POLITICS
30/08/2018 00:27 BST | Updated 30/08/2018 11:17 BST

Labour NEC’s Pete Willsman Urges Members To Vote For Him To ‘Defend Corbyn’ Against Anti-Semitism ‘Smears’

Disgraced activist faces axe as Brexit and Jewish criticism dominate NEC race

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A Labour activist dumped by Momentum over his remarks about Jews has issued a final plea to party members to keep him on the ruling National Executive Committee, claiming he will continue to defend Jeremy Corbyn against “attacks and smears”.

Peter Willsman sparked fury in July when he criticised British rabbis who had complained about anti-Semitism, adding that some members of the Jewish community were “Trump fanatics making up information”.

With the ballot for nine key places on the NEC due to close at noon on Thursday, Willsman told HuffPost UK that his close-of-poll message to members was: “Defend JC against all the appalling and unjust attacks and smears.”

His defiant message is sure to trigger fresh criticism, not least as Corbyn has himself said that whose who deny the extent of Labour’s anti-Semitism are “contributing to the problem”.

The result of the NEC election is expected to be announced next Monday. 

Willsman could lose out to independent left candidate Ann Black, as both the anti-Semitism row and demands for a conference vote on Brexit have dominated the summer’s vote for the constituency seats on the 39-strong ruling body.

Pete Willsman
NEC member Peter Willsman

Corbyn-backing grassroots group Momentum pulled its support in August after what it called his “deeply insensitive” remarks about Jewish critics of the Labour leader.

While Momentum’s eight remaining candidates are expected to be elected, the ninth slot could go to Black, a veteran critic of New Labour.

Black, who has called for Labour to adopt in full the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) paper on anti-Semitism, could be buoyed not just by her long record on the NEC but also by her backing for Brexit votes by local parties at the conference next month.

She told HuffPost UK that conference should decide Brexit policy, including whether the party should back a 'People’s Vote’ on whatever EU deal Theresa May brings back from Brussels.

Black, who pointed out that in her 18 years on the NEC she had opposed Tony Blair on everything from Iraq to privatisation, said that her main pitch to members in the NEC election was accountability and transparency.

Ann Black
Labour NEC member Ann Black

She said that her recent survey of more than 2,700 rank and file supporters found that 90% felt that it was important that the conference in Liverpool should debate Brexit policy “with meaningful votes” at the gathering next month. 

Some 81% felt it was “very important” to hold such votes and 9% “somewhat important”. Just 9% felt a debate and vote on the issue was “not important”.

“There are published polls that something like two thirds of Labour voters and 90% of Labour members voted Remain, so it’s manifesting itself again,” she told HuffPost UK.

“It’s up to CLPs. I think that’s the way to settle policy. Conference is Labour’s sovereign policy making body. If there’s a debate and vote then everyone should get behind it.”

A ‘priorities’ ballot at the party conference will decide whether local party motions on Brexit and even a second referendum are tabled for full debate and a vote.

Black added that there could be a case for a ‘People’s Vote’ on Brexit if there was a significant shift in public opinion once the final deal emerged later this year.

The long-time activist said she had “no idea” if the anti-Semitism row would have an impact on her battle to stay on the NEC.

However on her blog she has declared that “the party would be in a better place if we kept our commitment to the full IHRA paper, including illustrative examples, as agreed by the NEC’s equalities committee in December 2016 at Jeremy Corbyn’s request”.

She has also said that failure to work with the Jewish community will ultimately make it “harder to defend the rights of Palestinians and criticise the actions of the government of Israel.”

“No other organisation adopting IHRA has sought to separate the two-sentence definition from the examples, and it is hard to explain why Labour, alone, has to do so. The examples are just examples, and Labour’s own NCC [National Constitutional Committee] would interpret them within their context.”

PA Wire/PA Images
Labour MP Luciana Berger at a protest against anti-semitism this year

Black said her regular blog reports of NEC meetings proved she was “accountable”.

“I’ve been publishing reports for 18 years. I’ve lost count of the number of people who say I’m the only person who tells members what’s going on. The ones I value most are the ones who say ‘I don’t actually agree with you on A, B or C but I appreciate you telling me what happened at the meeting and why you voted as you did and why the result came out as it did’.”

The Oxford-based veteran, who topped the NEC poll in 2016 with 100,000 votes after winning Momentum’s backing, also underlined her credentials for the post.

The group this year withdrew its support in favour of other leftwingers but Black has managed to win nominations from hundreds of local parties and the support of young activists in groups like Open Labour.

She said that before 2016, the NEC “had a range of political positions” and was “a diverse section”.  

“In 2016 Momentum took all six places and they took all three places in the by election in January. So the dynamic has changed. It’s partly about slates versus individuals I suppose.

“When I first came on to the NEC there was me, Christine Shawcroft, Dennis Skinner and Mark Seddon.

PA Archive/PA Images
Former NEC member Dennis Skinner

“We took resolutions to the NEC and voted against Tony Blair on Iraq, foundation hospitals, privatisation, pretty much everything and I was one of about 16 people on the left in a national policy forum of about 150. I haven’t changed any of my policy views and that’s on my record.

“It’s now in the hands of members. I have supported one-member, one vote elections ever since I have been involved in the party. If you go back to the 1990s, Tony Blair was one member, one vote for everything and he was opposed by the Left. Since then the two have kind of switched sides.

“But I’m in favour of it on principle, and however the vote comes out I’m not going to say that we have to change the system because it produced a result that I didn’t like.”

Earlier this summer, Willsman came under fire from all wings of the party for his remarks on anti-Semitism.

Deputy leader Tom Watson said he was “a loudmouth bully”, while Corbyn’s former spokesman suggested Willsman had tried to “downplay racism”.

He could however still retain his place on the NEC if the bulk of the votes in the ballot were returned before the whole row about his remarks blew up. 

Momentum pulled its backing several days after the first votes were cast, when Willsman was still part of its “#JC9” slate of candidates.

Despite his falling out with Momentum, Willsman has won the support of several activists who share his belief that Corbyn has been unfairly targeted over the anti-semitism row.

He has continued to email members in his role as secretary of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD).

In a recent email, seen by HuffPost UK, Willsman urged members to support a motion which backed the current leadership stance on Brexit.

“CLPD is encouraging its members, where possible, to prioritise the Brexit motion (the first motion in the attached document), to back up Jeremy Corbyn’s position.”

The motion ducks any controversial topics such as explicit support for a second referendum.

CLPD

One Labour insider told HuffPost UK it was “likely” that Black had beaten Willsman to the ninth NEC slot, but no one would know for sure until next week.

Others suggested that previous NEC elections had seen a third of votes cast in the first days, with a ‘surge’ for Momentum candidates that could secure Willsman’s place on the ruling body.