Labour MP Ruth Smeeth told Jewish Labour Movement supporters on Sunday that “every time [Derby North MP] Chris Williamson opens his mouth, he helps our cause. His interventions [on anti-Semitism] ensure that the leadership has had to distance itself from him.”
And Ms Smeeth, MP for Stoke on Trent North, declared that “the only people weaponising anti-Semitism are the anti-Semites”.
Condemnation of Mr Williamson’s remarks were a running theme throughout JLM’s first conference, a curtain-raiser to Labour’s Brighton conference which attracted activists from London, Manchester, Norwich and even Somerset. With a morning largely devoted to internal issues — training for students, the experience of Jewish Labour councillors, and how the Labour Party is perceived in Orthodox, Reform and liberal synagogues — and an afternoon highlighting the work of Jewish MPs in confronting anti-Semitism, the conference was hailed as a great success. Senior Labour party officials attended and were made fully aware of the strength of feeling about apparent inability or unwillingness to tackle anti-Jewish abuse.
But Ms Smeeth, who has suffered death threats, on-line abuse and even direct verbal confrontation at the presentation of last year’s Chakrabarti report on anti-Semitism, acknowledged that on occasion the Jewish community had dealt “emotionally” with anti-Semitism. “We did not deal with it logically, and we need to be cleverer and deal with things in a more grown-up way”, she said. “We have to challenge people and we need to separate the leaders [of anti-Semitic abuse] from the followers. The followers, you can argue with. The leaders, we need to break and destroy”.
As the newly-elected vice-chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Ms Smeeth, who was on a panel with Liverpool Riverside MP Louise Ellman and the former minister and MP for Hove, Ivor Caplan, now has a weekly meeting with party leader Jeremy Corbyn. “It is the highlight of my week”, she said.
She said that Corbyn “could not get his head around” the suggestion that he might preside over anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. She predicted that Chris Williamson’s return to Parliament this week as the new session opens “will not be comfortable” as she revealed that she would report his comments about those who “weaponised” anti-Semitism to the Chief Whip and the party leader. Scathingly, she said that while Williamson claimed never to have seen anti-Semitism in 41 years in the party, she had been advised by police to move house because of the threats against her.
Louise Ellman said she believed that “most Labour MPs” had been “appalled” at Williamson’s comments. “It has lifted the issue [of anti-Semitism] right back up again when people were beginning to think it had been dealt with.”