8 July 2019

For Labour’s leadership, ambition trumps the needs of British Jews

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The title of this Wednesday’s Panorama programme is “Is Labour Anti-Semitic?” The question seems rather pointless, in that the vast majority of its viewers will have given their own answer long before it is broadcast.

The whole question of anti-Semitism in the party seems now to have been reduced to whether or not you’re a supporter of the current leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Arguably, it’s another sign of Labour’s institutional anti-Semitism that even the question of its existence is deemed less important than whether or not you support Corbyn.

It’s understandable that those close to the Labour Party, who care about its future success and its ability to enact in government polices that they hope will benefit the wider country, prioritise their own agendas. But they need to get some perspective.

Anti-Semitism and its defeat matter far more than the fate of one solitary political party. During the period of Labour’s existence, the harm and misery caused by anti-Semitism has far outweighed all the good the party has ever done.

That Labour is now seen as a safe space for anti-Semites should at least be acknowledged: how can it be defeated unless we accept it is there in the first place?

In fact the leadership seem to be doing just that. No member of the current Shadow Cabinet has suggested publicly that this is not a problem for the party. None has suggested that anti-Semites should not be investigated and, if found guilty, expelled from its ranks. If words were actions, Labour would indeed, once again, be a place where Jews felt welcome.

But they don’t feel welcome, and five minutes scrolling through yesterday morning’s political interview shows explains why. John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor, is far and away Labour’s best media performer, and he made a decent fist of explaining why his party is not facing both ways on Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs). To summarise, the party officially opposes them and wants to ban them, while also enforcing them upon its own employees. Some of those (now ex-) employees have been threatened with court action by the party’s lawyers for taking part in the BBC’s documentary.

Meanwhile, the Shadow International Trade Secretary, Barry Gardiner, was embellishing his credentials as the front bench’s Rottweiler by sticking it to ex-staffers and suggesting they’re only speaking out about Jew hatred because they have their own political agenda.

Now, it should be pointed out that Gardiner was not suggesting that that agenda is loyalty to Israel or to the Rothschilds; he was casting aspersions on their support for Jeremy Corbyn. Among the leader’s supporters it still rankles that on the day, four years ago, that Corbyn was first declared leader, staff from the party’s headquarters dressed as though they were attending a funeral.

Nevertheless, neither man did their party much good yesterday. Few viewers will have understood or agreed with McDonnell’s distinction about confidentiality agreements, and how whistleblowing is a good thing, while ex-staffers’ testimony about the party’s failure to tackle anti-Semitism is somehow a bad thing. The party cannot have it both ways: if, as Labour believes, law-breaking can and should be exposed by individuals within organisations breaking faith with their employers, why isn’t tolerance of racism defined as “law breaking”?

Is the party suggesting that this should be filed under “human resources issues” rather than a matter for criminal law? And while it’s an old and over-used trick, let’s replace “anti-Semitism” with the more straightforward and catch-all term, “racism”. If racism were being tolerated in the Labour Party, if investigatory and disciplinary action against accused individuals were being deliberately avoided or drawn out, would whistleblowers have their motives questioned by senior Shadow Cabinet members on national television?

Is anti-Semitism so unimportant an issue that these ex-staffers’ motivation must be about something else? After all, who cares that much about the Jews?

Being an employee of the Labour Party is no easy life, believe me. You work very hard indeed for the modest wages you are paid, and the chances are that whatever job you go on to, you will not be expected to work as hard for so little reward ever again. That the motivation of former employees, people who have in the past put the love of their party before money, even before their families (as staff are often required to do), is called into question by a front bench MP sent into the TV studio to repeat the party line is bad enough.

That the official party response to the BBC investigation is to blame the messenger, and to threaten former employees with court action, is much, much worse. You may already have made your mind up about the question, “Is Labour anti-Semitic?” But the last day or two have shown conclusively that whatever the answer, Labour’s leadership prioritises the party and their own political ambitions far above the concerns of Jewish UK citizens.

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Tom Harris is a former Labour MP and the author of 'Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party'