Starmer’s speech: Passionate, confident – yet, will it prove his patriotism?

22 Sep

After Labour’s disastrous performance at the last General Election, Keir Starmer was keen to put the Corbyn years behind him at the party’s conference today. He gave one of the most passionate speeches of his career, telling voters that “[t]his party is under new leadership.”

It had been carefully constructed, and tried to address many of the reasons why Labour lost, as well as giving Starmer some much-needed personality. At one point he commented that “while Boris Johnson was writing flippant columns about bendy bananas, I was defending victims and prosecuting terrorists”. He later attacked the Tories on Covid-19 and social care, the latter of which the Labour leader said was a “disgrace to a rich nation”.

Starmer reinforced his commitment to “root out the antisemitism that has infected” Labour and repeatedly spoke about “security”, in yet another attempt to reverse Corbynism. No doubt many voters will still remember the former leader failing to condemn Russia after it launched a chemical attack on Britain, among other events, and Starmer knows he has a lot to do – to prove that Labour can protect the country.

This is why patriotism was such a dominant feature of Starmer’s speech. He talked about “the country I love”; his desire for Britain to be “the best country to grow up in and the best country to grow old in”, and how he’s “hugely ambitious for this country”.

But will this do the trick? Much of the reaction – on Twitter, at least – was incredibly optimistic about Starmer, partly spurred by recent polling on Labour – which shows the party closing in on Conservatives.

Even so, it’ll take a lot more than overuse of the word “country” to convince the electorate, particularly in the Red Wall, that Labour is now patriotic. The biggest reason for this is Brexit, in which voters expected all politicians to stick up for Britain – and instead found Starmer and others pushing for a second referendum.

Today he promised that Labour “is not going to be a party that keeps banging on about Europe” – and it’s no wonder he wants to move on, given his previous actions. During the speech he discussed “decency” and “fairness”, but 17.4 million people will be wondering where these traits were when he, and other MPs, tried to overturn their vote.

Furthermore, Starmer’s speech lacked substance. Though he has promised new leadership for the party, it’s not obvious what this looks like in policy terms, although he promised Labour’s manifesto “will sound like the future arriving” (whatever that means). Without more concrete proposals, and given the continued factionalism of Labour, many will simply think it sounds like more of the same.

Starmer’s desire to “draw a line” under anti-Semitism in Labour will be harder than he thinks

24 Jul

Since becoming Labour Party leader in March of this year, Keir Starmer has made tackling anti-Semitism a top priority. In his acceptance speech he promised to “tear out this poison by its roots”, and one of his first actions was to set up a video conference with Jewish leaders, in which he told them he would create an independent complaints procedure. They welcomed these actions, and said that he had “achieved more in four days” than Jeremy Corbyn had “in four years”.

The extent to which Starmer is determined to address anti-Semitism was clear in June 2020, when he sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey, Shadow Education Secretary, for retweeting an interview with the actress Maxine Peake. In it, Peake had said an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, namely that the tactic deployed in the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis “was learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services.”

Upon becoming aware of Long-Bailey’s Retweet, Starmer acted quickly and decisively in sacking her, winning praise from people across the political spectrum. After years of Corbyn’s ineffective ways, it was quite a change.

Even in spite of these efforts, though, recent events demonstrate just how difficult it will be for Starmer to stamp out anti-Semitism in his party, due to disagreements about Corbyn’s tenure. The factionalism of Labour was highlighted this week after the party apologised and paid damages of around £200,000 to a group of ex-staffer whistleblowers, who Corbyn’s Labour had criticised for appearing in a BBC documentary titled Is Labour anti-Semitic? During this they’d spoken about various incidents within the party, only to be accused of having “personal and political axes to grind”, hence why legal action was brought forward. 

Starmer no doubt believed the settlement would help everything. “I made it clear that we would draw a line under anti-Semitism. Settling this case was important in that respect”, were his words. Case closed, some might think (Starmer was a barrister, after all.)

But instead, Corbyn contradicted his successor’s words, issuing a statement in which he called the decision “disappointing”, a “political” not “legal” one, which risked giving “credibility to misleading and inaccurate allegations about action taken to tackle anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in recent years.” 

John Ware, who made the documentary, and some of the whistleblowers have since instructed Mark Lewis to pursue a defamation case against Corbyn. (Lewis, incidentally, has said he’s been approached by 32 individuals who want to take action against Labour). 

In response to this, some have called for Starmer to withdraw the whip from Corbyn, suspend or expel him. But he is clearly wary of doing this, as it would lead to an “uncontrollable civil war”, as Tom Harris put it for The Telegraph, “that would conceivably split the party and leave each half as unelectable as the other.” Other Labour figures, such as Len McCluskey, have already argued against the court settlement. It has met strong resistance.

The other thought that will linger at the back of many people’s minds is that Starmer, for all his decisiveness now, campaigned for Corbyn to be Prime Minister. He did this at the same time that Jewish MPs, such as Luciana Berger, were the targets of anti-Semitic abuse and death threats. 

