Has Starmer been bought by Israel?

Over the four years since he was elected Labour Party leader, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve read on social media that Keir Starmer has been “bought and paid for by Israel”, or some similar formulation.

The accusation first arose immediately following Starmer’s election in April 2020, when it was revealed that his leadership campaign had been funded to the tune of £50K by Trevor Chinn, a multi-millionaire British Zionist with a history of financial support for the Labour right. An article in The Canary by John McEvoy titled “Keir Starmer received £50,000 donation from pro-Israel lobbyist in leadership bid” was influential in that regard, serving as an inspiration for the deranged meme above. As I wrote at the time: “The idea that the donation of £50,000 from Trevor Chinn proves that ‘Starmer works for a foreign power’ is just idiotic.” To be fair, McEvoy didn’t make that claim himself, but his disproportionate emphasis on the donation from Chinn undoubtedly encouraged this sort of nonsense.

I had written an analysis of Starmer’s campaign funding myself, in which I identified eight major individual donors who had contributed a total of £455,000 between them. In addition to the £50K from Chinn, this figure comprised £100K from Waheed Alli, £100K from Bob Latham, £95K from Martin Taylor, £50K from Clive Hollick, £25K from Peter Coates, £25K from Martin Clarke and £10K from Paul Myners. In light of this, I asked: “So why does The Canary concentrate on the role of one rich Jew who contributed a relatively small part of this sum?” No explanation was forthcoming.

The individual who concocted the Starmer meme was also responsible for an earlier image macro attacking Labour’s then deputy leader Tom Watson. It featured a photo of Watson at a Labour Friends of Israel event standing next to Israel’s then ambassador Mark Regev, who was described as his “Israeli handler”. Watson was said to have been paid by Chinn and another pro-Israel multi-millionaire named David Garrard to “represent a foreign power”. As in the Starmer meme, the fact that Watson had received more generous donations from other, non-Jewish businessmen was ignored. Also, as I pointed out at the time, Watson had a long record of support for Israel going back to his days as rightwing chair of the National Organisation of Labour Students in the early 1990s. He had done all that without needing to be bribed by Chinn and Garrard.

Starmer’s case is admittedly different. In contrast to Watson, before becoming Labour leader he was generally seen as supportive of Palestinian rights. During the 2015 general election campaign he spoke at a Palestine Solidarity Campaign meeting in Camden in front of a banner calling for the Israel Football Association to be expelled from FIFA. Many supporters of Israel were therefore unenthusiastic about the prospect of Starmer becoming Labour leader, and the party’s hardline Zionist affiliate the Jewish Labour Movement nominated rival candidate Lisa Nandy instead.

Following Starmer’s election as leader, the Times of Israel published a report titled “New Labour boss is no Corbyn, but unlikely to reverse party’s anti-Israel stance”. A source told the paper that there was “no doubt that he is more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than to the Israeli position”. Labour rightwinger and Israel lobbyist Luke Akehurst was quoted as stating that it would be unrealistic to expect “a return to the heyday of the Labour leadership’s warmth towards Israel shown by Blair and Brown”. Akehurst pointed out that Starmer’s campaign launch video had pledged support for “a human rights based foreign policy” over an image of Stop the War marchers with a large Palestinian flag.

Since then, of course, Starmer has done a dramatic about-turn on all the progressive policies he advocated when standing for the Labour leadership. The obvious explanation is that he is a cynical opportunist devoid of political principles, who in 2020 told the then predominantly left-leaning party membership what they wanted to hear in order to get them to vote for him. His advisers have now convinced him that the way to win a general election is to demonstratively repudiate the politics of the Corbyn period and junk any policy vulnerable to attack from the right. Just as the flagship £28 billion Green New Deal plan has been sacrificed in the supposed interests of electability, so has any morally supportable position on the genocide in Gaza.

But this has nothing to do with being “bought and paid for” by Israel. Frankly, anyone who seriously believes that Starmer has abandoned his defence of the Palestinian people because Trevor Chinn bunged him £50K back in 2020 should give up on politics and find an alternative field of activity that doesn’t require the capacity for intelligent thought.

The issue of Israel’s mythical financial control over Starmer came up again recently when the Kensal and Kilburn Better group organised a public discussion on the question “Is it worth voting Labour in 2024?” Chaired by Melissa Benn, the meeting featured as speakers the former Labour MP for Kensington Emma Dent Coad, who is planning to stand as an independent in that constituency, retired NEU general secretary Kevin Courtney, and would-be Labour parliamentary candidate Paul Mason, an ex-leftist who once backed Corbyn but has since transformed himself into a cheerleader for Starmer.

