Corbyn of his position as a Labour MP. He cited as justification Corbyn’s refusal to accept evidence-free allegations of antisemitism against the party under his leadership that had been loudly amplified by an openly hostile media.

Corbyn had suffered from a years-long campaign, led by pro-Israel lobby groups and the media, suggesting his criticisms of Israel for oppressing the Palestinian people were tantamount to hatred of Jews. A new definition of antisemitism focusing on Israel was imposed on the party to breathe life into such allegations.

But the damage was caused not just by Labour’s enemies. Corbyn was actively undermined from within. A leaked internal report highlighted emails demonstrating that party staff had constantly plotted against him and even worked to throw the 2017 election, when Corbyn was just a few thousand votes short of winning.

With Brexit thrown into the mix at the 2019 election – stoking a strong nativist mood in the UK – Corbyn suffered a decisive defeat at Johnson’s hands.

But as leader, Starmer did not use the leaked report as an opportunity to reinforce party democracy, as many members expected. In fact, he reinstated some of the central protagonists exposed in the report, even apparently contemplating one of them for the position of Labour general secretary.

He also brought in advisers closely associated with former leader Tony Blair, who turned Labour decisively rightwards through the late 1990s and launched with the US an illegal war on Iraq in 2003.

Instead, Starmer went after the left-wing membership, finding any pretext – and any means, however draconian – to finish the job begun by the saboteurs.

He has rarely taken a break from hounding the left-wing membership, even if a permanent turf war has detracted from the more pressing need to concentrate on the Tory government’s obvious failings.

Flooded with arms

Starmer’s flame-war against the left has become so extreme that, as some critics have pointed out, both Pope Francis and Amnesty International would face expulsion from Starmer’s Labour Party were they members.

The pope is among a growing number of observers expressing doubts about the ever-more explicit intervention by the US and its Nato allies in Ukraine that seems designed to drag out the war, and raise the death toll, rather than advance peace talks.

In fact, recent views expressed by officials in Washington risk giving credence to the original claims made by Russian President Vladimir Putin justifying his illegal invasion of Ukraine in late February.

Before that invasion, Moscow officials had characterised Nato’s aggressive expansion across Eastern Europe following the fall of the Soviet Union, and its cosying up to Ukraine, as an “existential threat”. Russia even warned that it might use nuclear weapons if they were seen as necessary for its defence.

The Kremlin’s reasons for concern cannot be entirely discounted. Two Minsk peace accords intended to defuse a bloody eight-year civil war between Ukrainian ultra-nationalists and ethnic Russian communities in eastern Ukraine, on Russia’s border, have gone nowhere.

Instead, Ukraine’s government pushed for closer integration into Nato to the point where Putin warned of retaliation if Nato stationed missiles, potentially armed with nuclear warheads, on Russia’s doorstep. They would be able to strike Moscow in minutes, undermining the premise of mutually assured destruction that long served as the basis of a Cold War detente.

In response to Russia’s invasion, Nato has flooded Ukraine with weapons while the US has been moving to transfer a whopping $40bn in military aid to Kyiv – all while deprioritising pressure on Moscow and Kyiv to revisit the Minsk accords.

Nato weapons were initially supplied on the basis that they would help Ukraine defend itself from Russia. But that principle appears to have been quickly jettisoned by Washington.

Last month, US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin declared that the aim was instead to “see Russia weakened” – a position echoed by Nato former Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. The New York Times has reported that Washington is involved in a “classified” intelligence operation to help Ukraine kill senior Russian generals.

US officials now barely conceal the fact that they view Ukraine as a proxy war – one that sounds increasingly like the scenario Putin laid out when justifying his invasion as pre-emptive: that Washington intends to sap Russia of its military strength, push Nato’s weapons and potentially its troops right up against Russia’s borders, and batter Moscow economically through sanctions and an insistence that Europe forgo Russian gas.

The existential threat Putin feared has become explicit US policy, it seems.

Fealty to Nato

These are the reasons the pope speculated last week that, while Russia’s actions could not be justified, the “barking of Nato at the door of Russia” might, in practice, have “facilitated” the invasion. He also questioned the supply of weapons to Ukraine in the context of profiteering from the war: “Wars are fought for this: to test the arms we have made.”

Pope Francis, bound by formal Vatican rules of political neutrality, has to be cautious in what he says. And yet Starmer has deemed similar observations made by activists in the Labour party as grounds for expulsion.

The Labour leader has clashed head-on with the Stop the War Coalition, which Corbyn helped found in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The group played a central role in mobilising opposition to Britain’s participation, under Blair, in the 2003 illegal invasion of Iraq.

Stop the War, which is seen as close to the Labour left, has long been sceptical of Nato, a creature of the Cold War that proved impervious to the collapse of the Soviet Union and has gradually taken on the appearance of a permanent lobby for the West’s military industries.

Stop the War has spoken out against both Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and the decades-long expansion by Nato across Eastern Europe that Moscow cites as justification for its war of aggression. Starmer, however, has scorned that position as what he calls “false equivalence”.