MPs and many party members couldn’t stand by as this happened. Frank Field quit the party, saying that the leadership had become “a force for anti-Semitism in British politics”, and nine MPs left in 2019 for the same reason. 

In essence, Starmer can apologise and try to correct things all he wants, but that legacy of doing nothing – when it mattered the most – will stay in hearts and minds.

With Starmer recently receiving a draft report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission as to how Labour handled anti-Semitism allegations under Corbyn’s leadership, there will be significant pressure for him to continue to “tear out this poison”, as he put it. He reassured parliament on Wednesday that Labour was “under new management”, and he clearly believes that he is the man to end this dire era.

Let’s hope so, of course. But due to the instabilities in his party, along with his past lack of action on anti-Semitism, his wish to “draw a line” under it will be harder than he thinks.

Natasha Hausdorff: Ministers must set an international example and support Israel’s latest proposals

3 Jul

Natasha Hausdorff is a barrister and a Conservative activist. She specialises in international law, foreign affairs and national security policy.

Last week saw Rebecca Long-Bailey’s removal from her post, as shadow education secretary, for sharing an antisemitic conspiracy theory linking Israel to the death of George Floyd in the US.

But is it truly that surprising that conspiracy theories against Israel abound, across a range of left-wing campaigns, when even this Conservative Government has fallen into the trap of propagating falsehoods against the Jewish State?

The Government has sadly been misinformed on the proposal Israel is to consider this week: to apply Israeli civilian law to parts of Area C in the West Bank. The move is consistently misrepresented as “annexation” and a “violation” of international law.

Both allegations are false. The misconceptions betray a concerning level of ignorance, but most importantly, they prevent the formulation of sensible foreign policy on the part of the UK.

There is an urgent need to realise that what is being considered is a change to the internal administrative legal framework in certain parts of Area C of the West Bank, which would replace military law with the civilian law that applies throughout Israel – benefiting all inhabitants of the affected area.

The existing framework was intended to be temporary, but it has been dragged out for 53 years, through decades of failed negotiations. It is regarded as an inadequate and antiquated administration, comprising a confusing patchwork of Ottoman, British Mandate, and Jordanian law as well as aspects of international humanitarian law.

The British Government’s current approach rejects fundamental principles of international law and deploys double standards against Israel. Any legal analysis of the status of the disputed territory cannot ignore the basic principle that a country cannot be said to “occupy” territory that does not belong to another sovereign and to which it has a credible claim of title.

The UK certainly does not recognise Palestinian sovereignty over the territory. Israel has the strongest legal claim to the territory, based on a fundamental principle of international law governing the formation of new states and the delineation of their boundaries.

The universal rule for determining borders for emerging states, ‘uti possideitis juris’, dictates that they inherit the administrative boundaries of the prior administrative entity. Israel was preceded by the ‘Mandate for Palestine’, which was established by the League of Nations and administered by Britain. As the only state to emerge from the Mandate in 1948, international law dictates that Israel inherited the Mandate’s administrative boundaries.

This principle provides that the territory concerned has been under Israeli sovereignty since Israel’s independence. Even if the territory is politically disputed, the legal principle is clear. The term “annexation” is fundamentally misconceived.

The principle that a new state inherits the borders of the last top-level administrative unit has been universally applied upon the independence of new states, including to the emergence of states in Asia, Africa, South America, and from the former Soviet Union. The one and only exception now appears to be with respect to the establishment of Israel.

However, the record on this point was straightened in November last year when Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, clarified that Israeli settlements in the West Bank do not violate international law. This repudiated the conclusions of a 1978 State Department memorandum, which had, by its own reasoning, been overtaken by the 1994 Peace Treaty between Israel and Jordan.

The West has little leverage over terrorist organisations and rogue regimes. So far as negotiations are concerned, it is Israel that is expected to make concessions that are damaging to its security and that seem to reward terror and incitement to violence. When generations of Israelis have witnessed every compromise lead to more blood on the streets, it has become harder and harder to explain why the next time will be different. The three election results in the past year and the decimation of the traditional left-wing parties clearly illustrate this point.

The policy of “land for peace” (where Israel hands over land and the Palestinians promise peace) has been revealed, through the Oslo Accords and the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, to be a gargantuan failure. And yet successive Israeli governments have sought further negotiations with the Palestinian leadership, in the hope that further concessions on security will lead to a renunciation of violence by the Palestinian Authority.

The real danger here is that the misrepresentations, together with calls for the unilateral surrender of Israeli territory, hamstring the Palestinians. Advancing positions that misstate international law, demand unrealistic concessions, and call for unachievable goals, fundamentally weakens the negotiating position of the current, or future, Palestinian leadership by setting a high bar from which they cannot deviate without being accused of treachery.

Mahmoud Abbas has already made it clear that it is impossible for him to demand anything less than the positions for which certain elements of the international community clamour, impracticable and fanciful though they may be.

