I know Labour still has an antisemitism problem because I experienced it on my doorstep two weeks ago. An activist from the party tried to convince me that this issue hadn’t actually existed; it must have been all in my head.
This denial is, in itself, a form of antisemitism, according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which served the Labour Party with an unlawful act notice after finding it responsible for unlawful acts of harassment and discrimination in October 2020. That I was still having this row on my doorstep in May 2022 shows how deep the problem is embedded.
So, you’ll forgive my internal raging at the idea that all is forgiven simply because Barnet, the borough with the biggest percentage of British Jews in the country, went Labour for the first time last week.
My stomach turned when I saw Keir Starmer say in a victory speech:
‘It was important to me to come to Barnet because my first words as leader of our party when I took over in April 2020 was we were going to root out antisemitism from our party, not tolerate it anymore in our party, change our party and I said the test of that would be weather the voters trust us again in places like Barnet and they’ve done it.’
I still remember the icy creeping fear that I and so many of my Jewish friends felt in December 2019 at the idea of a Corbyn government which would have antisemitism at its heart. He showed us how easily Jew-hatred could be accepted and how many people who call themselves anti-racists – including most of the Labour front bench – were content to be bystanders to it because it was politically expedient. British Jews don’t tend to be homogenous, but antisemitism is something that was extremely rare in bringing us together as a community
Many antisemites remain in the Labour party partially due to the neglect of the complaints system – if their original antisemitism was either let off or the time of their suspension ran out, they cannot be resuspended based on the original evidence against them. At least half my Jewish friends who are Labour party members still have to attend local meetings with people who they know to be antisemites. I will never vote for my local Labour MP. an ardent Corbynite who – incredibly – told a packed hustings at a synagogue that there were ‘two sides’ to Labour’s antisemitism row.
I grew up in Barnet, worked as a local newspaper journalist covering the council and all of my family and most of my friends live in the borough. Due to the vagaries of borough boundaries, I live about three streets away from Barnet. And the idea that the borough went red because the Jews had forgiven Corbyn-era antisemitism is both wrong and offensive.
It doesn’t even stand up to basic arithmetic either. For while Barnet may have the biggest percentage of Jewish people in the country. because we are such a tiny minority (there are around 300,000 of us in the entire country) that still only amounts to 15% of Barnet which has 400,000 residents. What’s more, most of the wards with the biggest percentages of Jewish residents voted Conservative.
That is not to say Jewish people haven’t noticed things have changed. Keir Starmer made fighting antisemitism in the party one of the cornerstones of his leadership. There have been some attempts at education – not enough – and he has proscribed members of the worst groups. Throwing racists out of a party is an expensive business; officially this is costing around £3m but one well-connected source tells me the legal bills are set to amount to around £7m, and the party is already having to make redundancies to cover some of the bill.
And in Barnet we can see that difference. Several of the new Labour councillors elected were young Jewish people. A cynic might say this is simply a ‘good look’ – the activist on my doorstop was able to tell me that Labour couldn’t be antisemitic because one of their candidates was a rabbi – but at the same time, at least they were chosen to be candidates.
We are starting at a low base after the terror of the Corbyn years, but this election Jewish people who wanted to vote Labour no longer felt like there was a conflict between their ethnicity and their political beliefs. While many of them still can’t forgive, for others this was the first time since 2015 they felt able to vote, like anyone else, based on what they thought was best for their borough – and for many in Barnet that meant voting against a council which was seen as increasingly incompetent.
And while Barnet did not change hands because of the Jewish vote, there are question marks over the impact antisemitism had on an election 200 miles away from Barnet. The Sedgley ward in Bury has a large Jewish population and saw a huge drop in the Tory vote, and a smaller increase in the Labour one, after two Conservative candidates were accused of antisemitism.
While that result reflected the national picture to a degree, it also highlighted the fact that British Jews remain alert to antisemitism, whatever the political party. Ultimately, if you are against us, why would we give you our precious vote?
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