One of the two front-runners to become London’s mayor next month, Labour MP Sadiq Khan, has spoken of the “badge of shame” he wears at some of the anti-Semitism emanating from parts of the Labour Party, and vowed to do whatever possible to eradicate it, writes Jenni Frazer.
With just a month to go until the May 5 elections, Mr Khan joined four other bidders to succeed Boris Johnson: his fellow MP, Conservative Zac Goldsmith; LibDem London Assembly member Caroline Pidgeon; UKIP’s Peter Whittle; and, standing in for the Green Party candidate Sian Berry, the party’s work and pensions spokesman, Jonathan Bartley.
The candidates were backed by a variety of high-profile supporters in the packed audience, ranging from Labour MP Luciana Berger to the LibDem peer Lord Monroe Palmer.
In his introductory remarks, Mr Khan tackled the inevitable questions about antisemitism head-on. “I want to be a mayor for all Londoners,” he pledged, adding that as someone of Muslim faith he knew “what it is like to be an outsider.”
He said: “It is unacceptable in 2016 to have anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. It is with sorrow that I wear that badge of shame. We need not just to talk the talk, but to walk the walk —there should be no hierarchy of racism. If it means senior members of my party, or members of the NEC (the National Executive Committee, Labour’s governing body) being trained in what antisemitism is, then so be it.”
MP Zac Goldsmith, who insisted throughout the evening that “I keep my promises” and that he had frequently held his own party to account, said that the dominating issue in London was “the rise of anti-Semitism and the threat of terrorism.” Pointing to the situation of Jews in France, many of whom had come to London in the wake of terror attacks, Mr Goldsmith said: “If I am elected mayor I will give police the tools they need to keep us safe. I will instruct the Met Police to take a zero tolerance approach to any form of hate crime— and I’ll back security at any Jewish school or synagogue where the need is real.”
In what was generally a good-humoured and civilised event, there were few occasions when the candidates differed in approaches to core Jewish anxieties over antisemitism or boycott issues. It was left to Jonathan Bartley, representing the Green Party’s mayoral candidate Sian Berry, to differ from the rest of the panel in discussing faith schools.
Mr Bartley offered personal experience in his remarks, as a committed Christian who had been unable to secure a place for one of his children, who is wheelchair-bound, at a local Christian school. He said that the Green Party had been working closely with Rabbi Jonathan Romain of Maidenhead Synagogue in its attitude to faith schools and expressed doubts about what he called “the elephant in the room — social cohesion”. He warned that without full social cohesion, Londoners would be, as he put it, “sleepwalking to disaster.”
And it was Mr Bartley who clashed with the Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith, as the debate widened into a discussion of proper access for disabled Londoners, challenging the MP over his support for Chancellor George Osborne’s cuts for the disabled in last month’s budget.
Mr Goldsmith, well-known as an environmental campaigner, responding to a question about too few places for Jewish children in faith schools, said it was in the mayor’s gift to make land available for schools building.
LibDem Caroline Pidgeon put forward a raft of practical actions for London, ranging from “half-price fares before 7.30am” to help Londoners working in the service industry, to lobbying for improved step-free access at the capital’s tube stations. And she, too, won applause when she said she supported faith schools “as long as they teach the curriculum.”
Some audience questions plainly left the candidates flummoxed, as they were asked about BDS and boycott or Israel Apartheid Week held at university campuses. While all of them condemned the manifestations of anti-Semitism — with Zac Goldsmith warning that he believed BDS was a “cover” for vehement hatred and that such hatred was even more dangerous on social media — there seemed some doubt as to what the powers of the London mayor were. Jonathan Bartley ventured support for free speech on campus, although not at any price, but Sadiq Khan, while denouncing antisemitism repeatedly, made it clear that “as London mayor I will not offer a running commentary on the Middle East peace process.”
Mr Whittle, while not seeking to compare “outsider” status with Sadiq Khan, nevertheless did so, praising Israel for being the only place in the Middle East where he, as a gay man, could participate in a Gay Pride event. And it was Mr Whittle’s turn for audience applause when he pointed out that Mr Khan had been one of the nominating MPs for Jeremy Corbyn’s candidacy as leader of the Labour Party.
In a concluding question the former chief executive of CST, Richard Benson, struck a killer blow by asking each candidate whether their party’s leadership had been a help or a hindrance in their campaign to become mayor. Mr Khan laughed and put his head in his hands, before saying again: “I am embarrassed, sorrowful about antisemitism in my party. I think the leadership could have taken a tougher stance and needs to take a tougher stance”. He also regretted that there had not been the opportunity to discuss other issues of importance to the Jewish community such as kashrut, burials, and circumcision.
Mr Bartley insisted that the Greens were the “Shalom” party while Mr Whittle described his party leader, Nigel Farage, as a positive asset. Caroline Pidgeon, saying that LibDem Tim Farron had been helpful in her campaign, said briskly: “Let’s stop talking, let’s get working”.