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Jewish Labour Movement chair Mike Katz: ‘It's lovely being popular again’

Mike Katz from the Jewish Labour Movement speaking at Labour Party conference in Brighton, 2017 (Credit: Simon Dack/Alamy Live News)

10 min read

Mike Katz, the influential chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, talks to Sienna Rodgers about the affiliate society's renewed popularity within the party and its journey from campaign strike in 2019 to 'full throttle' in this general election

Mike Katz has not been elected as a Labour MP, nor as a member of the party’s governing body. He has never been a party staffer. And yet he is one of the most influential Labour members of recent years.

As vice-chair and now chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, Katz – along with JLM colleagues Peter Mason and Adam Langleben – led the criticism of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour on antisemitism and the initiative to refer the party to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). The investigation that followed found three breaches of the Equality Act – a landmark in Labour’s history.

“Antisemitism is the light sleeper, as that famous phrase goes. The job will never be done – we always have to be vigilant”

It was JLM, a “socialist society” (i.e. group formally linked to Labour) that has been a party affiliate for over 100 years, which collected evidence from its members to form the bulk of the EHRC submission. “We realised we had to: if the party wasn't going to police itself despite our efforts and our urging, then we had to externalise that,” Katz tells The House.

“Our history is very much, since 1920, being part and parcel of – at election time – party campaigning. Fast forward to where we had got to under Corbyn, and in 2018 we basically suspended relations,” he says. “Come 2019, we decided we were effectively going on campaign strike, and this is something we'd never done before, and I don't think any affiliate had properly done before.”

When the 2019 election was called, JLM announced it would not campaign for any Labour candidates unless there were exceptional circumstances. In adopting a policy of not backing any candidates in non-Labour-held constituencies, the organisation even stepped back from Barnet seats in the so-called “bagel belt”. The Labour candidate for Chipping Barnet, Emma Whysall, had been endorsed by JLM in her selection race but did not secure their support for the election itself.

“The previous year, we'd been campaigning in the local elections, and we'd have tearful conversations on the doorstep – both the canvasser and voter. The voter would say, 'I've voted to support the Labour Party all my life… I can't give Corbyn the thumbs up so we can't vote Labour.’ This was the first time in their lives they felt they couldn’t do that. We weren't going to go back and try and have those conversations again – it was too significant,” Katz says.

Now, JLM is giving its full backing to Keir Starmer’s “changed Labour Party”.

“We're back to full throttle,” Katz says. “We are fully throated endorsing Keir and the changes that he's made in the Labour Party and going back to campaigning for Labour.” JLM has hired two organisers, one based in North London and the other in North Manchester – “the two principal hubs of the Jewish community in the country”.

“When I go to Labour Party conference, it feels more like I'm running a deli counter than a socialist society. I have to tell people to form a line and take a ticket, because people understand the importance of JLM,” the chair says. “It's really great that people actively compete for our endorsement in nominations and selections. That's brilliant – it's lovely being popular again.”

But are there still Labour candidates JLM would refuse to campaign for? “We’d be comfortable campaigning for the vast majority of people standing to be Labour MPs at this election. To do an entire checklist of all 600-odd would be rather invidious,” Katz says. Notably, the answer isn’t ‘no’.

Does that mean the job of tackling Labour antisemitism is only half-done? “If we'd been talking last summer, I'd have a very different response to the response we've got now, because undoubtedly 7 October and the subsequent events have proven a huge challenge,” the JLM chair replies.

“Antisemitism is the light sleeper, as that famous phrase goes. The job will never be done – we always have to be vigilant.”

Mike Katz
Mike Katz and Dame Margaret Hodge during a JLM press conference after the EHRC report release (Credit: Ian Vogler/Daily Mirror/PA Images/Alamy)

News around Labour’s candidate selections dominated the first week of the campaign. Faiza Shaheen, a left-winger who had been picked to fight Chingford and Woodford Green two years ago, was stood down last week. The late deselection came after JLM raised concerns with the party over her tweets.

“Her social media activity was problematic, but particularly given that she's got a very mixed community, and the wider point is, we want people who are in positions of leadership – potentially significant positions, the leadership of the local MP; particularly where there are Jews and Muslims living side-by-side – to behave responsibly when it comes to promoting better community cohesion,” Katz explains.

He says the recent social media activity brought to JLM’s attention by local Jewish members included “talk about the Israel lobby that she liked”, which “really plays into the traditional antisemitic trope of power and shadow control – it's really not very far away from that”. (Shaheen said she had only watched the video in that tweet, a clip of Jon Stewart, and had not read the text.)

He also points to Shaheen’s tweet, now deleted, showing a Telegraph article in which she was pictured with Corbyn and quoted calling Israel an “apartheid state”.

