Keir Starmer has suggested that the party should “look again” at the rule that would usually ban anyone who stood against official Labour candidates in the last general election from rejoining for five years.
Luciana Berger quit Labour in February 2019 citing antisemitism within the party and co-founded The Independent Group. She later joined the Liberal Democrats and stood as their candidate in the 2019 election.
One Jewish Labour Movement conference attendee who supported Berger last year asked the current Labour leader this afternoon whether the party would consider welcoming back as members those who campaigned for her.
Labour rules state that members who support any candidate standing against a Labour candidate cannot be or remain a member. Those who stand against Labour are normally ineligible for membership for five years.
Addressing the question, Starmer replied: “I know this affects a number of people who left our party over the last few years and found themselves campaigning for other candidates, or even standing as candidates.
“The usual rule as you know is that if you support another candidate at an election, that’s a five-year exclusion from the Labour Party. I think we need to look again at that where people left the party because of antisemitism.
“This is not people who chose to leave the party to go and necessarily support another political party, it’s people who felt driven out of our party. I think that’s a different set of circumstances and I think we need to look at how we address that.
“I think there will be an number of people in that position and if those – perhaps yourself – are beginning to say ‘I think the Labour Party might be a safe space for me again’ then first of all that’s an amazing important thing from my point of view…
“We therefore need to find a way to make that happen. That obviously depends on the rule et cetera… Every rule must have an exception for exceptional circumstances, and I’m very happy to have a debate with people about how we make that happen.”
The move could open the door to former MPs who quit the party in 2019 to rejoin Labour under Starmer’s leadership. Joan Ryan and Mike Gapes earlier in the day said they had not applied to rejoin the party.
“I’m not going to apply to join unless I’m welcome,” Mike Gapes, the former MP for Ilford South said. Joan Ryan, the ex-MP for Enfield North, suggested that the question was still a “premature” one at the moment.
Starmer said: “The test I’ve set myself… is that for me success will only be when everybody in our Jewish communities feels safe in our party. When those who’ve left feel it’s safe to return if that’s what they want to do.”
The leader talked more generally about the Equality and Human Rights Commission report, Jeremy Corbyn’s reaction to it and subsequent events in the party, saying: “I’m deeply frustrated that we’re in this place.”
He told the conference: “I felt that over the last six/seven months that we had slowly taken some steps in that direction. We had got better processes in place, we’d begun to have the engagement that we needed.
“I wanted the publication of the EHRC report to be a defining moment where we could move on to the mend part of the exercise. Obviously it is hugely shameful that the EHRC, set up by a Labour government, found the Labour Party to be in breach of equality law passed by a Labour government.”
Starmer added: “My team and I spent a lot of time in the days leading up to the launch of that report making sure that everybody understood the approach we would be taking so we could actually move on to that action plan…
“I can’t tell you how disappointed how I was with Jeremy Corbyn’s response. Because the words he used, what he said coming from the former leader of the Labour Party in response to that report, were just about as bad as you could get.”
In conversation with Ruth Smeeth, the leader continued: “Everything that has followed in the last few weeks follows from those words. That has exacerbated the pain and the hurt. And we’re in a position that I did not want to be in.
“I genuinely thought that on the day of the Commission report we could take the next important step towards mending the situation with an action plan. I still think we can. We’ve had to be tough, we’ve had to be determined.
“We’re very, very conscious of the atmosphere at some [Constituency Labour Party] meetings at the moment. Determined to deal with that. But we have to get on to the action plan.” The EHRC plan is due by December 10th.
“I don’t want us to be talking about Labour and antisemitism in months and years to come. I do think we can get past this. We had been making good progress.” Corbyn’s response “undermined me and what I was trying to achieve”, he added.
Starmer was also asked about Brexit. He ruled out the possibility that Labour MPs would be instructed to vote against a Brexit deal if the government reaches one and puts it to the House of Commons for a vote.
The leader told JLM: “We need a deal… We will then look at that deal… We will then make a decision on whether to vote for it or abstain.” He added: “I don’t think there’s a much of a case for voting against it when that would be effectively to vote for no deal.”