Joan Ryan: 'I won't walk away from my principles'

An outspoken critic of Jeremy Corbyn’s handling of antisemitism allegations, does the Labour Friends of Israel chair feel lessons have been learned from the scandal?


Being an MP can trigger many unexpected experiences. One day you can be spotted by constituents in the supermarket picking up a piece of salmon for dinner, as happened to Joan Ryan the evening before we meet.

Or you can be subjected to clandestine filming by an undercover reporter hell-bent on trying to pin an international Zionist conspiracy on you, as happened to Ms Ryan a year ago.

The trick, she explains, is to take the rough with the smooth. Resilience is key.

Nevertheless, the chair of Labour Friends of Israel is slightly nervous speaking to me. She does not engage in many media interviews and was, as a girl, a bit shy, she explains. But over the course of our chat, the Enfield North MP’s steely resolve becomes evident.

Perhaps the 62-year-old’s fighting spirit should not come as a surprise. This is a woman who has led LFI through two years of challenges, including the party’s antisemitism crisis and the broadcast of an Al Jazeera documentary on Israel’s supposed influence in British politics

As Labour members prepare to gather in Brighton for their annual conference, Ms Ryan is reflecting on the difficulties faced since she became chair of the group two years ago.

An outspoken critic of Jeremy Corbyn’s handling of the allegations of Jew-hate, does she feel lessons have been learned from the scandal?

“The short answer is probably no,” she begins. “Hard-left, Trotskyist elements” who have joined the party “have brought with them a view entirely incompatible with Labour Party membership, values and principles. That’s part of the battle, as well as the leadership having been very flat-footed about dealing with this issue when it bubbled up”.

While she regards Shami Chakrabarti’s 2016 probe of antisemitism and other forms of racism in the party as a “missed opportunity” to explicitly outline where anti-Israel rhetoric turns into full-blown Jew-hate, Ms Ryan accepts some positives can be found in the Corbyn era.

She notes Mr Corbyn “spoke well” at LFI’s conference reception last year, although she adds that “words and actions must match”.

This leads the Warrington-born politician to cite the rehabilitation of her colleague Naz Shah, the Bradford West MP who was suspended by the party last year after it was revealed she had promoted antisemitic social media posts which focused on Israel and Jews.

Ms Ryan explains: “There’s always the prospect that people will learn and their awareness will grow. I think Naz Shah is a case in point. We’ve met her, she’s made real and genuine efforts to address her own views and change. That’s very credible.

“You would never want to close the door on the possibility of that happening, but like with Ken [Livingstone], if you’ve got a very long history of this kind of view, there’s a point where that is incompatible with Labour membership or being a Labour representative.”

Sitting in Ms Ryan’s quiet office in Portcullis House in Westminster I sense a fire-in-the-belly which is often hidden from the public.

When I point out that LFI has, in many ways, defied expectations in the past two years — by adding dozens of MPs to its roster of supporters, by holding the government to account during such a tough period for Israel supporters on the left — she becomes suddenly very animated, jabbing the table with her finger.

“At an event at JW3 someone said to me ‘shouldn’t we walk away from Labour?’. Goodness no.

“To me, the Labour Party is, and should be, the vanguard of democracy, fairness, equality. LFI views are the mainstream of the party and the mainstream view of the population out there too, and we should never forget that. If we walk away, we leave a vacuum, and we know what happens in a vacuum.

“I would never walk away from my party. You stand and fight for the principles, values and beliefs we hold dear.

“The UK is an immensely powerful country. Influencing Labour policy and holding it to policies which properly represents its principles is massively important and is a job for every one of us. You’re either committed to fairness, equality and social justice, or you’re not. There’s no choice to walk away. It’s not just a job, it’s a way of life.”

On her watch, LFI has enjoyed a series of impressive campaign results. In July, the government confirmed it would put up to £3 million over the next three years towards Israeli and Palestinian “people-to-people” projects. LFI had led calls for increased funding for five years.

Another major campaign has focused on lobbying the Department for International Development to investigate where British taxpayers’ money which goes to the Palestinian Authority ends up, given the PA’s propensity to pay salaries to terrorists’ families.

On such campaigns, “you have to be in it for the long term and have real resilience,” Ms Ryan admits.

Dogged determination can be seen in much of LFI’s work, and the group’s chair explains how the patience shown by groups in Northern Ireland paid off.

