Analysis: Capacity crowd as LFI makes full return to Labour conference

Labour Friends of Israel fully returned to Labour party conference for the first time since 2018 last week, as thousands of parliamentarians, delegates and members descended on Brighton for the first physical conference of Keir Starmer’s leadership.

Main takeaways

  • The 2021 conference was a huge success for LFI, with an overwhelmingly positive response on our stall and unprecedented turnout at our reception after two years away.
  • The conference saw important internal changes for Labour, including the passing of the reforms required by the Equality and Human Rights Commission report into antisemitism.
  • The highlight of the conference was the return of Dame Louise Ellman, MP for Liverpool Riverside from 1997–2019, into the Labour family, after she quit the party in October 2019 in protest at the antisemitic culture that had flourished under Jeremy Corbyn.
  • There remains plenty of progress to be made, however. The conference floor passed an incredibly one-sided motion relating to Israel and Palestine, smearing Israel as “apartheid” and lacking any reference to a two-state solution or Hamas. This was immediately disowned by the shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy.
  • Keir Starmer’s concluding speech laid out his vision both for the party and the country, demonstrating how far the party has changed under his leadership.

Times they are a-changing

The first and second days of the conference witnessed votes on important internal changes for Labour, as spearheaded by the party’s leadership. Most significantly, the rules changes required by the EHRC to set up a new independent disciplinary process to deal with antisemitism and other cases involving protected characteristics were passed by a 74 percent margin – despite Momentum instructing its supporters to oppose the legally mandated changes. General secretary David Evans was confirmed in his role with a 57 percent margin; a Momentum attempt to remove him ironically giving him an unprecedented democratic mandate for a party general secretary. Media coverage focused on the package of rules changes proposed by Starmer, which passed with 54 percent support to reform Labour’s leadership election system to ensure that candidates must have broad support within the party. Further reforms proposed by Starmer – to protect MPs from deselection attempts, reduce the number of motions at conference, and resurrect a Labour Students organisation – were similarly passed, putting the party in a better position to face the country, rather than itself.

Welcome home

The highlight of the conference was the return of Dame Louise Ellman to Labour.

  • Dame Louise, a former LFI chair and MP for Liverpool Riverside, resigned from Labour in October 2019 in protest at the culture of antisemitism that had developed under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.
  • She announced on the second day of Labour conference on Monday that she had decided to “return to her political home”.
  • In a statement, Dame Louise said that she was “confident that, under the leadership of Keir Starmer, the party is once again led by a man of principle in whom the British people and Britain’s Jews can have trust”.
  • “Whilst there remains a great deal more to do to tackle antisemitism in the party”, she continued, “I am encouraged by the steps already taken and the progress made so far”.
  • Starmer has made tackling antisemitism a priority of his leadership, which had seen him sack Rebecca Long-Bailey for sharing an article containing an antisemitic conspiracy theory online, suspend Corbyn for refusing to fully accept the results of the EHRC report into antisemitism, and proscribe far-left factions that have similarly denied the party’s problems with antisemitism.

Motion sickness

In a sign of the scale of the remaining challenge facing Starmer’s efforts to re-build relations with the Jewish community and to reorient party activists away from an obsessive focus on Israel, the conference floor passed an incredibly one-sided motion relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Monday, which heaped criticism on Israel for an “ongoing Nakba” and made false accusations of “apartheid” without any reference to Hamas, terrorism or incitement.

LFI chair Steve McCabe spoke strongly in opposition to the motion, condemning it as “completely hostile to the people of Israel” and reminding conference of the need to build bomb shelters for every Israeli house. In a statement following its passage by conference delegates, he said: “It does not represent Labour’s longstanding policy in support of a two-state solution, backs the toxic BDS movement which singles out the world’s only Jewish state, and propagates the Apartheid smear.” It would “undermine the process of rebuilding Labour’s relationship with Britain’s Jews and with Israeli progressives”, he added, and was a demonstration that “there are still too many in the party who remain unhealthily obsessed with Israel.”

The resolution was similarly condemned by shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy, representing the view of the Starmer leadership. “We owe it to the people of Palestine and Israel to take a fair and balanced approach that recognises there can only be peace through a safe and secure Israel existing alongside a sovereign and viable Palestinian state”, a statement by Nandy said. “We cannot support this motion”, she continued, adding that “it does not address the issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a comprehensive or balanced way”. Nandy went on to reiterate the party’s commitment to a two-state solution and commitment to “a just, lasting peace […] where both Palestinians and Israelis enjoy security, dignity and human rights”.

No more stalling

Throughout the conference, Labour Friends of Israel had a stall exhibit as one of the many exhibitors present. This was in stark contrast with previous years like 2018, when LFI did not have a stall presence at conference due to security concerns, after the LFI stall becoming “a magnet for conspiracy theorists” which put “young staff members in uncomfortable positions” in 2017.

