In the Spring of 2014, I sat in Committee Room 1 of Brighton Town Hall opposite the organiser of the “March For England”, an EDL-linked event that had previously caused violence in the city. I looked him in the eye and told him that he and his followers were not welcome in Brighton and Hove.
Representatives of the city’s Muslim community had made it clear to me and other councillors that the march would cause fear and distress amongst residents, effectively confining them to their homes for the duration. It went against every policy on equalities the council had, and morally it was right for elected councillors in leadership positions to make a stand. I did.
Three years later I sat in the BBC studios a few hundred metres from the town hall, listening to the recorded testimony of people who had faced abuse inside a council-owned venue because they were identifiably Jewish. I’d heard statements recorded at a meeting saying it was fine to question whether the Holocaust had ever taken place. Representatives of the city’s Jewish community quite rightly and understandably contacted me asking what I, as Leader of the Council, would do.
It was, I believed and I still believe, incumbent on me to again speak out. I wrote to the head of the organisation of the event saying that steps had to be taken to prevent any reoccurrence before the event returned to the city, and I published my letter on my official Facebook page.
That the organisation in question was the Labour Party, which I had been a member of for a quarter of a century and in whose name I was an elected councillor and local authority leader, made no difference.
Perhaps I was naïve but very clear statements by the Labour leadership during the event made me feel that I was joining their effort to counter antisemitism in and around the Party. As an elected Labour politician, speaking out against racism is in my DNA: had I failed to do so in any other circumstance the Party would have rightly condemned my silence.
But condemnation of my stance was immediate and sustained. The charge from members and officers of the local party and Momentum was that I’d always opposed Corbyn, and this was a chance for me to ‘weaponize’ the allegedly ‘fabricated smears’ of antisemitism against him. They claimed I had brought the Party into disrepute insisting I should have raised any concerns “in house”.
I can only imagine the response of my local Party Chair had I, three years earlier, said: “I’ve sent a strongly-worded letter to the National Secretary of the EDL, best leave it to them to sort and not make any fuss in public, eh?”
I’m not comparing Labour to the EDL, though some might argue that with the EHRC investigating institutional antisemitism in Labour the comparison could be a valid one. Only the BNP have faced such an enquiry previously.
They are investigating institutionalised antisemitism and it is true that for speaking out against antisemitism I was penalised. Months of emails, motions and pressure from the local Labour Party followed, demanding apologies, retractions and for me to step down. This is all from the local party where now-suspended members labelled Jews “Zios”, depicted councillors including me and one whose husband is Jewish as dancing Rabbis, and called for people to march on the local synagogue in response to the suspension by Labour of a council candidate for tweeting about the “Israeli bloodline”.
A vote within weeks in my branch calling for me to resign as a result of my stand on antisemitism, passed by some forty votes to two, was moved by the person later suspended after calling for a march on a local synagogue. By February I’d been forced to quit. At the urging of the Jewish Labour Movement I remained a member until Luciana Berger resigned in February.
At a recent fringe event called Stand With Jeremy Corbyn during the TUC Conference in Brighton, many of those suspended and expelled members sat in the front row alongside at least one current senior local Labour councillor. Fringe events at the Labour Conference this week are set to be addressed by suspended or expelled members of the party including Jackie Walker, Ken Livingstone and Chris Williamson.
Since the 2017 Conference there have been ever more revelations about Jeremy Corbyn’s own questionable attitudes towards Jews, including the row over antisemitic mural which led to a demonstration by the Jewish community against Labour, the shameful spectacle of Livingstone and Williamson failing to be suitably punished, the revelations of Leadership interference in antisemitism cases unveiled by Panorama and the resignations of Luciana Berger, Ian Austin and others from the PLP.
Despite the promises of action two years ago, and the small number of suspensions and expulsions, those pushing the same “anti-Israel” messages have not gone away. In the online forums and outrider blogs, lists of hostile Jewish or Jewish friendly “opponents” are still being drawn up. Perhaps the most damning message came when Labour Friends of Israel pulled out of this week’s Conference, saying their staff could no longer be subjected to the antisemitic abuse faced in previous years.
Some of those disciplined have been quietly readmitted, or their suspensions taken no further. Those, like me, who have spoken out on antisemitism, however, have been pushed to the point of resignation, or deselected while the Party has stood by. While the focus remains on Brexit, Labour continues to pursue trigger ballots against MPs, is set to debate changes on antisemitism rules on the Jewish Shabbat when many can’t take part, and to continue efforts to depose Tom Watson as Deputy Leader. Labour Students, long an ally of the Jewish community in Labour, has been “excommunicated” by the Party’s NEC.
It seems clear that for so many people who joined Labour in 2015, the perceived role of Jewish people in the global capitalist economy, and the actions of the Netanyahu government in the occupied territories, are something that every Jewish person is held accountable for. That is racism. I will continue to speak out against that just as I did when hate crimes spiked in the wake of the Referendum, or when I stood with the Muslim community after the Westminster and Borough Market attacks provoked an Islamophobic backlash.
If a family member speaks and acts in a racist way, do you speak up or keep quiet so as to not rock the boat and end up an outcast? If you are elected to a position of authority, do you put the people you are accountable to ahead of the Party that got you elected? For me the answer was and always will be yes. You don’t get to pick and choose the racism you stand up against; and being a member of a political party gives you a greater responsibility to challenge it, not a free pass to stay silent. In these dangerous times, silence serves no good at all.