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Ian Austin: Labour needs wholesale cultural change to become electable again

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Former Dudley North MP Ian Austin, chairman of Mainstream, the Campaign Against Extremism, says booting out the racists is just the first step of Labour's rehabilitation under Sir Keir Starmer.

Ian Austin, the former Labour MP for Dudley North

The Express and Star’s revelations of the past week show how unacceptable attitudes became commonplace under Jeremy Corbyn and how determined Keir Starmer will have to be to sort the problem out.

It is shocking to see the now former leader of Sandwell Council, Yvonne Davies, endorse an article called “Is Israel’s hand behind the attacks on Jeremy Corbyn?" with the words “This makes interesting reading if anyone is wanting to understand where all this emphasis on labour and antisematism (sic) comes from.......”

She promoted a petition for a Parliamentary debate on “whether Israel has ‘improper influence’ over British Politics” and claimed adopting the standard, international definition of anti-Semitism would stop people criticising Israel. Another tweet talked about the “Jewish establishment”.

Of course you can criticise Israel’s leadership and government, its policies and military without descending to this level. And you can campaign, as I have, for a Palestinian state without promoting conspiracy theories about Jews or the world’s only Jewish state controlling British politics.

The former leader of Dudley Council, Pete Lowe, entered the foreign affairs debate too. Not to speak about the brutal crackdown in Hong Kong. Nor to express his outrage at a million Muslims locked up in concentration camps in China.

It came the day after the Labour leader sacked Rebecca Long Bailey for endorsing an article which blamed Israel for teaching American police the methods used to kill George Floyd. This, Starmer said, was an “anti-Semitic conspiracy theory”.

Pete Lowe’s response was not to criticise the article, but to tweet in Rebecca Long-Bailey’s support and post bogus maps about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He did eventually delete the tweet, but didn’t offer any explanation or apology.

These two examples show the extent to which many people on the left have become obsessed with Israel. This tiny country – the world’s only Jewish state and the Middle East’s only democracy – seems to attract more criticism than all the world’s other controversies combined.

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And it shows how people are prepared to believe any criticism of Israel – however untrue or absurd – without subjecting it to a moment’s thought.

Of course Israel’s not perfect. What country is? But where else in the Middle East would you find free and fair elections, a free and vibrant media; a robust and independent judiciary and strong trade unions?

Israel’s parliament contains members from all religious and ethnic backgrounds, and represents every shade of opinion from hard left communists to the very right wing.

Every citizen is guaranteed equal rights under the law. There is free speech and assembly for all. Critics of Israel and of Zionism form political organisations and campaigns. There is equality for women and the only place in the Middle East that recognises same-sex marriages is Tel Aviv.

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I joined the Labour Party as a teenager in Dudley to fight racism. My first campaign as the town’s MP was to drive out the BNP. When the EDL and other extremists came here to stir up trouble, I stood with Dudley’s Muslim community. And it was because I was so appalled at the racism and extremism that corrupted the party under Jeremy Corbyn that I left last year.

I opposed his leadership from the word go in 2015. I knew not just that he would eventually lead Labour to disaster at the ballot box, but that he was completely unfit to be our Prime Minister too.

Keir Starmer is clearly a big improvement on his predecessor. He was, for example, completely right to sack Rebecca Long Bailey. The decision sent out the right message and is a good step in the right direction, but no one should underestimate the challenge he faces to drag his party back to electability.

Under Corbyn’s leadership, Jewish MPs and members were subjected to appalling abuse. Some were driven out.

In some cases those responsible were suspended. Some were let back in with a slap on the wrist. In others, no action was taken at all.

That is what must change under the new leadership. Anyone guilty of racism must be booted out of the party – but that is just the first step.

What is more important is wholesale cultural change so the rest of the membership must understand why tough action is necessary and agree that it is the right thing to do.

That is why Mainstream, the campaign against extremism that I have set up, is calling for a wide-ranging education programme for members and a proper complaints process. All candidates for elected office should sign a pledge to uphold the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.

The Black Country might not have a large numbers of Jewish residents but people here were appalled at the antisemitism that flourished under Corbyn and it was certainly a factor in Labour’s crushing defeat last year. Ordinary, decent people who had voted Labour all their lives rejected the extremism and racism that had poisoned the party.

Keir Starmer needs to deal with this problem if he hopes to win back the trust of Britain’s decent fair-minded majority.

The nonsense we’ve seen from people like Pete Lowe and Yvonne Davies show just how big a challenge he faces.

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