At the end of every year, I try to look back at what I’ve written over the past 12 months, see what I now think about things, and draw some lessons from my mistakes. It’s in that context that I owe an apology to Kim Johnson, Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside — and indeed to anyone who read what I wrote after she asked a question at Prime Minister’s Questions back in February.
“Since the election of the fascist Israeli government in December last year, there has been an increase in human rights violations against Palestinian civilians, including children”, she began. “Can the Prime Minister tell us how he is challenging what Amnesty and other human rights organisations are referring to as an apartheid state?”
As I wrote at the time, this was a considerable accomplishment by Ms Johnson, managing to shoehorn pretty much every facile anti-Israel slur into one question — and especially notable in the reference to “fascist”, just days after Holocaust Memorial Day provided a lesson in what actual fascism involves.
Shortly after PMQs she was summoned by Labour’s chief whip, and soon after that Ms Johnson rose again in the chamber to “apologise unreservedly” for her earlier words: “I was wrong to use the term ‘fascist’ in relation to the Israeli government and understand why this was particularly insensitive given the history of the state of Israel. While there are far-Right elements in the government, I recognise the use of the term in this context was wrong…I would also like to apologise for the use of the term ‘apartheid state’.”
Which brings us to my apology today. The day after Ms Johnson’s own apology in the Commons chamber in February, I wrote that, “Yesterday has been the highlight of Ms Johnson’s political career to date, and I imagine that is how it will remain.”
Reader, I am sorry. Ms Johnson, I am sorry. I could not have been more wrong. I unreservedly apologise for suggesting that episode would be the highlight of her career to date. As we now know, much worse was to follow.
Ms Johnson is — sometimes parliamentary democracy is unintentionally hilarious — a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee. On December 12, the committee heard evidence from Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Matt Twist on the policing of both the “Free Palestine” marches that have turned central London into a no-go area for many Jews, and last month’s entirely peaceful March Against Antisemitism.
Ms Johnson’s questions were focused on why the police felt the need to hand out 7000 leaflets to people on the Palestine march warning them what is criminal behaviour but not handing out any leaflets to the antisemitism march. Not — I imagine you have twigged this already — because she was concerned by anything the Free Palestine marchers were saying and doing but because she was keen to portray the March Against Antisemitism as being the real danger to peace on the streets. As she put it: “We are aware that pro-Israel far-right protesters were joining the antisemitism march on 25 November. Were leaflets issued on that march to inform the far-right people involved of what hate crime is? …There has been some suggestion that it has not been a balanced approach.”
Credit where it’s due. To even attempt to compare 105,000 Jews and their allies marching quietly and with dignity against antisemitism with a series of what former home secretary Suella Braverman rightly called “hate marches” is chutzpah at its best. And it’s certainly more original than her repetition in February of a series of tired anti-Israel cliches.
In similar vein, Ms Johnson spoke at an earlier session of the select committee of “how children are being criminalised maybe for wearing a Palestinian scarf or making comments”. Not one child has ever been or would be criminalised for wearing a Palestinian scarf, of course. But full marks for trying.
You might wonder why it really matters what a backbench Labour MP you’ve probably never heard of thinks. It’s true that Ms Johnson is unlikely to be troubling Whitehall with any career advancement should Labour win power. But I suggest that there are some important lessons we can draw from her contributions to British politics in 2023.
First, it’s clear how much Labour has changed. Under Jeremy Corbyn, her words would have got her onto the front bench. Under Sir Keir Starmer, she was immediately forced to read out a humiliating statement obviously written for her by the whips. The Labour leader clearly meant what he said about ridding the party of antisemitism, and has acted on it. But the visceral hatred of Israel and distorted framing of a peaceful march against antisemitism is there for all to see. Ms Johnson remains, after all, a Labour MP. And she is hardly an outlier in holding such views. She is merely parroting the default left position. Sir Keir has certainly done wonders in cleaning up the party, and to his great credit has been firm and clear in supporting Israel’s right to defend itself from Hamas. But there is still an enormous problem with the left more generally — a problem in scale far beyond the capacity of Sir Keir or any other single leader to tackle. And it is getting worse, not better. As we have seen since October 7, “fascist Israel” has become almost passe as a slogan — now it is “genocidal Israel”.
As we approach a general election, this is surely one of the key dilemmas. Labour’s leadership has changed, is sincere and is in the right place. But the rest of the party? Can we really be sure that the likes of Ms Johnson will have zero influence?