Updated: May 9, 2020
Article Originally Published in 2016.
Over the past twenty-four hours, Ken Livingstone’s claims that Hitler was a Zionist “before he went mad” and other such comments have fuelled the belief that Labour has a problem with Jews. This followed the apology and suspension of Naz Shah, the former Personal and Private Secretary of John McDonnell, who had shared what were considered antisemitic posts on Facebook about Israel.
Ken Livingstone defended Ms Shah’s actions despite her having apologised and he claimed that in the 47 years of his Labour membership, he had not heard any antisemitism. Whilst there is a consensus that there is at least some antisemitism in the Labour party, as is the case with all parties, the question that people are asking is whether Labour has a problem with Jewish people.
Yes: Labour does have a problem with Jews
We see the constant acceptance of Ken Livingstone in the Labour party despite a history of such remarks: In 2012 he claimed that Jews will not vote for Labour because they are rich, this furthers the stereotype of Jewish people all being extremely wealthy. In 2005 Ken compared a Jewish reporter to a Nazi concentration camp guard, an extremely insensitive comment, especially when the large majority of Jews in the UK will have had relatives who were murdered at the hands of Nazi concentration camps. Yet despite all of these incidents, Ken has been allowed to remain in the party and had worked his way up to become London Mayor and sit on their National Executive Committee (NEC) – the group who determine Labour policy.
Labour has a problem with Jews because it allowed in too many candidates for various roles into the party without sufficient background checks. Not too long ago, Aysegul Gurbuz, a Labour councillor in Luton was discovered to have had written on her Twitter page that Hitler was “the greatest man in history”. This, especially when coupled with Naz Shah’s Facebook posts from 2014, shows that a fundamental error has been made of late when doing background checks, which may have allowed various antisemites into the party.
When people look at the campaigns which are run by the left wing of the Labour party and the younger movements, there is an impression that the next generation are antisemitic. In February there was a story about the Oxford University Labour Club being such a difficult place for Jewish students, this culminated in Alex Chalmers, a co-chairman of the society, quitting and reporting antisemitic tendencies in the society. These allegations alongside various other allegations of antisemitism in the student left wing, such as the election of Malia Bouattia, show how antisemitism could be setting its roots in the Labour party for the future.
No: Labour does not have a problem with Jews
When the story of Ken Livingstone’s comments broke, there was a widespread outrage from prominent Labour MPs calling for Ken’s suspension and exclusion. It was claimed that Labour MPs were clamouring to get their name on a list being compiled by Buzzfeed with the names of all those who were calling for his suspension. Eventually the list contained 39 names including Yvette Cooper, Dan Jarvis, Tristram Hunt and David Lammy. This almost universal condemnation of Ken Livingstone’s comments represents how the Labour party may contain a few bad eggs, although there is a significant and strong core to the party who will stand up for Jewish people.
The people at the top of Labour have put their foot down and claimed that there is a no tolerance policy on antisemitism and all other forms of racism. This was epitomised by John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor and widely considered to be a strong left wing candidate to succeed Jeremy Corbyn, claiming that “there’s no role for them [people who have expressed antisemitic views] in our party and I would like them out of our party for life, to be frank”. This was claimed in an interview with Andrew Marr and was widely praised within the Jewish community as being a step forward in Labour’s rhetoric on antisemitism.
There is also the argument that Ken Livingstone attempted to make, he believes that there has been no antisemitism in the Labour party.It is his contention that what has been taken as antisemitic comments are actually comments condemning the Israeli government.This is a common argument that being anti-Zionist is not being antisemitic, therefore some of the common tropes which are widely considered antisemitic are actually only anti-Zionist, which is not a form of racism.22