In suspending Bradford West’s MP, Naz Shah, from the Labour party while the context of her antisemitic comments (on Facebook in 2014) are thoroughly investigated, Jeremy Corbyn may have made a small but significant move in the direction of electability.
Ken Livingstone’s suspended too. But don’t immediately break open the champagne.
Why should supporters of Labour’s reality-based community take some comfort from this nasty little row? It is championed with usual Labour-baiting enthusiasm by some newspapers, blogs and politicians who are not always as fastidious as they should be in the hypersensitive world of identity politics. They share some pretty transparent ulterior motives too. We’ll come to them.
I don’t know Shah, who has an interesting, harrowing CV and did us all the useful service of bouncing out of Bradford and Westminster that gifted, restless narcissist, George Galloway. Clearly she has a lot of friends and fans. But I am told that the Labour leader likes her, so does John McDonnell, whose unpaid parliamentary private secretary (“aide” in current jargon) she was until the brown stuff hit the fan this weekend.
So it will have been a wrench for Jez, and his embattled entourage, to have to “cave in”, as the Guardian’s report put it, and suspend the MP from the party after David Cameron (who really should leave the rough stuff to the rough end of the trade) had taunted him at PMQs for not acting sooner when the Guido Fawkes blog republished her ugly comments and the Mail on Sunday got out its trumpet. “She’s no antisemite,” says a friend who knows Shah.
Corbyn didn’t want to suspend her, or Livingstone: they were part of his comfort zone. But he did, thereby acting in the wider interests of the party he leads, not that of his faction. It is a curse of political leaders, especially those outside the conventional mainstream, that they draw the wrong conclusions from their supportive entourage and the large, enthusiastic crowds they sometimes draw. They are made up of people who think they’re wonderful and therefore rarely typical.
Ironically, in the light of Cameron’s taunt yesterday, the prime minister suffers from a similar defect, the propensity to surround himself – ministerial colleagues and No 10 staff alike, archbishops and Cotswold weekenders even – with like-minded people with whom he feels comfy. Not all went to Eton, but many share his instincts and reinforce them.
Andy Coulson, the spin doctor to whom he loyally clung too long, was an Essex exception. But Jeremy Clarkson is a public school hooligan, we know the type. He’s not very fastidious either, is he? Racist jokes (some of which would have gone over my roof rack if I had been a Top Gear viewer) and an assault cost him his BBC slot, but he keeps his perch in the Murdoch press and, so I suspect, as court jester in the Cotswolds.
As for Boris Johnson, the Labour MP Rupa Huc reminded Radio 4 listeners that the London mayor has a line of patter in “flag-waving piccaninnies” and “watermelon smiles”. Only last week the City Hall funster tried the suggestive “half Kenyan” line on Barack Obama. Not nice or smart, so the president slapped him down. Will Dave emulate his old patron, Michael Howard, and sack Boris for an egregious misjudgment? Don’t hold your breath.
You might argue that antisemitism is a special case. I think some people do because it is so deeply and horribly rooted in Europe and culminated in the Holocaust. I draw your attention to this piece by David Baddiel on the wider issue of antisemitism and what it means, and another by Owen Jones, here, urging Labour to get to grips with a problem in its ranks.
I don’t agree with every word and again feel moved to express dismay at the way charges of antisemitism have sometimes been deployed to deflect legitimate criticism of policies adopted by the state of Israel, surrounded though it is by avowedly antisemitic neighbours. If pro-Israel and pro-Palestine camps are very sensitive, it’s not hard to see why. It’s what is sometimes called a “double minority” problem, in which both Palestinians and Israelis feel surrounded.
Back to Naz Shah and Labour’s problem with antisemitism. Younger readers may not know that the party was strongly Zionist and proud of it for much of the 20th century. But it’s romantically drawn to underdogs, and Israel had ceased to be an emotionally satisfactory one after it again smashed encircling Arab armies in the Six Day war of 1967 and ruled the Occupied Territories with a pretty firm hand.
There are still plenty of Jewish MPs and activists in Labour’s ranks – Ed Miliband springs to mind – but they tend to be secular and some are pro-Palestine. Some deny there’s much of a problem.
Ken Livingstone was doing his usual schtick in the London Evening Standard this week, defending Shah. He’s got form too on Israel; his ego gets in the way. He’s let Corbyn down in an election week when he should shut up. But others, including the genial ex-fundraiser, Lord Levy, are vocally upset. Some donors have pulled back and Labour MPs called openly for Livingstone’s suspension before it finally came on Thursday lunchtime.
It’s not hard to trace some of their concern to Corbyn’s ascent to the Labour leadership, though any online search will confirm that Miliband also struggled with the issue.
Corbyn’s unswerving track record on a portfolio of familiar leftwing causes has put him in some very questionable company – as his detractors never tire of reminding us – militant Islamists among them. And of course, Labour politics has become a vehicle for upwardly mobile Muslim immigrants from many countries, as it has been for other newcomers, Jewish refugees from Tsarist pogroms among them.
It is inevitable that some of these people aren’t very nice, some deserve to be expelled for what they have done since acquiring office in Labour’s ranks. That’s to be expected and – as Owen Jones says – should be rigorously policed. But what people did when they were young and foolish, or even when they were not yet public figures, is not always the same.
It’s quite unfair to recall yet again that members of the Rothermere family, which owns the Daily Mail, briefly expressed sympathy for Hitler. So I won’t do it here. A Mail man solemnly assured me recently that its editor Paul Dacre was not merely a liberal in his Leeds University days with Jack Straw, but actually a youthful Trot. I do not believe that calumny for a moment. Do not spread it.
What is troubling is the way in which the investigation into Shah and similar offenders is running parallel with a concerted Tory attempt to smear Labour’s Sadiq Khan MP, frontrunner to be elected London mayor on 5 May, as a “radical” Muslim with links to extremists, often both tenuous and dated. I reported on it here. Some of it is shocking.
According to Khan, the Tory candidate, Zac Goldsmith MP, is a nice chap who has been nobbled by Lynton “Dog Whistle” Crosby, Cameron’s Australian campaign guru and the thinking man’s Jeremy Clarkson. That must be right, since No 10 is fanning that intolerant flame too. Most of it is pretty threadbare, especially since photos exist of Boris and Zac with some of the same people.
It cannot be said too often or too loudly that playing fast and loose with identity politics – nation, race, religion, gender and the rest – is one of the most dangerous trends in many countries. Politicians who think they’re doing only a bit of harm may find themselves unleashing forces they cannot control, and which might fix them too given half a chance.
This article was written by Michael White, for theguardian.com on Thursday 28th April 2016 15.12 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010