It has been hard, but we’re detoxifying Labour

Over 3,000 members, all staff and most MPs have been trained in antisemitism awareness


(L-R) Jewish Labour Movement chair Mike Katz, former Labour MP Ruth Smeeth, Labour MP Margaret Hodge, vice chair Adam Langleben and National Secretary Peter Mason attend a press conference of the Jewish Labour Movement at the offices of law firm Mishcon de Reya in London on October 29, 2020 on the findings of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report on anti-semitism in the Labour Party. - Britain's main opposition Labour party on Thursday suspended its former leader Jeremy Corbyn, after a government watchdog found his office broke equality law through its "inexcusable" handling of anti-semitism complaints. The shock development came after Corbyn said he refused to accept all the findings of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report, in defiance of the party's new leadership under Keir Starmer. (Photo by Ian Vogler / POOL / AFP) (Photo by IAN VOGLER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

February 24, 2022 12:55

If there is one insight above all others to be gained from Jewish history it is that freedom depends on education. As Rabbi Lord Sacks said: “to defend a country, you need an army, but to defend a civilization, you need schools”.

Few could have articulated as well as the former Chief Rabbi during his maiden speech in the House of Lords the importance of education to our community.  It’s the bedrock of who we are and what we stand for. And while we cherish learning for personal advancement, we must also recognise its value as a tool to fight antisemitism. 

It is in this tradition that the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) is delivering antisemitism awareness education with the Labour Party. After our experiences as Jewish members from 2015-2019, which for too many can only be described as grim, we had a fundamental decision to make. Did we want to help fix the mess created by others? Were we prepared to take the new leader of the Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer, at his word and work with him to root out antisemitism? 

Following the publication of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s investigation into the Labour Party, which found that it had broken equalities law, the Labour Party was instructed to deliver training on antisemitism. It approached us to deliver the training mandated by the EHRC. After much internal deliberation, we decided to work with the party. Ultimately, we knew this was an opportunity not just to help fix the Labour Party, but also to directly challenge the hate that was becoming all too common.

Working with Community Security Trust (CST) and the Antisemitism Policy Trust (APT), we developed a training module. Our place within the Jewish community and the Labour Party is unique. Speaking with a left-wing voice to left-wing people on antisemitism is crucial to help members understand the anti-Jewish racism that we experienced. It matters that JLM belongs to the Labour movement — we’re credible, we’ve gained our own insight on antisemitism through our members’ experiences and we can get the message out to those who might not otherwise listen. 

And we’ve been successful. We’ve reached close to 3,000 Labour Party members. We’ve trained all Labour Party staff (including those involved in the complaints process), its governing NEC, almost all its MPs, Peers, Welsh Assembly members and Scottish Parliamentarians, as well as Angela Rayner and Sir Keir Starmer. We’ve held education sessions at Labour Party Conference, regional Labour conferences and for councillors. 

By equipping Labour Party members with an understanding of antisemitism, we believe that we can detoxify its culture. What was often lacking under Jeremy Corbyn were confident allies against antisemitism who could stand up in their local party meetings and call out what was happening. Too often, antisemitic incidents went unchallenged, motions in local parties were nodded through and people in positions of leadership were silent when it mattered. 

In our training, we start with the lived experience of Jewish members. We outline what happened to us during the Corbyn era and the impact it had on our lives, our loved ones and the wider community. It’s harrowing for those of us doing it to relive what we went through, but it needs to be done so that the training is taken seriously and members understand why they are there.

 We then take members through what antisemitism looks like in the UK and the world today, its themes and how they’ve morphed over time. Our training doesn’t presume prior knowledge of antisemitism, Jewish history or the Jewish community. It gives participants an understanding of antisemitism as well as concrete steps members can take to make their local parties welcoming to Jewish members. 

We’re under no illusions. Rooting out the toxic culture will not be a quick job. We know it will take time. But by using education, a proper disciplinary process and leadership from Keir Starmer, progress is being made. 

Slowly, some Jewish members who left are re-joining. Louise Ellman re-joined during Labour Party Conference in September, and we know of many ordinary members who are starting to feel comfortable enough to do the same. 

In autumn 2021, the JLM surveyed its Jewish members and found that 91 per cent trust that Sir Keir is genuinely trying to tackle antisemitism, while 70 per cent said Labour is a safe space for Jewish people under his leadership. We should never have ended up in this place, but we are turning our party around. 

And if nothing else shows how far we’ve come, it’s the number of young Jewish members who spoke out against antisemitism under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership who are standing to be councillors in May.  We are definitely on the right track. 

Ruth Smeeth is vice-chair of JLM and was Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent North between 2015 and 2019

February 24, 2022 12:55

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