Andrew Feinstein Is the Left’s Anti-Keir Starmer

'I am terrified by what a Labour government will do.'

by Rivkah Brown

19 June 2024

Andrew Feinstein speaks to Novara Media reporter Rivkah Brown. Photo: Buster Grey-Jung/Novara Media

“Anybody want some pistachios?” If most of Britain’s politicians suffer a pathological inability to be normal, Andrew Feinstein is allergic to being a politician. Despite telling him several times that we were going to shoot photographs to accompany the piece, Feinstein shows up in a loose long-sleeved T-shirt, only a slight variation on his signature baker-boy cap and leather jacket. He will shake your hand if pressed, but prefers to hug. He’s an impossible interviewee not because he’s obsessively media-trained but because he isn’t, going on long tangents about the anti-apartheid struggle. We are an hour into the interview before we even get on to his candidacy.

Everything about Feinstein signals he wants nothing less than to join Britain’s political class – and in all likelihood, he won’t. The former African National Congress (ANC) MP, who is contesting Keir Starmer’s seat in Holborn and St Pancras in July, stands little chance of actually winning. That isn’t just for the obvious reason that he’s standing against the Labour leader but also because of Britain’s pay-to-play political system: as an independent candidate, Feinstein could at the time we spoke spend a maximum of around £17,000; by comparison, Labour spent over £900,000 on candidates before parliament was even dissolved (in large part to bypass post-dissolution spending limits).

That isn’t to say Labour isn’t rattled by Feinstein, however. Six days after Feinstein announced his candidacy, Wais Islam announced his. The former Respect-turned-Labour councillor was voted off of Tower Hamlets council in 2010, though his wife Asma remains a councillor there. Asma is also a member of the Starmerite Labour To Win faction alongside Israel lobbyist Luke Akehurst, though she denies they are close. 

Islam insists on his and his wife’s political differences. However, shortly before a recent campaign event organised for him by the Muslim community in Camden, Islam asked if his wife could address the audience. Wais insists he is not a Labour spoiler candidate intended to divide the Muslim vote Feinstein hopes to attract, tracing his interest in standing for office to October when he launched the Camden Gaza Ceasefire Association. The group has so far had no meetings.

All this grubby politicking begs the question: Feinstein has been there, done that and returned with an entire wardrobe of overly casual T-shirts. Why is he sacrificing his enviable sleep routine – he told me he usually gets eight or nine hours a night, though these days less than half that – to reenter the fray of party politics?

“I believe our democracies are in extreme crisis,” he said when we spoke in late May. “Unfortunately, my own constituency MP’s politics are emblematic of this crisis … because he’s turned the Labour party … back into a neoliberal warmongering party that offers voters absolutely no choice. And I look at the American election, I look at this election, I think for goodness’ sake, is this the best we can offer?

“The ruling elite feel[s] more distant from the people they’re supposed to represent than at any time that I can remember anywhere in the world,” he added. “Which, given where I grew up, is quite a statement.”

Child of apartheid.

Feinstein was born in 1964, slap bang in the middle of South Africa’s 46-year-long apartheid regime. He is honest that his family was the product of its time: his paternal grandmother, whom he describes as “deeply racist”, employed a Black servant she would call “boy” despite him being a grown man. So incensed was his grandma when her son, Feinstein’s father, began dating a non-Jewish white woman that she sent him to England. He returned with a working-class Viennese Jew. This was not the plan.

For Feinstein’s mother Erika, coming to South Africa from Nazi-occupied Austria was a strange experience. Having lived out the war hidden in a coal cellar with her mother by a senior Nazi officer (“You think I would keep Jews in my house?” he’d ask the SS during their raids), she suddenly found herself the beneficiary of white supremacy.

“Her opinion was that Black South Africans were treated like European Jews had been treated in Europe during the war,” Feinstein said. This is not a tenuous analogy: many of those responsible for the Holocaust avoided prosecution by fleeing abroad, including to South Africa, where they were met with open arms: the early proponents and architects of apartheid, such as the Afrikaner nationalist organisation Ossewabrandwag and politician Hendrik Verwoerd, strongly supported the Nazis, styling South Africa’s apartheid legislation on Germany’s anti-Jewish laws.

Erika Feinstein became involved in The Black Sash, a group of white South African women who would stand at busy intersections at rush hour protesting apartheid. A puppeteer by trade, she worked in a theatre called The People’s Space which was non-racial, therefore illegal, meaning it was regularly shut down. Feinstein remembers her driving him in her brown VW Beetle through Black townships, terrified they would be arrested by the apartheid police.

Photo: Buster Grey-Jung/Novara Media

Feinstein’s mother gave him an acute sense of his position within South Africa’s racial hierarchy. “We weren’t the richest family, we were sort of comfortably middle-class,” he said, but also held “the most extreme form of privilege one could have anywhere in the world.” Many in South Africa’s Jewish community jealously guarded that newfound privilege: Feinstein recalls his aunt’s husband asking him after he returned from an anti-apartheid action, “Why are you doing this nonsense? … Just be grateful it’s the schvartzes [Yiddish for “Blacks”] and not us.” Feinstein was dismayed.

