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My evening with Jeremy Corbyn — and his star-struck supporters

The scenes inside Jeremy Corbyn’s “diverse communities media reception” last Wednesday night left a lot to be desired

    The view of the London Eye from the suite of offices and reception rooms used by the leader of the opposition on the edge of Westminster’s Parliamentary estate is unimprovable.

    Which is fortunate, because the scenes inside Jeremy Corbyn’s “diverse communities media reception” last Wednesday night left a lot to be desired.

    The event was intended, I believed, to be an opportunity for journalists working for minority community media outlets to meet shadow cabinet figures and discuss Labour’s relationship with those communities.

    I was wrong.

    It was, in fact, a chance for like-minded activists to meet the men and women who are, apparently, their political heroes: Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Diane Abbott, Kate Osamor and Rosena Allin-Khan.

    The room was crammed full, not of independent journalists, but of Corbynite men and women from party lobby groups. I was as surprised to meet members of the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) as I was to see activists from other groups.

    But of more immediate concern was the evident disregard that many close to the Labour leader still show for tackling the antisemitism crisis.

    The first person I spoke to was a gentleman from the Muslim Friends of Labour group. After falling at the first hurdle by assuming Rosa Doherty, my JC colleague, was actually Ella Rose, director of the JLM, purely because both are Jewish women, he somehow managed to make matters worse.

    I mentioned that it was kind of Mr Corbyn’s team to invite us, given how poor the party’s relationship is with the Jewish community.

    “No, no,” the man told me. “There is no problem, the media has invented it all, blown it up.”

    Good start – five minutes in, one conversation down, and already one sexist slip-up and one complete dismissal of antisemitism concerns. But this was barely the tip of the iceberg.

    Next up was a backbench Labour MP who, in an apparent attempt to impress me, bragged: “The JC? Oh yes, we mark Holocaust Memorial Day every year in my constituency.”

    He went on to tell me he grew up in north London and had “lots of Jewish friends”. Seriously.

    Dawn Butler, former Shadow Minister for Diverse Communities, wandered over and I guessed what was coming. Six weeks ago I said her stint in the shadow cabinet had been “one of the most utterly pointless appointments in the history of British politics”.

    Unsurprisingly, she was unimpressed, but to her credit she made a staunch defence of her efforts in the role and tore strips off me for the “bullying” article which, she said, would do nothing to improve relations between the community and her party.

    For solace I turned to an apparently friendly aide from Mr Corbyn’s office who I had met once before. She asked how the evening was going and I repeated my earlier line about how kind it was of the Labour leader to invite us, under the circumstances.

    What circumstances, she asked. “Well, you know,” I said, “the fact the Labour Party is now absolutely toxic as far as British Jews are concerned.”

    She recoiled before embarking on a rant about how the racism allegations had been over-egged. That old chestnut again. When I tried to argue back she made an abysmal mangled metaphor in which she suggested if she disagreed with one of her children it didn’t mean that either of them were necessarily in the wrong, merely that they disagreed. The implication being that the instances of antisemitism British Jews had complained about were open to interpretation, which is in itself antisemitic.

    By this point I was genuinely shocked at what was happening. Other Jewish attendees looked around nervously, perhaps wondering whether I was going to make a scene.

    Perhaps I should have but we had now reached the crux of the evening, the shadow cabinet members’ speeches.

    A theme quickly emerged. After one frontbencher said the party needed minority community journalists to provide better coverage of Labour than the likes of “the Guardian and the Telegraph”, disgraced MP Keith Vaz turned up to go one step further.

    Mr Vaz, who last September was briefly investigated by police but not charged over allegations he offered to buy cocaine for two male prostitutes who he met at an Edgware flat after claiming he was an industrial washing machine salesman called Jim, implored attendees to “tell people the truth”.

    He attacked what he called the “MSM” – mainstream media – for inventing stories, in one fell swoop pushing the term “chutzpah” to its boundaries while highlighting the complete farce we were now engaged in.

    The room erupted in celebration when Ms Butler congratulated the Shadow Chancellor for “forcing the government U-turn” on national insurance, but strangely no one mentioned Mr Corbyn’s completely failed attempt to hold the Prime Minister to account on this matter in the Commons just six hours earlier.

    When Mr Corbyn spoke, he came across well, albeit rambling. He paid tribute to the efforts of the “minority community media” and journalists from all backgrounds.

    Recalling his time at the National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers in the 1970s, where he got to know Jewish workers, he praised the value of Jewish newspapers to the community after the Holocaust, saying they had kept people “together”.

    It was a good speech, which mentioned apartheid in South Africa and other struggles against racism throughout the 20th century, but was notable for the absence of any reference to efforts to combat antisemitism.

    When he stepped away from the microphone, Mr Corbyn was mobbed. Dozens of activists posed for selfies and group-shots, with some real journalists regrettably joining the throng. Even the Labour leader looked uncomfortable in the midst of such adulation.

    A journalist from the Daily UK Times poses with Jeremy Corbyn at the Labour leader's reception
    A journalist from the Daily UK Times poses with Jeremy Corbyn at the Labour leader's reception

    Eventually the acolytes drifted away and I was able to ask him why he hadn’t mentioned Jew-hate during his speech. “I have lots to say on antisemitism,” Mr Corbyn told me. If that’s the case, why not just say it, I suggested.

    “I have lots to say on antisemitism,” he repeated, before walking off, having said nothing about antisemitism.

    It is so blatantly obvious as to seem barely worth re-stating, but, the most concerning lesson from the evening was the hammering home of the fact that there is still a complete lack of understanding, at the very top of the party, of the damage done in the last year around antisemitism.

    Mr Corbyn’s closest aides, advisers and supporters are so lacking in the basic, fundamental comprehension of why this issue gnaws away at British Jews that they can look a Jewish journalist in the face and tell him the media have inflated the problem.

    The Labour leader is surrounded by friends, family and sycophants. This is not even a coterie of professionals, versed in political leadership. It is a mish-mash of has-beens, lightweights and incompetents, who would plunge the country into an even greater spell of utter chaos than it currently finds itself in should they ever get anywhere near Downing Street, which they won’t.

    But while Mr Corbyn remains in position, and they remain as his advisers, it will be utterly impossible to improve relations with British Jews. Events such as this serve as nothing other than pour salt in the wounds.

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