The barrister who stood down as Labour’s adviser on its antisemitism crisis, QC Gordon Nardell, had a relatively unscathed night at the Cities of London and Westminster hustings for the Jewish community, co-ordinated by the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council, and several central London synagogues across different denominations.
In fact the format of the tightly controlled hustings, moderated by Board president Marie van der Zyl, which insisted that questions had to be eligible to be answered by all the candidates, worked in Mr Nardell’s favour.
It meant that the Labour candidate for the key marginal constituency, vacated by Conservative Mark Field, was not singled out for attack by the packed audience.
Those who had a rather better night were the Green Party candidate Zack Polanski, also Jewish like Mr Nardell, and the former Labour MP Chuka Umunna, now standing for the Liberal Democrats. The Westminster Council leader, Conservative Nicky Aiken, drew gasps from the audience when she and Mr Polanski clashed over the issue of rough sleepers in Westminster.
Westminster has the highest number of rough sleepers in the country, but Mrs Aiken, who has been dealing with the issue as the council leader for the last three years, said that more than half of them were “from overseas” and that everything should be done to encourage them to go back to their places of origin.
This was angrily challenged by Mr Polanski as “dog-whistle racism politics”, but Mrs Aiken rejected his attack.
Both Mr Nardell and Mr Polanski stressed their Jewish credentials, to an audience which included the Jewish Voice for Labour activist Professor Jonathan Rosenhead and the Jewish Socialists’ Group’s David Rosenberg. Mr Polanski, himself a former Liberal Democrat activist, began his remarks by speaking of the Jewish exhortation of “Tikkun Olam” or healing of the world, and advising that the Green Party slogan was a rabbinic question: “If Not Now, When?” This was in reference to the urgency of the climate change issue.
The candidates were asked about a range of issues, from Brexit to whether they would challenge their party leader if they thought he or she had been dishonest. Chuka Umunna emerged the clear winner on the latter as he unequivocally called his former leader, Jeremy Corbyn, “guilty of racism” and said the he had been among the first to describe, in 2017, his former party as “institutionally antisemitic”. He had left the party precisely because he had challenged his leader, he said.
But Mr Nardell insisted that Mr Corbyn “did not have a racist bone in his body” which was not greeted with enthusiasm by the audience. Nor, however, was Mrs Aiken’s robust confidence in the honesty of her own leader, Boris Johnson.
None of the candidates believed that Britain might usefully follow in the steps of Donald Trump by moving Britain’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; and all of them acknowledged that anti-Zionism could often be a cover or substitute for antisemitism.
Perhaps most intriguing suggestion of the night came from Mr Nardell, over questions about the process of investigations into complaints of antisemitism or racism. “We have got to stop this bidding war between parties”, he said, “this [idea that] my process [of investigation] is better than yours”. Instead, he said, such inquiries should be independent and on a cross-party basis — perhaps revealing the exasperation he had felt during his year overseeing Labour’s internal inquiries into antisemitism.