Tony Benn once memorably quipped that, “Labour has never been a Socialist party, although there have always been socialists in it – a bit like Christians in the Church of England.”
Some 30 or so years later, Labour’s broad church is thought by some – not me – to be on the verge of a schism. Rather than uniting to focus on fighting the Tories, a damaging conflict is being fought between zealots from both the left and right of the Labour flock.
In the midst of this depressing spectacle is the growing and disturbing sense that Labour is being targeted for entry – in a few alarming cases successfully – by antisemites.
Last week a man named Gerry Downing – a man whose insidious online presence repeatedly makes reference to ‘The Jewish Question’ – was rightly expelled from the Labour Party. What is more worrying is why Labour’s NEC had granted Mr Downing entry into the party in the first place.
For a brief period after joining the party, Mr Downing had been a member of the same CLP as me – Brent Central. He was an active member, too (in meetings, at least). In the Q&A after a recent talk I gave on The Labour Campaign to End Homelessness, Mr Downing effectively told me that my efforts with the campaign were hypocritical, because homelessness in Brent was caused by me and other Labour councillors setting legal budgets.
An antisemite and a critic of Jeremy Corbyn’s stated wishes, then.
Fast forward a week to today and we arrive at the suspension of Vicki Kirby. Ms Kirby was a parliamentary candidate when she was put under investigation by the party in 2014 after a series of posts on Twitter in which she apparently suggested Adolf Hitler might be a “Zionist God” and that Jews had “big noses”. Again – why was Ms Kirby readmitted in the first place?
These two individuals are sadly symptomatic of a wider problem facing the British left which goes back for longer than anyone can really trace. A casual glance at Twitter if you type the words, ‘Jew’ or ‘Zionism’ into the search bar will reveal an unholy legion of antisemitic tweets from people purporting to be on the left of British politics.
Their ignorance and their bile know no bounds. Most of them are morons who label every Jew a Zionist and every Zionist a fascist. I wonder how many of these people – hiding behind the veil of anonymity as they do – know about the links between Rastafarianism and Zionism.
They’re probably the same people who think that Bob Marley is actually still alive, sitting on an undiscovered island somewhere, strumming the tune of a Billy Bragg song, whilst wearing a tin foil hat and talking to a volleyball with a cartoon face.
Too often these days I feel like there are too many people out there with terrifying views for the Universe not to implode. How can the party I love, the Labour Party, the greatest force for social justice in the history of our country, even come close to attracting people with Antisemitic views?
In May I will be visiting Israel to try to gain a deeper understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Like anyone with a brain, I know that the solutions to this conflict are not simple or one-sided, and neither are the causes. That probably makes me a Red Tory, or a Zionist, or a lizard. Take your pick.
It shouldn’t be a concern at the top of a Brent councillor’s list, but somehow, with things as they are right now, it seems like it is. The best thing about Brent is its diversity. And so, with Antisemitism on the rise across the country, I feel honour-bond to better understand the nuances of the history of the Jewish people and why they have spent so long being persecuted by so many.
Meanwhile I am sitting here at my laptop – a Catholic who has a difficult relationship with God (like all good Catholics) – with the Jewish Labour joining page open in another tab. There’s an option to become an affiliate, you see. And right now, just as always, I feel like our Jewish comrades could do with some solidarity.
I’m thinking too about the Paris attacks last year, and how in their aftermath Andrew Neil – a man I very rarely agree with – tore into the terrorists and their aims. In a piece to camera that united people across the political divide, Neil declared:
In a thousand years time, Paris, that glorious city of lights, will still be shining bright as will every other city like it. And you will be as dust, along with the ragbag of fascists, Nazis and Stalinists that previously dared to challenge democracy and failed.
The time has come for a similar, unifying statement from figures across the British left. Alastair Campbell once attempted to shield the closeted Catholic Tony Blair from the media with the line, “We don’t do God.”
I think that needs updating. It’s time for the Labour Party to say with one voice and without fear:
“We don’t tell anyone how to do God.”