The shift between 2017 and 2021 was stark. The 2021 LFI stall was greeted with an overwhelmingly positive response from MPs, delegates and party members. Hundreds of people came to the stall over the five-day conference, many of them simply to welcome LFI back and to express their happiness at seeing the stall return. Many Labour members approached to ask LFI about our work, discuss the situation in the Middle East, and how to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict constructively within the party, especially at local CLP meetings. A number of parliamentarians also visited the stall, including shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds, shadow defence secretary John Healey, and shadow Middle East minister Wayne David.

An LFI source told Jewish News: “It’s fantastic to be back at conference with an LFI stall. The response so far has been overwhelmingly one of warmth, with many members going out of their way to welcome LFI back and expressing support […] There is a definite and noticeable shift from the toxicity of previous years”.

Back with a bang

The highlight of LFI’s conference was the annual reception, which took place on Tuesday night.

  • Turnout for the reception overwhelmed all expectations, with some 500 people attending the two-hour event.
  • Speakers to the capacity crowd included LFI chair Steve McCabe, Dame Louise Ellman, shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy, shadow Middle East minister Wayne David, and deputy Israeli ambassador Oren Marmorstein.
  • Video addresses were also sent by Labour leader Keir Starmer, leader of the Israeli Labor party and Israeli transport minister Merav Michaeli, and Israeli Labor party international secretary Michal Biran.
  • In her speech, Dame Louise said: “I’ve always been proud to be a Zionist and a member of LFI. And you know, bigots, that’s what they are, tried to tell us there was no place in the Labour party for LFI. They could not be more wrong and they have been defeated.”
  • “I am happy to be home, and I’m pretty emotional to see all of you here tonight”, Dame Louise concluded, to thunderous applause.
  • Steve McCabe made clear that “There’s no contradiction between being a progressive and being a friend of Israel. There’s no contradiction between being a friend of Israel and a friend of the Palestinian people.”
  • “During our 13 years in power, we had a proud record of working with the Jewish community and fighting antisemitism at home”, McCabe continued, pointing to the introduction of Holocaust Memorial Day and the proscription of Hezbollah and Hamas.
  • Welcoming the Abraham Accords, McCabe concluded: “The Israeli and Palestinian people have lived under a cloud of fear, insecurity and violence for too long. They need the prospect of peace, security and freedom which only a two-state solution can offer”.
  • In his video message, Labour leader Keir Starmer said that “under my leadership, Labour unequivocally stands for a negotiated two-state solution: with Israel safe, secure and recognised within its borders, living alongside a democratic and independent Palestinian state”.
  • Congratulating Michaeli on leading her party back into government, Starmer said he “looked forward” to visiting Israel with LFI, and confirmed his opposition to “driving people apart through boycotts”.
  • He also welcomed the diplomatic normalisation between Israel and four Arab nations announced last year, and threw Labour’s “strong support” behind the planned International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace.
  • Nandy welcomed back Dame Louise and praised her “friends” Dame Margaret Hodge and Luciana Berger for challenging the antisemitic abuse they had faced during the Corbyn years.
  • Click here to watch a livestream of the full reception and Keir Starmer’s recorded message.

Labour back on track

Labour’s 2021 annual conference ended on Wednesday with a barnstorming speech from Keir Starmer, in which he set out his “serious plan” for government.

Setting out new policies on mental health, education and housing, Starmer said the country faced a “big moment” that “demands leadership”. He spoke at length about his background, including his mother’s illness from Still’s disease, his father’s work as a toolmaker, and his own career as a lawyer – all of which instilled in him a “deep respect for the dignity of work”.

A tiny number of pro-Corbyn hecklers were drowned out by applause in the packed conference hall, with Starmer asserting that he was more interested in “changing lives” rather than “chanting slogans”. Earlier, he had pointedly responded to hecklers by saying “I normally get heckled by the Tories at this time of the week” – during PMQs – “so this doesn’t bother me”.

For the first time in more than a decade, the Labour leader paid tribute to the successes of the Blair and Brown governments, pointing to their success cutting child and pensioner poverty, hiring teachers and nurses, and reducing hospital waiting times. This was met with rapturous applause in the conference hall.

Thank you

  • Labour Friends of Israel would like to thank everybody who made our 2021 conference experience such a success.
  • Thanks to the hundreds of parliamentarians, delegates and members who visited our stall to welcome us back and hear about our work.
  • Thanks to the more than 500 people who attended our reception and made it such a great success.
  • Thanks to the centre staff in Brighton, who made the conference run so smoothly.
  • And special thanks to the volunteers who helped staff our stall for their hard work and support.