Ken Livingstone’s remarks have left a black mark on the name of a party once internationally renowned for its anti-racism, argues Progress deputy editor Conor Pope
We were halfway through a tour of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, when our tour guide, an academic historian, paused mid-point. ‘This is why it is so important that Ken Livingstone is wrong’, he told us.
I was not there as a Labour member, but as part of a press trip to the region. Our guide had not mentioned this to hector or embarrass, but to help explain the context as we moved through the part of the exhibition that covers Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in the late-1920s and early-1930s.
Even so, I felt a burning shame. Yad Vashem is a haunting, humbling place and is not one that seeks to tell the story of the Holocaust through a modern lense with contemporary hooks, but set within its own context.
That Livingstone’s comments and the initial inaction from the Labour party were deemed important enough to mention – even in passing – was gut-wrenching. The only reference to the British Labour party was in sad condemnation of our pitiful attitude towards antisemitism.
It is with this sense of humiliation that we should approach the decision on Livingstone’s party membership tomorrow.
While our antisemitism problem may not feel at the crisis point it did around 12 months ago when Livingstone first made his remarks (yes, this saga has been dragging on since last April), it has had no clear solution and, because of that, remains a real problem. The continuation of Livingstone’s hearing does not reopen old wounds, it just serves to remind us that the self-inflicted wounds we had never healed.
For many of us, the issue may have become ‘out of sight, out of mind’ at times, but it is worth recognising that until real action is taken, we as a party are still seen to have an antisemitism problem internationally.
On the Israeli left, the concern that antisemitism is growing among the European left is huge – and the Labour party in Britain is seen as one of the worst cases.
Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin, a Labour member of the Israeli parliament, is even concerned that Jeremy Corbyn may be an ‘antisemite himself’. While we may waver from using such strong language about the Labour leader, Nahmias-Verbin is not simply a nobody who can be dismissed. In the week I spoke to her, she had visited London and had a meeting with shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry, whom she appeared to rate highly. The two discussed policy areas such as Brexit, but did also speak about antisemitism ‘at length’.
However, she says that antisemitism in British Labour is a common talking point among the Israeli left, and that they are ‘very concerned with the Corbyn phenomenon’, which she describes as ‘disturbing’.
Uri Dromi, who was chief spokesperson to the Israeli Labour governments of the 1990s, agrees. He says that Corbyn should be seen to be more proactive in displaying his condemnation. By simply trying to distance himself from those who have been antisemitic, he appears to downplay it – and draws unfavourable comparison to Donald Trump.
‘It’s like with Trump’, Dromi said. ‘What kind of underlying messages are you giving? I’m sure people are driven by acts of leadership. I don’t see Corbyn doing it [being a leader against antisemitism]’.
There is a clear path of action the Labour leader could take instead, according to Dromi: ‘Corbyn needs to stand up in no uncertain terms to anyone who is antisemitic and say: “You are not part of my circle, of my party, I will chase you out of my sphere”. It’s always explaining, always making excuses [instead of taking action].’
The fate of Livingstone now lies with the National Constitutional Committee, and not Corbyn. But it is a ruling that will be noted abroad, as well as at home, and is one that will reflect on us all.
Conor Pope is deputy editor at Progress. He tweets at @conorpope
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