W Stephen Gilbert
Chris Williamson is the Labour MP for Derby North. He was Shadow Minister for Fire and Emergency Services until January, when he stepped down, having spoken outside his remit. Free of collective responsibility, he has been touring the country in response to invitations to speak to CLPs. Articulate, passionate and politically close to the leadership, he is a popular speaker who has the happy knack of firing up his audiences and hence is a real asset in what may turn out to be a pre-election climate. He is also prepared to stick his head above the parapet.
Speaking in Sheffield recently, Williamson was recorded on a mobile phone as suggesting that Labour has “backed off far too much, we have given too much ground, we have been too apologetic … we’ve done more to address the scourge of anti-Semitism than any political party”.
He was obliged to apologise and withdraw and has now been suspended from the party. Deputy leader Tom Watson, who comfortably alternates between calling for party unity and implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) undermining his leader, dismissed Williamson’s apology out of hand, thereby ensuring that Williamson had no ground to stand on as far as Watson’s faction was concerned.
It is a great pity and in the end a self-defeating gambit that Williamson agreed to bow to pressure from a leadership that has been under extreme pressure on the issue for three years now. It would have been much more constructive – if only in the long term – had he defied the party to show how his argument had been unacceptable. At some point, a stand must be taken against the campaign that conflates legitimate criticism of the government of Israel, much of which stems from people who are not only Jewish but Israeli, with ignorant racial prejudice. Departing from the policies of Benjamin Netanyahu is no more anti-Semitic than deploring the antics of Donald Trump is anti-American.
The Williamson case demonstrates only too clearly that anti-Semitism is no longer an issue that may be discussed in rational terms in the Labour Party. It is not enough to characterise anti-Semitism as a scourge. You are only permitted to claim that this scourge is endemic to the party and to accuse the leadership of “not doing enough”. The argument is that the leadership needs to act “more quickly”, which is to say without due process and merely on someone’s say-so. Unless you can combine a claim of rampant anti-Semitism in the party with a frontal attack on Jeremy Corbyn, you are implicitly damaging the party. These are the prescribed positions from which any departure is itself deemed to be anti-Semitic. The politics of Senator Joseph McCarthy irresistibly come to mind.
Even so, both an official Labour party investigation and the cross-party Commons Home Affairs Committee have exonerated Labour of the “institutional racism” of which the former Labour MP Luciana Berger accuses it. Several academic analyses of data have also shown that claims of widespread anti-Semitism in Labour are “grossly exaggerated” [Dr Alan Maddison, February 2019]. The party investigation identified a number of actual Labour members who had recorded comments along racial or cultural lines, but these comments represented 0.08% of the membership. It would be instructive if a Labour party committee were to investigate abuse aimed at the party leader and the Shadow Home Secretary. More than 0.08% of the membership, I suggest.
Berger herself has clearly suffered anti-Semitic abuse during her term as an MP, but whether such abuse stems from inside the Labour Party remains largely moot. For those who wish to prevent Jeremy Corbyn from becoming prime minister, it is convenient to characterise the abuse as being hurled in his name. Appending the hashtag #jc4pm to a tweet is hardly proof of origin. Someone wishing to make trouble could just as easily fly a false flag. If I can conceive of such a tactic, others can too and can act upon it.
Within the Labour Party is a grouping called Labour Friends of Israel. LFI defends the actions of the Israeli government even where the world (not least the UN) is broadly united against such actions. When dozens of demonstrating but unarmed Palestinians were shot dead by Israeli snipers last year, LFI sought to excuse the killings. These excuses may no longer be found as LFI eventually decided that discretion was the better part of valour. Meanwhile, Jewish people who criticise Netanyahu and/or support Corbyn are now cast by other Jews as “the wrong kind of Jew” and “self-hating Jews”. Catch-22 lives.
Six of the eight Labour MPs (all but one of them goyish) who set up the Independent Group are and remain members of Labour Friends, which numbers Tom Watson among its supporters. Despite having left the party, Joan Ryan is still chair of LFI. She has been recorded on camera accepting financial assistance from a representative of the Israeli embassy in London, though whether that funding was for LFI or for the new group is not clear. Did you learn of this from the mainstream media? No, I thought not.
That 200 Jewish members of the party should write to The Guardian in support of Corbyn’s stances and policies ought to be more significant than eight malcontents leaving the party because they want to bring down Corbyn, but of course attack is a sexier media story than support. The 200 located anti-Semitism where it belongs, on the right of the political spectrum, but that contradicts the media consensus that equates support from the left for Palestinian self-determination with racism.
One of Corbyn’s most virulent critics is his parliamentary neighbour Margaret Hodge, she who accused Corbyn to his face of being “a fucking anti-Semite and a racist”, though at no evident risk to her own party membership. The suspicion grows that Hodge has the freedom of the BBC airwaves. She was the only politician invited by The World at One two months ago to give a tour d’horizon of the political scene over the previous twelve months. Just lately, she was permitted to comment unchallenged on the Williamson case, describing in passing Luciana Berger as having been “forced out of the party” when, by all other accounts, Berger chose to leave, yet here was Hodge advocating that Williamson be forced out.
That Hodge’s daughter is deputy news editor at the BBC ought to make the Corporation scrupulously wary of any treatment of Hodge that could be construed as favouritism, yet it demonstrates a cavalier disregard for such niceties. The preponderance of identifiably anti-Corbynite personnel among its news management endangers the BBC’s charter-bound duty to be impartial between political parties. Corbyn is the (twice-)elected leader. Favouring factions in the party ranged against him is not impartiality.
Radio and television interviewers are expected by their audiences to ask hard questions of politicians. The Labour Party needs to confront an awkward question about itself. If a member falsely or unjustly accuses another member of anti-Semitism, would or should the accuser be suspended from the party? It is a real and an urgent question and one that no one in the party seems prepared to contemplate.