How the Labour Party became engulfed by accusations of antisemitism

The scandal is seen by many as part of a wider problem for Labour's left wing

Adam Taylor
Friday 29 April 2016 07:21
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After a day of controversy Ken Livingstone leaves Millbank Labour HQ
After a day of controversy Ken Livingstone leaves Millbank Labour HQ

British politics is in chaos after a scandal over Israel and anti-Semitism devolved into a vicious fight over the views of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.

The scandal had already seen Naz Shah, one of the UK's few female Muslim members of Parliament, suspended from the Labour Party on Wednesday. On Thursday, Ken Livingstone, the controversial former mayor of London, was also suspended from the party and publicly accused of being a "disgusting" Nazi apologist by a Labour colleague.

For many, the scandal is seen as part of a wider problem for Labour's left wing, which has come to dominate the party after Jeremy Corbyn's selection as leader last year. This wing of the party has generally supported Palestinian causes — but some rivals say that support has been tainted by anti-Semitism within the party's ranks.

How the scandal began

Labour MP Naz Shah (Rex Features)

On Tuesday, Shah, a Labour MP for Bradford West, was accused of anti-Semitism for a series of Facebook posts made in 2014.

Shah had only entered Parliament last year, winning a bitter contest for a constituency seat in Bradford, a poor city in the north of England with a large Pakistani minority. Shah herself was born in Bradford to Pakistani parents and sent back to Pakistan as a teenager. Shah enjoyed a quick rise to a position of power, becoming the parliamentary private secretary to John McDonnell, shadow chancellor of the exchequer, in early 2016.

However, Shah was forced to resign from that position after a Facebook post from her in 2014 was unearthed and made public by the right-wing Guido Fawkes blog. In the post titled “Solution for Israel-Palestine Conflict — Relocate Israel into United States,” Shah suggests that Israeli Jews should be relocated to the United States so that Palestinians could "get their life and their land back."

Shah was also soon found to have made other posts around this time comparing Israeli policies to those of Hitler. In an initial statement published just hours after the discovery of the first Facebook posts on Tuesday, Shah said that she apologised "unreservedly" for the posts, which were made "when emotions were running high around the Middle East conflict."

How it got worse

Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons

By Wednesday, the scandal was on the front pages of newspapers. Corbyn issued his own statement that called Shah's actions "offensive and unacceptable" and stated that the Labour Party was "implacably opposed to antisemitism and all forms of racism."

Later that day, Shah herself published a second apology in the Jewish News, a newspaper that serves Britain's Jewish community. "If politicians put their hands up when they get something wrong it would help to restore faith in politics," Shah wrote. "I hope that by writing to those who I have hurt, I am practicing as I preach and calling myself out."

Shah then apologized again in the House of Commons. "As an MP I will do everything in my power to build relations between Muslims, Jews and people of different faiths and none," she told her colleagues.

Despite these words, some observers criticised her phrasing, noting that they did not make clear that Shah thought her posts were anti-Semitic. On Wednesday afternoon, facing criticism for acting too slowly, Corbyn suspended Shah from the Labour Party. The move means she is currently barred from taking part in party activities or being involved with Labour groups in Parliament.

How it became a disaster

After a day of controversy Ken Livingstone leaves Millbank Labour HQ

That might seem like a natural place for the scandal to end. It didn't, however. It got worse.

In a BBC Radio London interview on Thursday, Ken Livingstone, former London mayor and member of Labour's National Executive Council, defended Shah, arguing that criticising Israel wasn't the same as anti-Semitism. Livingstone went on to say: "When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews."

Livingstone's comments about Hitler immediately sparked controversy. The former mayor had long been one of the best-known figures in the Labour Party's left wing, but he had also made a number of comments about Israel in the past that have led to accusations of anti-Semitism.

John Mann MP call Ken Livingstone MP a 'Nazi apologist'

Later on Thursday, Livingstone was confronted by the Labour Party MP John Mann as he walked to the BBC's offices in Westminster. In front of a scrum of reporters, Mann shouted at Livingstone, calling him a "f---ing disgrace" and a "Nazi apologist."

Livingstone's subsequent interview on the BBC's "Daily Politics" didn't go much better. “Hitler’s policy when he first came to power [was] to move Germany’s Jews to Israel," Livingstone said on the show. Former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, a fellow guest on the show, criticised Livingstone's comments, telling him he had entered "into this weird contorted maze" by bringing up Hitler when talking about Israel today.

As Livingstone left the BBC, things got even worse. The politician was forced to hide in a bathroom to escape an even larger crowd of journalists now awaiting him. As many Twitter users noted, the situation had the hallmarks of the BBC's well-known political satire, "The Thick of It."

The Labour Party soon announced that Livingstone, too, was suspended from the party “pending an investigation, for bringing the party into disrepute.” Mann was also summoned to see Labour's chief whip.

What it means for Britain's left

Former Labour leader Ed Miliband is the son of European Jews who had fled to Britain during World War II

While the Labour Party was once considered a supporter of Israel, in recent years it has had a difficult relationship with the Jewish state. Even under former leader Ed Miliband, the son of European Jews who had fled to Britain during World War II, the party was accused of deteriorating ties with the British Jewish community.

After losing last year's general election badly, centrist Miliband was unexpectedly succeeded by Corbyn, a representative of the party's leftist wing. Corbyn and many of his newly-powerful Labour allies were considered critics of Israel. This put them at odds not only with their Conservative rivals, but also with some of their own Labour colleagues, who favored not only more support for Israel but also more centrist policies in general.

Corbyn on Livingstone remarks

Critics on both the right and left have said that Corbyn failed to adequately address the problems with anti-Semitism in his party. Right-wing bloggers, such as Guido Fawkes, appear to have been combing over comments made by Labour members for remarks against Jews.

The chaos within Labour has even managed to overshadow the problems facing the party's right-wing rivals, the governing Conservative Party, which has recently been rocked by divisions over an upcoming vote to leave the European Union and Prime Minister David Cameron's family wealth.

Copyright: Washington Post

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