OPINION: I promised antisemitism would be addressed, but Labour failed to act

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OPINION: I promised antisemitism would be addressed, but Labour failed to act

Catherine McKinnell MP explains why she has put forward a motion giving Labour an ultimatum to tackle Jew-hatred in the party

Catherine McKinnell MP
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn  

Photo credit: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn Photo credit: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

Ten months ago, the British Jewish community took to Parliament Square for the Enough is Enough demonstration to demand the Labour Party take decisive action against antisemitism. This was unprecedented, and alarming for those in Labour – the overwhelming majority of us – who want to see any trace of antisemitism completely removed from our party.

In response to that pivotal event, Jeremy Corbyn made a very welcome apology for the “hurt and pain” caused by instances of antisemitism in the Labour Party and pledged to “redouble” his “efforts to bring this anxiety to an end”.

Shortly afterwards came the important commitment from Labour’s newly appointed General Secretary, Jennie Formby, to introduce procedures to deal with complaints and disciplinary cases, saying that the “stain” of antisemitic attitudes must be “completely eradicated” within the party.

Armed with these commitments, I accepted an invitation to meet with my local Jewish community in October.

The meeting was, unsurprisingly, well attended. A room full of people with different life experiences and political persuasions, but all clearly united by one very palpable underlying fear – that antisemitism was creeping back into everyday life in 21st century Britain, and had seemingly found a fertile breeding ground within the Labour Party.

I had no choice at that raw – at times painful – but completely open and respectful meeting, other than to level with those who had taken the time to come and meet with me, and to tell them that I shared many of their concerns.

Catherine McKinnell MP

However, I also reassured them that the party leadership had made firm commitments to address the issue and root it out.

Having been asked in particular about the pledge by the party to provide antisemitism training, I made a commitment to find out how this would work in practice, so I could get back to them on this.

Most importantly, I made a solemn pledge that evening that I would do everything in my power to see this issue properly addressed.

Therefore, in the months that have followed, I have watched with a growing sense of dismay the worrying and distressing reports which would suggest that rather than dealing with this issue, the rhetoric of zero tolerance to antisemitism doesn’t appear to match up to reality.

Questions I have asked time and again in private to the party leadership about how these issues and concerns are actually being addressed have been met with repeatedly vague responses.

Last week’s Jewish News front page, where MPs gave Labour 7 days to act on antisemitism

Mutterings of ‘confidentiality’, ‘keeping trust’ and this being a ‘highly sensitive issue’ are the only constant message.

Despite the warm words and promises of action, far too many cases of antisemitism remain unresolved, whilst often serious complaints are apparently being concluded with letters simply ‘reminding’ perpetrators of what is appropriate behaviour with no further sanction beyond that. Only recently we learnt – on the Friday evening before Holocaust Memorial Day of all times – that a number of high profile cases had apparently been concluded in this way.
The question is, how is the party arriving at these decisions, and how many more such cases have been ‘dealt with’ in this way?

What is clear is that the party hasn’t concluded the promised consultation on the antisemitism code of conduct.

There is no real understanding of when and who will deliver important antisemitism awareness training to the NEC and others already making decisions in the party as to what is or is not an antisemitic offence – never mind any training to be provided to the wider membership.

It would be easy to think that this whole affair is solely about process – the rules we set and how well we do at dealing with members who break them. But the problem is surely a much bigger one for a political party established to protect the interests of the marginalised and the minority.

If we continue to fail to understand and act on the concerns of the Jewish community – which for me is my local Jewish community in Newcastle – what does that say about our ability to understand and act on the concerns of society as a whole?

I was left in no doubt after that October meeting that my party’s leadership needs to work hard to build trust with those directly on the receiving end of antisemitic abuse, with the Labour membership many of whom share deep concerns about it, and with wider society who need Her Majesty’s Opposition to be at the vanguard of pushing for a society that is inclusive for all.

The only way this can happen is through radical transparency – which some ten months on from those original promises, is still far from the reality.

The Parliamentary Labour Party at its weekly meeting on Monday will therefore ask some tough questions, and we expect the party to answer.

Only by being honest with ourselves about the state of antisemitism in our organisation, and the progress we have made in our efforts to tackle it – which must be directed by those at the top – is the party ever going to restore that faith.

And for me there is a personal risk. I gave reassurances to members of my local Jewish community at that meeting back in October that their concerns had been clearly heard and this issue would be addressed.

What I said I meant, and this is my way of taking these deeply felt anxieties that remain unaddressed to the highest level. Speaking truth to power – isn’t that what we as elected representatives are supposed to do?

If we allow things to continue as they are, not only will I have failed to deliver on my own personal commitment, but we risk this sorry and destructive state of affairs gradually becoming normalised, potentially slipping into the situation where antisemitism becomes an institutionalised problem.

I for one am not willing to stand by and let that happen, and if the motion passes tomorrow I hope that the response to the questions that have been put to the party leadership give them an opportunity to show that they are not willing to either.

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