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Starmer's refusal to challenge a far-right conspiracy theorist was shocking

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 29: Leader of the Labour Party Sir Keir Starmer leaves his home on October 29, 2020 in London, England. The long-awaited report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) which was initiated in 2019 after Jewish groups alleged the party was institutionally antisemitic in its handling of complaints under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, is due to be published today. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Leader of the Labour Party Sir Keir Starmer leaves his home on October 29, 2020 in London, England [Leon Neal/Getty Images]

British Labour Party leader Keir Starmer is facing fierce criticism for failing to challenge a caller to a radio phone-in who advanced a racist conspiracy theory that has inspired several far-right terrorist attacks. The same caller then hailed Israel as an ethnonationalist utopia which Britain should seek to replicate. Listeners to Starmer's regular LBC programme were shocked to hear that the "Great Replacement" theory was being promoted on a major radio station. Moreover, it was Starmer's inability to challenge the caller which has caused unease about the Labour leader who claims that fighting racism is one of his main priorities.

The caller rang to oppose footballers "taking the knee" in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter anti-racism campaign sparked by police brutality in America. Advancing the "Great Replacement" theory, she suggested that black people were not victims of racism, "Because if anything the racial inequality is now against the indigenous people of Britain, because we are set to become a minority by 2066."

This claim is the main feature of the theory, which was once seen as something belonging on the extreme political fringes, but has in recent years become almost mainstream. Its proponents include a number of those responsible for some of the worst terrorist attacks in the world. They claim that there is a conspiracy to destroy "western civilisation" which will lead to "white genocide".

This race-war fanaticism was apparently the main motivation for Christchurch shooter Brenton Tarrant, who gunned down 52 Muslim worshippers in two mosques in the New Zealand city last year. The 28 year old left behind a manifesto called "The Great Replacement" before carrying out his terrorist attack. "It's the birth rates," he insisted. "It's the birth rates. It's the birth rates."

Other far-right terrorists have also made explicit reference to demographic conspiracies. Anders Breivik, for instance, who in 2011 killed 77 people in Norway, focused heavily on the alleged "Islamisation" of Europe in his 1,500 page manifesto, inspired by "Eurabia" conspiracy theories.

Both Tarrant and Breivik were the inspiration for the El Paso shooter Patrick Crusius. "In general, I support the Christchurch shooter and his manifesto. This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas. They are the instigators, not me. I am simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion," said the suspect before killing 23 people last year.

READ: Anti-Semitic white supremacist praises Israel's nation state bill

Why did Starmer fail to challenge the caller for peddling the great replacement theory? Did it have something to do with what she said immediately afterwards? "We just have to look across to the Middle East. Israel has a state law that they [sic] are the only people in that country to have self-determination. Well why can't I as a white British female have that same right?"

The caller was referring to Israel's 2018 bill which declared the Zionist state to be the Nation-State of the Jewish People, meaning that only Jews have the right of self-determination in the country. The bill, which critics insist has formalised Israel as an apartheid state, has been criticised by the EU and a number of Jewish civil rights groups. Arab Israeli politicians, representing the 20 per cent of Israeli citizens who are not Jews, have dismissed the law as "the death of our democracy."

With the Labour leader having pledged to fight anti-Semitism as defined by prominent pro-Israel groups, it seems that Starmer was reluctant to get drawn into a discussion which may have forced him to admit basic facts about the Zionist state and expose him to allegations of racism. Having adopted the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, which conflates racism towards Jews with criticism of Israel, there seemed to be no way for Starmer to push back against the great replacement conspiracy theory without also offending advocates of Israel, once parallels were drawn by the caller.

Anyone who opposes the great replacement conspiracy theory but remains committed to the Zionist state is unable to argue against racists who believe that Israel's ethno-nationalism is a political utopia. The water is muddied even further by the hostile environment wherein those who describe — with good reason — Israel as a racist apartheid state are accused of "delegitimising" it and are, therefore, "anti-Semitic".

Starmer's reply to the caller was, "We all have those rights." This can be interpreted to mean that unlike Israel, where only Jews have the right to self-determination, everyone in Britain, irrespective of race, religion or creed, has exactly the same rights. This, though, was not how it was perceived. He defended "taking the knee" and added that he thought "the vast majority of people do want a more equal society."

Am I alone in thinking that Starmer and the LBC presenter would challenge any caller who peddles the equally repugnant and dangerous conspiracy theory emanating from the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion? It was shocking that neither challenged this particular caller on what she said.

"This is an astonishing exchange on Sir Keir's #CallKeir on LBC today," said one twitter user. "'Gemma' from Cambridge calls in and is allowed to spout a white supremacist Great Replacement conspiracy theory unchallenged. Neither Nick Ferrari, or more importantly, the Labour leader call out her racism."

Guardian columnist Owen Jones also expressed outrage on social media. "There needs to be a full explanation and apology from Labour's leadership about this diabolical failure to challenge full-blown white supremacism on national radio," he tweeted.

Starmer's lack of response was even criticised by some of his own MPs. "When white supremacist conspiracy theories and racist undemocratic laws are promoted on national radio, they must be called out and vigorously challenged," said Zarah Sultana, the MP for Coventry South.

As far as Clive Lewis, the MP for Norwich South, is concerned, "For neither the presenter nor Keir to, at the very least, explore further, unpack and robustly challenge such an extreme statement is frankly appalling."

Nadia Whittome, the MP for Nottingham East, added: "This is a 'great replacement' conspiracy theory as old as time. We must be able to recognise and robustly challenge white supremacy – especially when it is promoted on national radio."

On Monday night, Labour issued a statement saying that Starmer "completely rejects the racist conspiracy theory that this caller espoused", and that under his leadership "the Labour Party stands for a patriotism that is built on the total inclusion of Brits from all ethnic backgrounds."

READ: Starmer is failing to unite Britain's Labour Party

The party insisted that, "Keir gave a robust defence of sportspeople taking the knee to shine a light on the deep racial inequalities and injustices against black, Asian and minority ethnic people that exist in our society."

This outrage comes at a time when Labour is struggling to prove its commitment to fighting all forms of racism. Critics of Starmer say that the party under his leadership has become a political home for people with a track record of Islamophobia and those with far-right views on Israel and Palestine. A self-confessed Zionist, the Labour leader has made no secret of the fact that he would rather work with pro-Israel Jews to combat anti-Semitism and avoid any form of cooperation with Jews within his party who are critical of the occupation state.

Such criticism has become harder to dispute, with Labour accepting donations from David Abrahams, a businessman and philanthropist denounced by Muslim groups as "abhorrent and Islamophobic". Meanwhile, the party has suspended Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, a prominent Jewish activist from the left and a stern critic of Israel.

It's hard to know if Starmer's failure to challenge the caller was a result of a blind spot in his understanding of racism, or if his uncritical support for the state of Israel has made him deeply uneasy about mentioning racism and Israel in the same breath. For the sake of his party, however, he needs to find a way to be able to speak freely about these issues and be seen as a leader who takes all forms of racism and discrimination seriously.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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