Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

What the responses to Willsman tell us about antisemitism in the Labour party

Claims that antisemitism is being ‘weaponised’ create the culture in which people can get away with it, writes Conor Pope

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Yesterday could have been about the minimum wage. On 31 July 1998, exactly 20 years ago, the National Minimum Wage legislation was given royal assent. The story there is a remarkable one, of a radical policy fervently opposed by the Conservatives at the time becoming so established that the Tories now try to outflank us on it. It is reason for reflection on Labour successes, how they are achieved, and how we build on them. There is a lot there to unpack, and it includes worthy lessons for the next Labour government.

But here we are again. Antisemitism in the Labour party.

Peter Willsman’s comments are a disgrace. They were, in fact, when they were first reported on by the Jewish Chronicle last week. Following that report, he was given a slap on the wrist and he apologised – while also claiming that what he said was not ‘accurately reported’.

Well, now we have heard the audio and can judge for ourselves how accurate that report was, as well as consider the vitriolic tone in which he made the remarks. This was not just a misjudged comment; it was a rant.

Willsman is on the Momentum slate for Labour’s NEC and, while some high-profile backers have pulled their support for him, the group still wants to back him. Even if he were now to be pulled off that slate though, it would not be enough. Just as when Christine Shawcroft was revealed to have defended a Holocaust denier earlier this year, removing one perpetrator from position does not solve what is clearly a cultural issue on the left.

Why did none of Willsman’s allies stop him at the meeting? Why did nothing happen until his comments were reported in the press? Why did those who attended not call for him to be removed from their slate? Why did he think he would be able to say something like this in the first place?

The truth is, unless comments like these and actions like Shawcroft’s get leaked, there are no consequences. And when people on the centre-left raise antisemitism, it is often dismissed as an ‘exaggeration’, a ‘smear’ or as ‘weaponising antisemitism’. On days like this, to make those arguments is just a dogwhistle to others – indicating that all allegations of antisemitism can be ignored.

Antisemitism is political. If the people you do not like are raising it as an issue, that does not mean they are weaponising it. These claims in the Labour party have run out of road: an establishment figure went on an antisemitic rant in a meeting of the party’s ruling body, and the other establishment figures were silent.

There is a lot there to unpack too. There is reason to reflect. And there are lessons.

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Conor Pope is deputy editor of Progress

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Conor Pope

is deputy editor at Progress

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