The anti-Semitism scandal within the British Labour Party has now raged on for over three years. Often referred to as ‘patient zero’ of this crisis, Ken Livingstone was suspended in April 2016 after claiming Hitler supported Zionism ‘before he went mad.’
Choosing a very different path to Naz Shah MP, an exemplar in rebuilding trust with the Jewish community, Livingstone doubled down on his remarks and eventually resigned Labour membership in May 2018, foregoing the need for expulsion. The British Jewish community will never know whether Labour intended to kick Livingstone out for good, because they never had to. He is now honorary president of Labour Against The Witchhunt, a group who spend their time defending activists accused of anti-Semitism.
Livingstone beat Baroness Oona King to be reselected as our London mayoral candidate in 2011, despite having lost the office to Boris Johnson three years earlier. King, on whose campaign I volunteered for a summer, would have been a much easier sell to my traditional Jewish grandpa, who grew up in 1930s Bethnal Green. My grandpa’s vote was always “between him and the ballot box”, but he abandoned this adage as I, a naïve 16-year-old who didn’t want more tube fare increases under Boris, attempted to convince him of Red Ken’s rehabilitation. His doubts went beyond bendy busses; the warnings were about how anti-Semitism is normalised by seemingly harmless people, and that we, the Jews, had to always have our guard up. Anti-Semitism is a light sleeper, but its presence is cyclical. My grandpa didn’t make it to polling day, and eight years on I wonder what he’d make of the modern Labour Party, or his grandson’s involvement in it. His wisdom is sorely missed.
Anti-Jewish racism on the left isn’t new. It existed before Corbyn, and I’m depressingly confident it will exist after he’s gone, but anti-Semitism under his leadership has become mainstreamed. Thirty years of hard-left backbench baggage eventually caught up with him, and now overshadows the exciting domestic policies and socialist vision which once led Labour activists like me to support him. Corbyn hasn’t shaken off the historic associations which tarnish his supposed history of anti-racism, and he has not sufficiently distanced himself from statements he has made about Israel which either feed into anti-Semitic tropes or deny its right to exist.
Along with writing an uncritical foreword for Hobson’s Imperialism, laying a wreath for the Munich Massacre terrorists, defending an anti-Semitic mural in Tower Hamlets, and sharing numerous platforms with Jew-haters while describing Hamas and Hezbollah as ’friends’, BBC’s Panorama has uncovered how interference from Corbyn’s office frustrated party investigations into anti-Semitism, proving to me the anti-Jewish baggage brought from the far-left fringe is now institutional. More than a failure of procedure, this is a crisis of culture, unless of course he was “present, but not involved”. Whether you agree with the assertion or not, it’s impossible not to empathise with last year’s joint editorial from the Jewish Chronicle, Jewish News, and Jewish Telegraph calling the Labour leader an “existential threat to British Jews”.
Speaking out about the anti-Jewish racism I have experienced and witnessed within the Labour Party has been one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. Choosing to stand up and be counted is never an easy decision, especially when it is one which comes with great personal risk and an inevitable barrage of abuse, both online and offline. The alternative, to stay silent and thereby compliant in the face of anti-Jewish hostility, is, for me, a far more terrifying prospect. Faced with this same decision, eight former Labour Party staffers bravely came forward to blow the whistle on Wednesday’s Panorama, Is Labour Anti-Semitic?
These eight whistle-blowers, whom I regard as heroes of the Labour movement, gave harrowing testimony to John Ware which detailed the interference from Corbyn’s office in cases of anti-Semitism, and the lack of political cover to expel racists from the party – a part of their job. Mike Creighton described communications director Seamus Milne’s response to the ongoing crisis as one of media management; instead of actually addressing the fact Labour now gives breathing space to anti-Semites, Milne regarded the press coverage as a right-wing smear. Favouring press crackdowns over sincerely handling incidences of bullying, harassment, or discrimination, is an attitude I’ve seen echoed in local party structures.
My colleagues and I have been more harshly judged for speaking out by local members and elected officers than the perpetrators of the abuse we are attempting to uncover. Since sunlight is always the best disinfectant, I regard these as silencing tactics. Marginalised people have less social capital and have to scream thrice as loud to be heard by those in charge. A Labour party that prides itself on social justice, its commitment to equality, and its foundation in workers’ rights should never be caught trying to silence activists.
Particularly difficult segments of Panorama included hearing the state of staffers’ mental health, impacted by working in an organisation toxified by racism and a culture of bullying, as described by former staffers such as Kat Buckingham, Sam Matthews, and Louise Withers Green. In almost ten years of party membership, I had never imagined we would be in a place where, as a political organisation rooted in trade unionism, this is how we would treat our young staff.
Deputy leader Tom Watson told BBC Radio 4 it was “impossible not to be moved” by these testimonies, yet the official Labour line was to dismiss former staffers as “disaffected”, and embark on a game of victim-blaming, self-pity, denialism, and character-assassination. This could not be further from the response that the British Jewish community, and Jewish Labour activists, are crying out for. Kat, Sam, and Louise have our total support and solidarity.
The time for real action on Labour anti-Semitism has been and gone. Now is the time for heads to roll. Internal investigations into bigotry, harassment, and bullying need wholesale independence from the party and the leader’s office; the Jewish Labour Movement, LGBT+ Labour, and Labour Women’s Network are among numerous party affiliates that agree. Panorama proved how vulnerable the existing system is to manipulation; consulting external experts like Community Security Trust, Hope Not Hate, Tell MAMA, the Fawcett Society, and Runnymede Trust could be part of the solution. The only way forward for Labour, morally and electorally, is to find a solution. For many of us, the thread by which our memberships hang is thinning fast.
Joshua Garfield is a Labour councillor in Newham, local government officer at Jewish Labour Movement, and campaigns officer at LGBT+ Labour