Jewish friends are in despair about the Labour party’s decision to readmit an MP who has repeatedly defended and endorsed candidates with a long history of anti-Semitism. He has downplayed and dismissed the experience of Jewish members who have experienced racism, and to date remains unapologetic. His behaviour has been described by many Jewish members as “Jew-baiting”. Their concerns have been denied.
On Friday evening the party suspended the whip again, but this chain of events has prompted serious charges of political interference. The committee that ruled on readmitting Chris Williamson was convened as Labour prepares to select candidates for an anticipated general election, last minute changes were made to the panel, and one of its members later called for his own decision to be overturned. Call it conspiracy or call it chaos — this is now an existential threat to Labour.
Racism is a disease. It does not exist in pockets. Unchallenged, it spreads and finds roots. In recent months, we have seen a rise in anti-Semitic attacks in the UK, a murder in France, attacks on synagogues in Sweden and the US and fascists on the march in Poland. As one Jewish constituent wrote to me, “people are really frightened”.
So often in history, Labour has been the hope for people who faced racism and one of the key agents in its defeat. For me, that is not historical fact; it is personal. My father was part of the small group of people who, facing that systematic discrimination himself, set up the Campaign against Racial Discrimination, wrote the Race Relations Act 1976 and established the Equal Opportunities Commission: this has had real, tangible benefits for me and my generation.
The Labour party ought to be a light on the hill for people in times of darkness but there is, as the chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust put it, “a blind spot” among some sections of the left when it comes to anti-Semitism.
What do Holocaust denial, references to financiers of the sugar and slave trades and the horrific mural that depicted Jewish bankers profiting off the backs of the poor have in common? It is the demonisation of Jewish people as somehow wielding illegitimate power, which allows its proponents to deny any suffering — especially suffering on the scale of the Holocaust. It is a form of racism that instead of looking down, looks up and argues that this group is a legitimate target for a left that exists to fight oppression in all forms. That form of anti-Semitism in our party demands to be recognised.
We have no right to pick and choose the type of racism we confront.
To deal with all this demands concrete action. That is why this week’s decision has been met with so much despair from Labour members, MPs and party staff. Last year Labour adopted a gold-standard definition of anti-Semitism. If it is to mean anything, it must be upheld. Resolving the reportedly thousands of complaints that are waiting to be heard and reinstating the longstanding and effective training for members that was cancelled this year are not optional extras.
As the Labour prime minister Harold Wilson once said, “the Labour party is a moral crusade or it is nothing”. Most Labour party members, like me, joined the party because we abhor racism and discrimination every bit as much as we abhor poverty and oppression. We should empower our members to recognise, challenge and act on concerns because we are a party that seeks not just to run society, but to change it, and that places on us a particular responsibility to lead.
Those things, taken together, would create a culture in which anti-Semitism could find no fertile ground. Anti-Semitism tells us that something is rotten in society. It is not enough for us to decry the shrill, sour, hopeless dog-whistle politics that we have heard from the Conservative party in recent years; we have to be better. We have to act.
The writer is Labour MP for Wigan