Later that evening Mason tweeted: “Just done a really interesting meeting. In Kilburn — lots of feisty discussion about Labour politics until a woman stood up and said ‘Keir Starmer is an agent of Israel and Labour is full of Israeli supporters’. Completely soured the atmosphere — I am so sick of left anti-Semitism and tolerance for it.” Both an audio recording and a transcript of the exchange were soon made available. It turned out that Mason’s account wasn’t accurate, although the words actually used were really no improvement on those he had misquoted. What Starmer’s critic in fact said was this:

“I can’t believe that there hasn’t been any mention here of The Labour Files, like you know the way that Jeremy Corbyn was outed and obliterated through the media because of Keir Starmer and his Israeli sponsors and the fact that so many in the Labour Party are supported and funded by Israel. How can anyone even consider voting Labour? They don’t stand for the people. The only hope that we have and why I’m here supporting Emma is because she’s local she would have stood for Labour again but Starmer and his Israeli body didn’t want her standing and that’s been the case as we’ve seen across the country.”

This contribution provoked the following angry response to the speaker from Mason: “See, why didn’t you just say Jew? Why didn’t you just say Jew? Why didn’t you just say ‘He’s a Jewish agent’? Why didn’t you just say it, because that’s what you mean, isn’t it? And I’ll say to you, anybody in this room who wants to be part of a left where you go around saying ‘Starmer is an Israeli agent’ if you want to do that, fine, form a party together, form an alliance, support Emma, but don’t bother supporting the Labour party because we are anti-racists, we are anti-racists and I will never accept that Starmer is an agent of Israel, comrade.”

The speaker would appear to be this person, who tweets under her first name of Leearna. (I’m not going to give her surname, although it isn’t difficult to identify.) There was nothing in her contribution at the Kilburn meeting to indicate that her hostility to Starmer was motivated by hatred of Jews, and Mason’s rant against her was a disgraceful smear, as was his deluded accusation that she and her defenders were promoting “the ideology that legitimised the Holocaust”. Checking Leearna’s Twitter/X history it’s quite clear that she makes a distinction between the Israeli state and the Jewish people, and between Zionism and Judaism. (“No problem with British Jews, or Jews in general from anywhere…. The problem lies with Zionists who oppress & annihilate, hiding under the guise of Judaism, which they’ve twisted.”)

Unfortunately, that’s not all. Leearna’s Twitter/X account also reveals a predilection for Zionist-conspiracy theories. Recently, in response to a Declassified UK tweet reporting that an Israeli Air Force jet was on its way from Tel Aviv to Luton Airport, she commented sarcastically: “What’s your guess as to cargo? More sheckles for all our corrupt politicians, to make sure they keep promoting Israeli propoganda lies?” (Spelling evidently isn’t one of Leearna’s strong points.) Predictably, one of those corrupt politicians is Starmer, who she had previously berated for having his “pockets lined with Israeli money”. Indeed, by her own account, her intervention at the Kilburn meeting was intended to “expose Starmer’s relationship with his Israeli financiers”.

There is more in that vein. Earlier this year Leearna retweeted a claim that “Starmer has turned the entire Labour Party into a Zionist entity, ruled by Israel”. This was accompanied by a photo of Starmer welcoming Israel’s ambassador Tzipi Hotovely and former Knesset speaker Mickey Levy to parliament last September. There were certainly good grounds for condemning this. In December, after Hotovely doubled down on her rejection of a Palestinian state, the Labour Muslim Network wrote to Starmer calling for a ban on further meetings with this far-right racist. For Leearna, however, Starmer’s welcome for Hotoveley was evidence that the Labour Party has been “completely infiltrated and controlled”, presumably by agents of Israel.

At the Kilburn meeting, under pressure from Mason (“She’s your supporter”), Emma Dent Coad defended Leearna’s intervention on the grounds that it was in opposition to Zionism — “it’s the easiest thing in the world to accuse someone of antisemitism when they are criticising a political ideology”. And in an article for the Morning Star she repeated that argument, claiming that the speaker had merely “expressed anti-zionist views” and “raised the issue of Israel lobby donations”. Emma skirted round the fact that Leearna specifically attacked Starmer over “his Israeli sponsors” and asserted that he and other Labour politicians were being “funded by Israel”.

It’s a mistake for the left to go down this road of defending the indefensible. Even if it is not consciously antisemitic, the Starmer-as-paid-stooge-of-Israel fantasy can’t be justified as a legitimate political critique of Zionism. And an obsessive overemphasis on financial support from Trevor Chinn, irrespective of subjective intentions, does echo a traditional trope about gentile politicians being controlled and manipulated by rich Jews. This is only made worse when funding from an Anglo-Jewish donor is misrepresented as a direct subvention from the state of Israel. If the left makes excuses for cranky borderline-antisemitic conspiracism like this it just plays into the hands of our enemies. You don’t have to be an admirer of Paul Mason’s increasingly unhinged politics to grasp that.

First published on Medium in March 2024