On Wednesday, forty MPs and Peers escorted their colleague Ruth Smeeth MP to give evidence at a disciplinary hearing of a member of the Labour Party, Marc Wadsworth, accused of antisemitic behaviour. A protest in support of Wadsworth had been arranged at the (not so secret) venue.
Whilst, no doubt, their support would be welcome at any time, how has it come to this?
As one of the MPs present, Wes Streeting, said, “I was proud to see so many Labour MPs and peers from across the party – including shadow ministers – accompanying Ruth this Wednesday morning in a show of friendship and solidarity. But no victim of abuse should ever have to walk through a protest against them to give evidence to a hearing. It is an appalling state of affairs.” Particularly poignant following on the day after the much-heralded meeting between Jeremy Corbyn and members of the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC) and the Board of Deputies of British Jews (BoD).
If accounts from the JLC and BoD are correct, Labour’s response to the meeting was to spend the time available talking about process rather than action. That was wholly wrong and a completely wasted opportunity, but no surprise.
When Seumas Milne, the Leader’s spinner and now de facto General Secretary of the Labour Party, came to see me two years ago it was to ask advice about how the Labour Party might best deal with the allegations of antisemitism that were already beginning to dominate the news agenda.
I gave some advice about how to deal with antisemitism, but that wasn’t what was required. It was the symptoms he wanted treating, not the cause. And it’s still the symptoms, the bad publicity, that most concern him today. It appears to me to be the only thing which concerns him.
And it’s so obvious that we seem only to care about symptoms that when I went to see comedian Bill Bailey at the weekend, his attack on Labour (balancing his attacks on May for Windrush and Cable for irrelevance) were entirely about this current ‘Whack-a-Mole’ approach to dealing with the issue. A racist pops up here, and when s/he is dealt with anther pops up there. An endless cycle of cause and effect where the effect is actually contributing to the next effect, and no-one is tackling the cause.
But why does this matter? Surely the Labour Party has to have the right process for dealing with complaints and investigations. Of course. And any process can benefit from being improved.
But any process, whatever ‘improvements’ are made, could falter at the hurdle of getting approval from the Office of the Leader of the Opposition (LotO) for any action being proposed. It took three conference calls with Seumas Milne and others over several tortuous hours (and John Mann chasing Ken around with a TV crew) to get agreement that Ken Livingstone should be suspended for the allegations of antisemitism made against him.
More recently it appears LotO are trying to row back on the adoption of the definition of antisemitism produced by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) which was adopted by the National Executive Committee (NEC) in December 2016. Although it was adopted partly to avoid being outflanked by the Tories, this internationally accepted definition was a welcome addition to the fight against antisemitism in the Labour Party. Together with the examples of antisemitic actions and language, which were also accepted, this provided a clear (or, at least, clearer) framework within which those charged with investigating allegations could operate.
But I now am told by members of the NEC that LotO are recently trying to say that the examples of antisemitic behaviour weren’t accepted and should not be used. Maybe LotO would like to say which of the examples concern them and why. It would be even more instructive if they were to say which of their friends are likely to fall foul of these examples.
There has been much said in recent days, not least at Jeremy Corbyn’s meeting with the JLC and BoD, about process. Jennie Formby has been told dealing with allegations of antisemitism is her top priority. But all the words emanating from LotO and from the General Secretary’s Office are about process and implied criticism of the staff for not dealing with issues quickly enough – it is always the staff.
But the truth of the matter lies in quite another direction.
When the cancer of Militant Tendency was removed from the Labour Party, months and months were not wasted on process. A battalion of lawyers was not put in place. No General Counsel had to be hired before action could be taken.
Instead, and to borrow an unfortunate phrase used highly inappropriately elsewhere, a hostile environment was created, making it clear if you were a member of Militant you were not welcome as a member of the Labour Party. Speech after speech by the Leadership of the Party, a handful of high profile expulsions, including those of two MPs, and action by local constituency parties supported by the NEC gave no hiding place. Members of Militant Tendency left the Labour Party to gather under the banner of Militant Labour to begin the long march to obscurity.
Of course, antisemites are not a political party. They are not an entryist organisation which can be dealt with en-bloc. But they should face the same hostile environment.
Instead Labour has become a safe haven for the weird and the whacky, and, worse, for the racist bullies who believe it is okay to level the vilest abuse at those who seek to speak out against this current cancer at the heart of Labour.
Jeremy Corbyn believes that he doesn’t have the power to tackle these issues. He believes what Seumas tells him, that he can only ask the General Secretary to look at improving the process – tweak the rules, hire a lawyer, blame the staff.
But I have news for you Jeremy. You are Leader of the Labour Party. What you say will, 99 times out of a hundred, go.
You may not be able to stop Chris Williamson physically sharing a platform with a member of the Labour Party suspended for antisemitism, but you can make it abundantly clear that you expect, and would support, charges of bringing the Party into disrepute to follow.
You may not be able to stop people using the hashtag #JC4PM alongside their antisemitic vitriol. But you could have a member of staff responding to each and every one saying it is not acceptable and nor is their membership of the Labour Party. And cheaper than a barrel of lawyers.
If you expect LotO to have an eye on which disciplinary cases should be treated more or less seriously – and currently you do – then you should also be prepared to speak up and make it clear that you expect individuals who express the views that Ken Livingstone did to be expelled from the Labour Party. The National Constitutional Committee which hears these cases is not blind justice. They are aware of ‘mood music’ emanating from the Leader’s Office. That is why Ken wasn’t expelled at the first attempt.
And yes, have a look at the process too. It should be possible within a fair process to get people like Livingstone out of the party without months and months of case preparation. If people want their day in court, then let it be at the Strand rather than Victoria Street.
Jeremy, there are still a few outliers, who believe antisemitism is a plot (probably dreamed up by the Jews) to attack your leadership. You at least recognise that it is not. It is a real issue. It has real consequences. And it must be really dealt with. Not the symptoms. Not by Whack-a-Mole. But by tackling the causes by straight talking and honest-to-goodness action. Today.
And just to make it clear action today is possible here is a draft to-do list:
- Make it clear that elected representatives must not share platforms with people facing charges of antisemitism.
- Challenge individuals using social media to conflate JC4PM with antisemitism or gaslighting about smears.
- Make it clear what action you, as Leader, expect to follow when named individuals engage in antisemitic behaviour.
- Be quicker to welcome Marc Wadsworth’s expulsion from the Labour Party (or condemn the fact he has not been) than you were to recognise the retirement of Arsène Wenger.
If we seek the trust of the people to govern, they are more likely to trust our actions than merely oft-repeated words.
Mike Creighton is the former Director of Audit and Risk Management at the Labour Party, and previously ran the Party’s Compliance Unit