Feinstein’s first foray into activism was inadvertently trained directly on his own family. As a teenager, Feinstein worked on a campaign to boycott Shell, the main fuel provider to the apartheid military – and also the main client of his father’s advertising business. “I later … came to realise that my first political activism had actually been against the company [that] provided a roof over my head,” he reflected. “I think that it spoke to [my] ambivalence about growing up white in apartheid South Africa.”

It is this ambivalence – his ability to hold two positions at once – that defines Feinstein’s politics. Unlike many Jews – South African Jews most notably – Feinstein is intimately connected to and deeply committed to preserving the memory of the Holocaust: one of his relatives still has the striped pyjamas in which she was liberated; he regularly visits his mother’s childhood best friend in Vienna; he raised South Africa’s first-ever Holocaust motion in parliament. He cried during the debate; Feinstein is, to nobody’s surprise, a crier. He also understands that no identity categories are fixed, and that there is no such thing as an eternal victim.

Yesterday’s terrorist, tomorrow’s liberator.

The reason is that over the course of his career, Feinstein has witnessed categories of hero and villain shift, even reverse, in real time: he’s seen Nelson Mandela, a man the UK and US states once designated a terrorist, become synonymous with the fight for democracy; has seen the ANC go from an armed resistance movement to a corrupt establishment that has recently lost its parliamentary majority for the first time since apartheid ended.

After what he describes as the “euphoria” of the ANC’s early days in power – Feinstein has a picture of Mandela and Desmond Tutu holding their hands together aloft as his WhatsApp profile – he eventually resigned his parliamentary role in 2001 because of the party’s attempt to cover up a dodgy arms deal (Tony Blair had a hand in it, unsurprisingly). He has spent the 23 years since then investigating the arms trade from the UK, where he lives with his wife and two children, most notably in his book The Shadow World.

“The mutability between the oppressed and the oppressor in both directions is something that I’ve been very conscious of from a young age,” Feinstein told me. This is perhaps most visible in his stance on Israel: “The fact that Israel defines itself as a Jewish state I don’t necessarily see as a positive thing … that starts at a very basic philosophical level.”

Feinstein is underselling his stance. An outspoken anti-Zionist, he has built much of his profile within the left through drawing parallels between South African and Israeli apartheid (he often says that the latter is worse). He amassed a following during the Corbyn years for his outspoken defence of the embattled Labour leader, leveraging his status as a prominent Jewish anti-Zionist to refute trumped-up antisemitism claims. He maintains a committed base among a certain cadre of socialists closely associated with the Corbyn project; his parliamentary candidacy has recently been endorsed by Eric Clapton and Roger Waters.

More recently, Feinstein’s objections to Labour’s permissive stance on Gaza is what he recently told the Jewish media outlet Vashti “pushed me to run” against Starmer. Feinstein is one of several independents challenging Labour on a pro-Palestine platform, the best-known being Leanne Mohamad, the British Palestinian woman running against Wes Streeting in Ilford North.

“Starmer has now gone a step too far by refusing to support an unqualified ceasefire and a halt to arms sales to Israel amid the greatest human tragedy since World War Two,” Feinstein recently wrote for Declassified.

A sense of responsibility.

Feinstein’s candidacy is also a reflection of the pressure he’s been under for years. Amidst a sparse field of charismatic leftists, Feinstein soon found himself wheedled for a parliamentary run: “People have been trying to persuade me for literally years to stand when an election happens,” he said. Until recently he has resisted that pressure, prioritising his journalism (until recently he was working on a book on Gaza and Yemen, which he’s paused during the campaign). This election feels different.

“If there is a Labour government with a huge majority after this election, I am terrified by what they will do. I am terrified that they seem to have as their political instincts no commitment to democracy in any meaningful [sense], and an instinctive authoritarianism.

“What happens if a Labour government under Keir Starmer decides to treat all the citizens of this country the way they’ve treated Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott, Faiza Shaheen and others. Is that acceptable? These are people who have given, in the case of Jeremy and Diane, decades of service to their communities and to the Labour party, and they can barely treat them as human beings. I feel I have a responsibility.”

Andrew Feinstein in his office in central London. Photo: Buster Grey-Jung/Novara Media

Indeed, Feinstein is motivated by a profound sense of responsibility. As a student, he found himself inadvertently recruited into the underground wing of the ANC after going to resist a slum clearance. Sat in a stuffy meeting room for hours waiting for a strategy meeting to begin, Feinstein turned to the guy next to him and said he was going home for a shower and to change.

The guerrilla turned to him and said: “Oh, so the umlungu [white boy] is going home to his nice house in the suburbs, where his mommy is going to cook him a nice hot meal, he’s gonna have a hot shower, put on his nice new clothes, and he will come back here and us Black people will still be sitting here sweating and stinking.” He wells up remembering his shame.

“That changed my life from being a spoiled white kid to actually understanding what it required to play any meaningful role in a political struggle,” Feinstein called. It required sacrifice.

As an MP, Feinstein has said he’d oppose privatisation, create people’s forums for locals to air their concerns to service providers (he ran something similar back in South Africa), hold weekly surgeries (Starmer is barely seen in his constituency, a marked contrast to the famously Schrodinger’s Corbyn) and consult residents on every parliamentary vote. His campaign isn’t really about pledges, though, but embodying what Starmer lacks: a commitment to democracy no matter the personal stakes. I grab a handful of pistachios, am hugged within an inch of my life, and head out the door.

Rivkah Brown is a commissioning editor and reporter at Novara Media.

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