A veteran activist has been re-elected to Labour’s ruling body – despite a row over his claim that some Jewish people were ‘Trump fanatics’ who lacked evidence of Labour anti-Semitism.
Pete Willsman, whose remarks led to him being dumped by grassroots group Momentum during the ballot process, was one of nine people to win seats on the National Executive Committee (NEC).
Fellow veteran activist Ann Black lost out, as did the entire slate of ‘moderate’ candidates supported by the Labour First and Progress groups. Comedian and campaigner Eddie Izzard lost out by less than 3,000 votes.
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Last week, when the poll closed, Willsman told HuffPost UK that his final message to members was: “Defend JC against all the appalling and unjust attacks and smears.”
Willsman – a long time ally of Jeremy Corbyn – sparked controversy when his controversial anti-Semitism remarks emerged days after the ballot opened in July.
He criticised British rabbis who had complained about anti-Semitism, adding that some members of the Jewish community were “Trump fanatics making up information”.
His comments drew a withering verdict from fellow NEC member and deputy Labour leader Tom Watson.
But Momentum’s original backing for Willsman as one of its ‘#JC9’ slate of candidates appears to have ensured a surge of support at the start of the NEC election, when many party members vote.
Critics claimed that his notoriety had also helped boost his name recognition, as some left-wingers rallied behind him in what they believed were unfair attacks on Jeremy Corbyn over the issue.
Momentum founder Jon Lansman - who came third in the NEC election - revealed on Sunday at a Jewish Labour Movement conference that he had himself voted for Willsman right at the beginning of the election.
“I was very unhappy with what Peter Willsman did on the NEC on that occasion and on a number of previous occasions in the way he spoke.
“However it had become a sufficiently frequent occurrence for most members of the NEC to almost put it out of our minds. Lots of people in this room voted down the lines of slates at the point we voted, as I did too, I confess.
“But we then took a decision to remove him from from the slate because of the understandable public concern after that tape.”
Willsman was way behind the top ranked Momentum candidate, Yasmine Dar. But his success may have been boosted by the fact that candidate statements from the Momentum contenders remained unchanged even after it dropped him from the slate.
Black stressed that she hoped the NEC would continue the tradition of a ‘diverse’ range of perspectives.
Labour MP Wes Streeting said the results proved that Willsman should have been suspended as soon as he’d made his remarks at the NEC meeting in mid July.
Labour’s NEC is set on Tuesday to debate and vote on a new plan to adopt in full the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) paper on anti-Semitism with all its examples of abuse.
The issue of anti-semitism has dogged the party through the summer, with Corbyn revealed to have claimed some Zionists lack an understanding of British ‘irony’.
Laura Parker, Momentum’s National Coordinator, said: “These results are a fantastic victory for ordinary grassroots members and another step forward in building a reinvigorated, democratic Labour party that is capable of winning the next election.
“The success of all eight Momentum backed candidates builds on our NEC results from last year, and we’re now looking forward to this year’s Labour Conference where the democracy review and open selections for parliamentary candidates are set to be debated.”
Eddie Izzard, who remains on the NEC until the new body takes its seats later this month after party conference, tweeted his own disappointment but said he still would back the IHRA examples in full.
Denny Taylor, spokesperson for Labour Against Antisemitism, said: “The election of the ‘#JC9’ slate by Labour members to the party’s NEC raises further concerns about institutional antisemitism in the party.
“It is highly disappointing that, despite the raised profile of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party over the summer, Labour members have chosen to give their support to candidates so apparently ambivalent towards tackling what is an existential threat to our party.”
Conservative Party Chairman Brandon Lewis said: “These results highlight yet again how the Labour leadership is not serious about tackling anti-Semitic racism.
“Jeremy Corbyn once promised a ‘kinder politics’, but the election of Peter Willsman, the man who described Jewish critics of Labour as ‘Trump fanatics’, has left that promise in tatters.”
A friend of Izzard told HuffPost: “Eddie is a marathon runner and he’s in this for the long term. As an independent up against two campaign machines this was always going to be a tough election but it is clear there is a lot of support for his positive viewpoint and pro European values.”