Michael Dugher MP: Corbyn must admit Labour has an antisemitism problem and get a grip

Posted On: 
13th April 2016

Former Shadow Cabinet member Michael Dugher calls on the Labour leadership to take note of recent comments from the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and to get a grip on the antisemitism problem in the Labour party.

Michael Dugher MP

Religious leaders tread carefully before delivering a sermon to those in charge of any political party.

So, when the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Jonathan Arkush, criticised Jeremy Corbyn last week for “refusing to take antisemitism seriously”, Labour has to admit we do have a problem.

Jonathan Arkush was alarmed by what he called Jeremy’s “deeply disturbing” defence of his brother’s reaction to comments made by Louise Ellman MP.  

Louise rightly said that more needed to be done to tackle anti-Jewish prejudice in the Party and that cracking down on such behaviour was "not just about words". Mr Corbyn's brother, Piers, tweeted saying this was "rubbish" and dismissed her as a "Zionist".

Of course, more needs to be done. We have seen a string of antisemitic incidents that have brought shame to the Labour Party in recent weeks and months.

Baroness Jan Royall is investigating complaints about antisemitism at Oxford University Labour Club.  My colleague Luciana Berger, a Jewish MP, has been subjected to the most disgusting antisemitic attacks.  And the Party has been forced to suspend councillors over comments they have made on social media.

In the latest case, a Labour councillor in Luton was suspended and later resigned after claiming on her Twitter account that Hitler was “the greatest man in history” and the power of the Jews was “disgusting”.

These incidents are not of course confined to the Labour Party.  A report from the Community Security Trust (CST) showed that 2015 saw the third-highest number of antisemitic incidents ever recorded in Britain.  But the problem among some Labour activists appears to have worsened in recent months and our values demand that we are at the forefront of efforts to eradicate it.

For too many on the hard left of British politics, anti-Zionism has become a sort of moral free pass they use to excuse views which in many cases are undoubtedly antisemitic.  

Of course people have a right to criticise the actions of the Israeli government - as I do myself in my opposition to settlements.  I want to see a Palestinian state in peaceful co-existence with a secure Israeli state. But as the Shadow Leader of the House, Chris Bryant, wrote last month: “Questioning the very existence of the state of Israel is a not-too-subtle form of antisemitism”.

The test for Labour - and for our leadership - isn't why it is happening, but what are we actually going to do about it.

On the Andrew Marr Show last weekend, I was pleased to hear Jeremy Corbyn say again that antisemitism is “abhorrent and wrong” and that he is dealing with cases when they are referred to him.

But actions do speak louder than words and it is not good enough simply to react to events.

That’s why I and other Labour MPs last week backed the eight-point action plan outlined by Richard Angell from Progress to stamp out the problem.  This contained good, practical proposals that like giving the Labour Party the resources and capacity it needs so that compliance unit can properly deal with antisemitism.  Jeremy should support this action plan in full and he can start by rejecting John McDonnell's recent call to scrap the compliance unit.

The leadership should also back calls by Jeremy Newmark and the Jewish Labour Movement for a new rule that would ban the use of antisemitic, Islamophobic or any other racist language by Labour party members. As Jeremy Newmark says: "It's become apparent because of a spate of incidents over the last couple of months that the rules and processes of the party don't provide adequate provision to deal with it".

But looking through my Twitter feed, too many on the hard left - many of whom claim to be cheerleaders for the Labour leadership - are in denial. They dismiss complaints about antisemitism as an invention by moderates in the Parliamentary Labour Party who want to have a go at Jeremy Corbyn.

This is palpable nonsense. One tweeter suggested to me that I should just be attacking the Tories and that we can "sort out" antisemitism "later". Well, of course we should be attacking the Conservatives. I do that every day. But we can - and must - sort out antisemitism inside the Labour Party now.

After the denial comes the excuses and moral justification. When faced with allegations about antisemitism the default defence is too often “yeah, but look at what Israel is doing”, as though the Jewish community have brought this hatred upon themselves.

Let me be absolutely clear: I don't believe for a single second that Jeremy Corbyn or John McDonnell are antisemitic. But Jeremy's defence of his brother’s remarks - and the perception that he was, in the words of the Board of Deputies, "belittling" the problem - was unwise and insensitive. John McDonnell’s posting of links to extremist material on his website - now thankfully removed – was similarly ill judged.  

Neither man is antisemitic. Yet both need to be seen to do more including taking on a noisy minority – who often include some of their most vocal supporters – who undoubtedly are antisemitic.

The perception that there is a whiff of complacency about the scale of the problem, or that the leadership has been slow to act, has been hugely damaging to the whole Labour Party. It's time for the leadership to admit that Labour has a problem and to get a grip.

Michael Dugher is the Labour MP for Barnsley East & the Vice-Chair of Labour Friends of Israel