It cannot be over-stressed that, contrary to much of the rhetoric, the proposals with respect to Area C would not prejudice future negotiations in any way. Any proposals around a two-state solution have envisioned sovereign Israeli territory being transferred via land-swaps; most recently, the ‘Trump Plan’ envisages significant parts of undisputed Israeli sovereignty territory in the Negev being transferred in that fashion. Israel has negotiated over land to which its law applied in full and has shown every intention of continuing to do so.

It has been the unwavering position of the parties, and the international community, that a final peace settlement can only be achieved through bilateral negotiations. If there is even the slightest chance that these proposals may bring the Palestinian leadership to the negotiation table, then they merit the full support of the international community.

Labour clearly have a long road ahead in recovering from the anti-Israel obsession that has engulfed the party for so long. This Conservative Prime Minister should be leading by example.

Garvan Walshe: To win re-election, Poland’s President Duda is counting on the homophobic, sexist Konfederacja party

2 Jul

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy.

Incumbent Polish president Andrzej Duda found out on Sunday that populist indignation is all very well when you’re running against an unpopular government, but much less when the demands for change are directed against you.

After a cock-up in which emergency legislation to hold an all-postal ballot was defeated in the Senate and then scotched by the ruling Law and Justice Party’s (PiS) coalition partners, the first round of Poland’s presidential elections proved much closer than had seemed likely had the Coronavirus not caused their postponement.

The delay gave the opposition KO (Civic Coalition) a much needed chance to swap out the underperforming Malgorzata Kidawa-Bionska for Rafal Trzaskowski, the Mayor of Warsaw. The substitution proved effective, denying Duda a victory on the first round against a divided field of anti-PiS candidates. (Duda got 43 per cent of the vote, and Trzaskowki 30 per cent).

Turnout was high in recognition of the stakes produced by Law and Justice’s divisive political style: the campaign was marred, the mild-mannered Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights noted, by Duda’s “inflammatory” and “homophobic” language. His messages were parroted by state TV: “the public broadcaster became a campaign tool for the incumbent, while some reporting had clear xenophobic and anti-Semitic undertones.”

It came after five years of constitutional vandalism by PiS that even extended to keeping judgements of the constitutional court that struck down PiS legislation, secret. Because Poland’s president can veto legislation, a victory for Trzaskowski would decisively shift the balance of power in Poland. At present the opposition only controls the Senate, which can only delay laws for 30 days.

The luck of the political calendar (parliamentary terms are four years long, but presidential terms last five) had given PiS control of both houses of the Polish parliament, and the presidency in 2015, when their support was at a high point, and their opposition tired and divided.

Though they campaigned as moderates focused on social distribution, they governed as radicals, engaging in all-out war with the judiciary, politicising public broadcasting, clearing out senior ranks of the civil service and armed forces, attempting to ban abortion, and showing considerable tolerance to Poland’s ultra-nationalist paramilitary fringe.

This shook up the opposition, causing rival parties Civic Platform (PO) and Nowoczesna to form an alliance, which fielded Trzaskowski as its presidential candidate, as well as inspiring Szymon Holownia, an independent conservative, to run (and win 14 per cent of the vote).

Another mayor, the openly gay Robert Biedron, sought to revive the left, and while he did well enough in last year’s parliamentary elections faded in the presidential contest. This leaves the second-round result on a knife edge.

It is likely that most of Biedron’s and Holownia’s voters together, with those for the agrarian Wladyslaw Kosinak-Kamysz, will swing behind Trzaskowski, giving him another five per cent, and bringing his vote up to between 45 and 48 per cent of the total, and possibly an edge over Duda.

Duda however seems close to his ceiling. His 43.5 per cent of the vote is essentially unchanged of his party’s 43.6 per cent share at last year’s parliamentary election, and desperate attempts to drive up turnout among his base, which included awarding a fire engine to villages with high turnout (PiS is strongest in the countryside), don’t seem to have worked.

The only available vote bank is the seven per cent of supporters of Krysztof Bosak, the candidate for the anti-semitic, pro-Russian, economically libertarian and deeply misogynistic Konfederacja party. The electoral impact of this love-child of Von Ribbentrop, Molotov and Jordan Peterson is less clear than its designation as “far right” would indicate.

One might think they would naturally support Duda’s against the evils of “LGBT ideology”. Yet they differ radically from PiS on economic policy, favouring high-tech free markets over redistribution to rural communities, and consider PiS’s pro-Catholicism at best naive. Demographically, they are young and educated, more in line with Trszaskowski’s generation than Duda’s, and unlikely to be inspired by Duda’s message of continuity.

Duda has to hope that his homophobia can bring them over without alienating some of his more centrist backers. Trzaskowski had sought to woo them by making references to economic freedom. Bosak himself has endorsed neither candidate and it is not unlikely quite a few of his more cynical voters will sit the second round out. The final result may depend on whether they’re more scared of gay men or the tax man.