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Labour: this is a repeat of the purges of the 1980s

If what Luciana Berger is experiencing seems like deja vu, that's because something very similar happened to fellow Jewish MP Reg Freeson over 30 years ago

    Reg Freeson
    Reg Freeson

    Reg Freeson’s left-wing credentials were impeccable. 

    After being elected a Labour MP in 1964, he opposed the timidity of the Wilson government’s stance on the Vietnam war, South Africa and immigration. 

    A founder member of CND, he was one of the first five Labour MPs on the initial Aldermaston march. His sympathies were firmly with the cause of Irish nationalism, while he used his background in journalism to edit the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight and write for the house journal of the Labour left, Tribune.

    None of that, however, saved him from the wrath of the hard-left in the early 1980s. Having failed to deselect him in Brent East before the 1983 general election, Ken Livingstone and his supporters soon returned to the fight. 

    In 1985, Freeson threw in the towel and abandoned his uphill struggle for reselection, clearing the way for Livingstone’s election in 1987.

    As well as standing in the way of the ambitious former GLC leader, Freeson, who died in 2006, had failed the hard-left’s most critical ideological litmus test. The grandson of Jewish immigrants, he was an ardent Zionist and co-chair of Poale Zion, the Jewish socialist society affiliated to the Labour Party. 

    Though not an uncritical supporter of Israel — he opposed the 1982 invasion of Lebanon — Freeson’s unwillingness to abandon his principles cost him his political career. His support for Israel, said Freeson after his deselection, had led him to be branded “that bloody Zionist and Jew”.

    That Luciana Berger and Louise Ellman, prominent Jewish parliamentarians who have a long history of defending Israel, should have been targeted for deselection by Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters should come as no surprise. The Labour leader’s politics and that of his key lieutenants and grassroots activists is rooted in the same virulent anti-Zionist politics which sealed Freeson’s fate 30 years ago. 

    Indeed, despite Corbyn’s seeming appeal to youthful idealists, his leadership has ushered in a return to Labour Party politics of an older generation of Marxist hardliners who zealously attempted to hunt down “moderate” heretics during the 1980s before their power waned as then leader Neil Kinnock began his battle to root out Militant Tendency. 
    The hair may be greyer, but the ideological obsessions of Corbyn’s warriors remain unchanged. 

    Freeson may have been the victim of the most vicious and, thanks to his challenger, high-profile battle in the hard left’s crusade against Zionists. He was, not, however, unique. 

    Stanley Clinton-Davis’s condemnation of resolutions passed by the Hackney North and Stoke Newington Labour Party, which declared its opposition to “the Zionist State of Israel”, led to him being publicly branded a “racist”. 

    Boundary changes ensured that Clinton-Davis, a former minister and vocal supporter of Labour Friends of Israel, was left without a seat before the 1983 election. 

    Joel Barnett, a Jewish Cabinet minister under Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan who had repeatedly tangled with the then hero of the hard-left Tony Benn, failed in his bid to secure selection when his Greater Manchester constituency was also abolished prior to 1983.

    But the campaign was not just waged against high-profile parliamentarians. Hard left-dominated constituency parties passed resolutions attempting to disaffiliate Poale Zion from the Labour Party. One motion, for instance, denounced the “anti-working class and racialist nature of both the Zionist State and its ideological off-shoot in the workers’ movement”. 

    In local authorities, too, purges of moderate councillors targeted vocal supporters of Israel — such as the former leader of Brent Council, John Lebor, who was a member of the national executive of LFI — for deselection.

    Then, as now, Britain’s Jews, including many who consider themselves to be on the left, voted with their feet, abandoning a party that seemed highly sensitive to every form of racism — except one.  

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