The issue of antisemitism dominated the Labour leadership hustings in London yesterday, which was organised by the Party’s Jewish affiliate and moderated by the Jewish journalist Robert Peston.
In her introductory remarks, Dame Margaret Hodge MP, who is Jewish, said that antisemitism “hasn’t just penetrated the Labour Party but has chronically infected our Labour Party,” describing the last four years under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn as the most “miserable, challenging and lonely”.
She also highlighted how during this leadership campaign history was being “rapidly rewritten by those who are seeking our support,” noting that, despite the candidates making comforting statements now, as Shadow Cabinet ministers they were invisible “when we needed them most,” asking: “what did they actually do to force the leadership to act?” (Three of the four candidates sit in the Shadow Cabinet, with the fourth having served in the Shadow Cabinet for almost a year until mid-2016.)
Dame Margaret said that it was no good speaking up only in the “privacy” of Shadow Cabinet meetings and urged whichever candidate is successful to clean up the Party’s central office, including dealing with senior officials.
In their opening statements, all four candidates — Rebecca Long-Bailey, Emily Thornberry, Sir Keir Starmer and Lisa Nandy — pledged to implement the recommendations of the report that is expected to be published in the coming months by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) after it completes the full statutory investigation into Labour antisemitism that it launched on 28th May 2019 following a formal referral and detailed legal representations from Campaign Against Antisemitism, which is the complainant.
Ms Long-Bailey observed how the Party’s antisemitism crisis had caused “palpable” “pain”, “anxiety” and “anger” in the Jewish community in Manchester, part of which lives in her constituency, and that it was “devastating” and “shameful” that Jews did not feel safe in the Labour Party, and apologised for it. Ms Long-Bailey later added that she spoke up on the issue of antisemitism, which elicited cries of “when?” from the audience, and admitted that “I should take responsibility” for not doing enough. “Could I have done more?” she asked rhetorically, before answering: “Yes”.
Ms Thornberry, whose husband’s family is Jewish, said that the Jewish community “wrongly” believed that a Labour government would have made them unsafe, but expressed her “disgust” that that is how Jews were made to feel by the Party. She later noted how a Jewish member of her staff reported that she could not go to family weddings and other occasions and publicise that she works for Labour, out of shame.
Sir Keir, whose parents’ family is Jewish, apologised to the community, saying: “I’m sorry that we let our Party get into the state that you lost faith in us,” and explained that “if you’re antisemitic you should be out [of Labour],” lamenting that “we’ve overcomplicated this.” He described dealing with antisemitism as “going to take time” but insisted that it is a “day one issue” for the successful candidate. He pledged that the test for the Party “isn’t about rules” but rather about whether the victims of antisemitism would feel comfortable to return: “I would not be satisfied that we’ve dealt with this unless people like [Jewish former Labour MP Dame] Louise [Ellman]…feel that they comfortably can come back”. Ms Thornberry agreed.
Ms Nandy declared about her Party: “We’ve lost all our moral authority”. Hers was the only opening statement that received strong applause, and it can be viewed here.
Mr Peston described the processes to deal with antisemitism in the Labour Party as “s***”, and observed that “this is a moral issue”. He went on to ask whether the candidates regard it as antisemitic “to describe Israel, its policies or the circumstances around its foundation as racist because of their discriminatory impact”, an apparent near allusion to one of the examples in the International Definition of Antisemitism. The candidates all appeared to affirm that it would be (or at least none demurred).
But Mr Peston then noted how Mr Corbyn had in 2018 proposed a “code” to the Party’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) to be adopted instead of the Definition, and the code deliberately diluted the Definition on points such as the example that Mr Peston had raised. Mr Peston described that episode as “an extraordinary moment” and asked: “Why wasn’t there a deeper reckoning at that point?”
Ms Long-Bailey replied that the Jewish community was meant to be consulted on the code but when it transpired that it had not been, she no longer supported it (she had been a public supporter of it at the time) and instead backed adoption of the full Definition.
Ms Thornberry said that she had supported the adoption of the Definition throughout, and when she tried to raise the issue of antisemitism more generally she was told by Party superiors that it “wasn’t my business” and was told to stick to her foreign policy brief.
Sir Keir said that he supported adoption of the Definition in public and private; argued for an auto-exclude policy for offenders and in particular in high profile cases such as those of the disgraced former London Mayor Ken Livingstone and disgraced former MP Chris Williamson; described the Party’s resistance to adopting the Definition as a “low moment”; called for an independent investigation and disciplinary process; and reported that there had been rows in Shadow Cabinet and that he and Ms Thornberry (but not, by implication, Ms Long-Bailey) had spoken up because the NEC was not dealing with the problem adequately.
Asked whether any of the Shadow Cabinet ministers had considered resigning over antisemitism, none of them answered, although Ms Nandy volunteered that antisemitism was a factor in why she chose not to return to the Shadow Cabinet after resigning with several colleagues in 2016. She also disclosed that she had considered her position in the Labour Party “every single day”. Ms Nandy also received thunderous applause for her complaint that the Party’s submissions to the EHRC have still not been disclosed by Labour to the leadership candidates or the Party’s Jewish affiliate.
Ms Nandy pointed out that the Party did tolerate not only antisemitism but, relatedly, also misogyny, as the most prominent Jewish MPs who were targeted over the past several years were women, and bullying, particularly with respect to the Party’s staff-turned-whistleblowers who featured on the Panorama investigation into Labour antisemitism.
With regard to the reported defamation claims being brought by the Panorama whistleblowers against the Labour Party, all the candidates agreed that the cases should be settled, although Ms Long-Bailey added: “whether we thought what they said was factually correct or not.”
One phrase that kept being repeated throughout the hustings was how much the candidates had “spoken up” during the period of Mr Corbyn’s leadership. Discussion about actual action that had been taken over the past several years, however, was considerably more limited.
In the first release of its Antisemitism in Political Parties research, Campaign Against Antisemitism showed that Labour Party candidates for Parliament in the 2019 general election accounted for 82 percent of all incidents of antisemitic discourse by parliamentary candidates.
Campaign Against Antisemitism’s Antisemitism Barometer 2019 showed that antisemitism on the far-left of British politics has surpassed that of the far-right.
Campaign Against Antisemitism advocates for zero tolerance of antisemitism in public life. To that end we monitor all political parties and strive to ensure that any cases of concern are properly addressed.
The full hustings is available to watch here.