“People-to-people work builds a commitment to conflict-resolution, and it builds trust. The Good Friday Agreement, when it came to a point that the people had to support it, to vote for it, all those projects had already built trust and commitment and a civil society dimension to peace, not just the political and economic. When it came to tough times, when the peace deal could have broken down, the resilience of those projects has seen it through. There’s lots of evidence of that.”

Other groups within Labour have offered support, she says. Working with the party’s Friends of Palestine group has been “a huge step forward”.

“They might take a different view on some issues to us, and highlight them differently — sometimes we might disagree quite strongly — but conflict resolution demands you have to work with those you don’t always agree with and you have to find a way forward.”

Future LFI efforts will centre on persuading the government to back an international fund for peace for Israelis and Palestinians, to provide the money needed to ensure civil projects grow.

Many in the Jewish community — whether traditional Labour backers or otherwise — might ask why a non-Jewish politician with no obvious reason to be a solid supporter of Israel would bother with all this hard work, given the vitriolic abuse which meets those adopting such a position.

Ms Ryan lowers her voice as she explains -— perhaps for the first time publicly — the events which led her to this point.

“On a personal level I had an experience that I think probably touched a deep emotion in me and in my understanding of my own values and principles. I was a freelance oral history interviewer at the Imperial War Museum in the mid-80s.”

In almost a whisper, she says she developed the museum’s first project to record the testimony of concentration camp survivors.

“I interviewed a number of Auschwitz survivors, people who had been in Bergen-Belsen, in Dachau, a number of the Windermere boys, a woman who had been on a forced march from Lithuania. They were very long interviews. With some it was 24 recorded hours.”

Clearly deeply affected by what the Holocaust survivors shared with her three decades ago, Ms Ryan now seeks to practise the sort of “kinder, gentler” politics which her party leader once claimed he wanted to see.

She is not, for example, of the same opinion as her colleague Laura Pidcock, the MP who made headlines for suggesting she could not be friends with Tory women because she regards Conservatives as the “enemy”.

Instead Ms Ryan praises Andrew Percy, a pro-Israel Tory MP, and adds: “We’ve done some good cross-party working together. Eric [Pickles, the former minister and ex-chair of Conservative Friends of Israel] and I had a really good working relationship.

“On an issue like this you go out and build bridges. How we could possibly go and tell Palestinians and Israelis that they have got to work together if we can’t even cross the aisle to do so — I think it would be quite ridiculous.”

In the mid-90s she was part of the Labour group which ran Barnet Council in north London, working with a number of Jewish Liberal Democrat councillors, including Monroe Palmer who now sits in the Lords.

“I’ve always been able to work cross-party for the greater good,” she says. “I genuinely do believe you can change the world for the better and that politics is a really important route to that. If you’re not committed to that what are you in politics for?

“It’s so easy to diminish politics and criticise. Politicians deserve criticising, and we live in a democracy — just like Israelis criticise the Israeli government — but, at its best, with commitment, politics is about changing the world for the better. You deal with the big picture and the battles in front of you.”

As we re-enter conference season, things have come full circle for Ms Ryan. One of her toughest battles as LFI chair has been overcoming Al Jazeera’s efforts to discredit her and the group a year ago. Again, resilience has been prominent in her response.

“I look back on the film and it created a little storm at the time, but the reason why there was nothing more serious in it was because there was nothing to find.

“They had a six month undercover operation and that was what they came up with? Us trying to make the case? To be polite, to not be rude to anybody and to listen to their arguments? That’s pretty much what that showed.

“You can’t fall at any of the hurdles. You get back up every time. You know that you have support, and it picks you up when you feel a bit down about things.”

The backing of Israel supporters — Jewish or not, Labour voters or not — keeps her mind on the job. Paired with the moving experience of meeting those Shoah survivors, it means Ms Ryan is as determined as ever to fight for what she believes in.

“What would happen if the Labour Party — supposed to be the very vanguard of standing up for social justice and human rights — let this pass by and did nothing about it and disappeared into a morass of hatred? What would happen five or 10 years down the line?

“You never know what you are stopping. You stand up to antisemitism the minute it raises its head, and you recruit others. That’s why building support for LFI is so important, and fighting the battle at every point and turn. You never let it slide. You never let it pass.”

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