“That, to me, sent entirely the wrong message. I would say, respectfully, there's ways of critiquing the situation in Gaza, of the way that is unfolding, that involves critiquing the far-right government in Israel, the actions of Netanyahu and the army leadership which are absolutely legitimate – many, most, if not all, JLM members, would to some extent make the criticism.”

Shaheen says when the Labour national executive committee panel that interviewed her presented its case against her candidacy, one of the tweets highlighted saw her describe the party as “institutionally Islamophobic”. She surely has the right to publicly complain of Islamophobia in Labour just as people had a right to say the party was institutionally antisemitic – no?

“We're now in a situation with a solid, independent process for any complaints around discrimination, harassment against the protected characteristics. And you know what, I want people to use the system,” Katz replies.

“It's been proven to work because there have been – not many – but there have been occasions where the decision has gone through an NEC panel and the independent lawyers have said, 'Actually, we don't think this is quite right'.”

Asked whether he is happy now with the standard of Labour’s due diligence, Katz acknowledges that “you're probably always as good as your last mistake”.

The most high-profile vetting mistake under Starmer is widely perceived as being Azhar Ali, the Rochdale candidate who was disowned by the party during the by-election campaign earlier this year – after some hesitation – when it emerged he had claimed Israel “allowed” the October 7 attack to go ahead and spoken of “Jewish quarters” of the media. (Ali apologised “to Jewish leaders for my inexcusable comments”.)

Ali had a “strong track record” on fighting antisemitism, Katz says. “He'd been a very strong ally – not just okay but an active ally. In the past it had caused him problems with his own community, it had been hinted. But nonetheless, when he got in that room, something happened.”

Is there a danger that Starmer’s Labour thinks ‘if they’re on our side factionally, they’ll be fine’? “To be fair, that was the other very instructive thing about the Azhar Ali situation,” Katz replies.

However, he adds: “I know everybody wants to dress us up as this, but we're not a factional body. Anybody from any wing of the party, who supports Labour values, supports Zionism, whether they're Jewish or non-Jewish, there's a category membership for them.

“It's unfortunate that over the Corbyn years people on the left aligned with Corbyn, and our attempts and critique of his performance when it came to antisemitism came to be used by them, never by us, but by them, as an attack that we were weaponising – horrible word – weaponising racism, antisemitism, to attack the leader. No, we were demonstrating that there was a problem with racism in the party that they needed to do something about.”

He also points out that not everybody on the anti-Corbyn side of Labour was vocal in its backing of JLM under the previous leadership.

“Large numbers of people decided to absent themselves from the field of battle, decided not to have an opinion. That included, it's sad to say, some MPs who decided that they weren't going to speak up and call things out because understandably it felt too combative, and it wasn't really an issue they felt they needed to do something about.”

Now that JLM is back on the campaign trail, what reception is Labour getting at this election in seats with Jewish communities?

“The Jewish community, certainly since the 70s and 80s, have definitely not voted homogenously,” he says. “I'd love everybody to be Labour supporters, but that's not our expectation – it’s just not to have the situation we had in 2019 where progressive Jews were saying 'we don't like Johnson, we don't like the Conservatives, we hate Brexit, we think this country will not be well served by more Conservative government, but we cannot in all good conscience vote for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party’.”

Katz continues: “People recognise and actually, in some cases, give Keir a lot of credit for acting, for going deeper and faster and more resolutely than anybody could reasonably have expected, coming from such a such a bad position in such a short time.

“But are there still questions being asked? Absolutely. Because I think they see the protests, the regular protests down the road in Parliament Square… They see people that are not recognisably the Labour Party but clearly of the left, and they worry that there's fewer than six degrees of separation between the elected Labour Party and those people.”

He gives an example of a conversation he had on the doorstep with a couple of young Israelis. When asked how they voted in Israel, they said progressive – not the Israeli Labor Party but Meretz, to its left. And yet, he says: “It was hard to persuade them to vote Labour because they feel that lots of people in the Labour Party just don't like Israel.”

Katz explains: “From their perspective, there's plurality in Israel, there are progressives in Israel who really don't want any of this, they just want their hostages home and want to have a change of government in elections. That's what they want. But there's a difference between that objective and worrying that too much of the party of government could just be inherently anti-Israel.”

The JLM chair has stood for Parliament himself – for Two Cities in 2001 and for Hendon in 2017. Why not this time, when he would have such a good chance of being selected and winning?

“There are younger, more eager people who are going to be excellent Labour MPs and I want to support them,” Katz replies carefully.

He has been perfectly capable of influencing politics from outside the Parliamentary Labour Party, of course. But some Labour figures not going into the Commons this time are thought to be in line for a peerage if Starmer becomes prime minister as expected. Perhaps Katz will enter the PLP by another route.

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