In a commentary published in the Guardian newspaper, he denied that Stop the War were “benign voices for peace” or “progressive”. He termed Nato “a defensive alliance that has never provoked conflict”, foreclosing the very debate anti-war activists – and Pope Francis – seek to begin.

Starmer also threatened 11 Labour MPs with losing the whip – like Corbyn – if they did not immediately remove their names from a Stop the War statement that called for stepping up moves towards a diplomatic solution. More recently, he has warned MPs that they will face unspecified action from the party if they do not voice “unshakeable support for Nato”.

Starmer has demanded “a post 9/11” style surge in arms expenditure in response to the war in Ukraine, insisting that Nato must be “strengthened”.

He has shut down the Twitter account of Labour’s youth wing for its criticisms of Nato.

In late March he proscribed three small leftist groups – Labour Left Alliance, Socialist Labour Network, and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty – adding them to four other left-wing groups that he banned last year. Stop the War could soon be next.

Starmer’s relentless attacks on anti-war activism in Labour fly in the face of his 10 pledges, the platform that helped him to get elected. They included a commitment – reminiscent of Pope Francis – to “put human rights at the heart of foreign policy. Review all UK arms sales and make us a force for international peace and justice”.

But once elected, Starmer has effectively erased any space for an anti-war movement in mainstream British politics, one that wishes to question whether Nato is still a genuinely defensive alliance or closer to a lobby serving western arms industries that prosper from permanent war.

In effect, Starmer has demanded that the left outcompete the Tory government for fealty to Nato’s militarism. The war in Ukraine has become the pretext to force underground not only anti-imperialist politics but even Vatican-style calls for diplomacy.

Apartheid forever

But Starmer is imposing on Labour members an even more specific loyalty test rooted in Britain’s imperial role: support for Israel as a state that oppresses Palestinians.

Starmer’s decision to distance himself and Labour as far as possible from Corbyn’s support for Palestinian rights initially seemed to be tactical, premised on a desire to avoid the antisemitism smears that plagued his predecessor.

But that view has become progressively harder to sustain.

Starmer has turned a deaf ear to a motion passed last year by Labour delegates calling for UK sanctions against Israel as an apartheid state. References to it have even been erased from the party’s YouTube channel. Similarly, he refused last month to countenance Israel’s recent designation as an apartheid state by Amnesty and a raft of other human rights groups.

Last November, Starmer delivered a fawningly pro-Israel speech alongside Israel’s ultra-nationalist ambassador to the UK, Tzipi Hotovely, in which he repeatedly conflated criticism of Israel with antisemitism.

He has singled out anti-Zionist Jewish members of Labour – more so than non-Jewish members – apparently because they are the most confident and voluble critics of Israel in the party.

And now, in the run-up to this month’s local elections, he has flaunted his party’s renewal of ties with the Israeli Labor party, which severed relations during Corbyn’s tenure.

Senior officials from the Israeli party joined him and his deputy, Angela Rayner, in what was described as a “charm offensive”, as they pounded London streets campaigning for the local elections. It was hard not to interpret this as a slap in the face to swaths of the Labour membership.

The Israeli Labor party founded Israel by engineering a mass ethnic cleansing campaign, as documents unearthed by Israeli historians have confirmed, that saw hundreds of thousands of Palestinians expelled from their homeland.

Israel’s Labor party has continued to play a key role both in entrenching illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied territories to displace Palestinians, and in formulating legal distinctions between Jewish and Palestinian citizenship that have cemented the new consensus among groups such as Amnesty International that Israel qualifies as an apartheid state.

The Israeli Labor party is part of the current settler-led government that secured court approval last week to evict many hundreds of Palestinians from eight historic Palestinian villages near Hebron – while allowing settlers to remain close by – on the pretext that the land is needed for a firing zone.

Israel’s Haaretz newspaper concluded of the ruling: “Occupation is temporary by definition; apartheid is liable to persist forever. The High Court approved it.”

Labour’s ugly face

The ugly new face of Labour politics under Starmer is becoming ever harder to conceal. Under cover of rooting out the remnants of Corbynism, Starmer is not only proving himself an outright authoritarian, intent on crushing the last vestiges of democratic socialism in Labour.

He is also reviving the worst legacies of a Labour tradition that cheerleads western imperialism and cosies up to racist states – as long as they are allies of Washington and ready to buy British arms.

Starmer’s war on the Labour left is not – as widely assumed – a pragmatic response to the Corbyn years, designed to distance the party from policies that exposed it to the relentless campaign of antisemitism smears that undermined Corbyn.

Rather, Starmer is continuing and widening that very campaign of smears. He has picked up the baton on behalf of those Labour officials who, the leaked internal report showed, preferred to sabotage the Labour Party if it meant stopping the left from gaining power.

His task is not just to ensnare those who wish to show solidarity with the Palestinians after decades of oppression supported by the West. It is to crush all activism against western imperialism and the state of permanent war it has helped to engineer.

Britain now has no visible political home for the kind of anti-war movements that once brought millions out onto Britain’s streets in an effort to halt the war on Iraq. And for that, the British establishment and their war industries have Sir Keir Starmer to thank.

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