As leaders of the Jewish community, we are rarely shocked these days by evidence of anti-Jewish racism within the Labour Party. But yesterday evening we were indeed shocked. The news that Chris Williamson, a serial “baiter” of the Jewish community and MP for Derby North, had his suspension lifted by a Labour Party disputes panel landed us a blow.
As a decision, it beggars belief. There was no transparent reason given and no clarity about the process that was followed.
Williamson is a repeat offender who has shown scant or no remorse for his litany of offensive acts and statements. This decision was a slap in the face for the Jewish community.
Over the past two weeks, we have now had to intervene four times with the party on behalf of the Jewish community over incidents of anti-Jewish racism. For a party which still claims to have zero tolerance for antisemitism – and which claims that the number of incidents is infinitesimal in relation to the size of the party – this is absurd.
There was the lack of action taken against the new Labour MP for Peterborough Lisa Forbes, who, amongst other things, approved of a social media post calling Theresa May a “Zionist slave master”. There was the member of the national executive committee (NEC) of the Labour Party, Peter Willsman, who retains his place on the NEC despite being suspended for anti-Jewish racism.
There was the former MP Jim Sheridan, who had previously been suspended for propagating anti-Jewish conspiracy language. Having had his suspension lifted, he has been rewarded by being made deputy leader of the Labour group at Renfrewshire council.
The Williamson news followed swiftly on the back of these incidents. The columnist Jonathan Freedland correctly wrote in February that “Labour doesn’t have zero tolerance of antisemitism if Chris Williamson is an MP”.
Why, despite his litany of offences, was his suspension lifted? Transparency on this is essential if trust is to be restored with the Jewish community.
It has been reported that a Labour Party NEC dispute panel had been due to consider Williamson’s case on Tuesday. One member of that panel, Claudia Webbe, pulled out, meaning the panel was not quorate.
Yesterday, a new dispute panel met, with different membership. According to reports, this panel voted to overlook the recommendation from Labour Party staff that the matter be referred to a Labour Party body that had the power to expel Williamson. Instead, his suspension was lifted.
This is fortunate timing for Williamson, just in time to be able to propose himself for reselection. An outside observer may consider this a coincidence but the Jewish community have seen these tricks and blatant disregard for anti-Jewish racism occur all too frequently. This is just one example of a culture where Jewish concerns are not taken seriously, or are actively opposed.
Indeed, it is this alleged interference in disciplinary processes by the party leadership that forms a strand of the Equality and Human Rights Commission investigation into the Labour Party.
When we, as representatives of the Jewish community, wrote to Jeremy Corbyn on 28 March 2018, in advance of our meeting with him, we made the point very clearly that leadership must come from the top if anti-Jewish racism is to be eliminated from within the Labour Party.
Labour’s proclaimed “zero tolerance” for antisemitism means nothing when friends and allies of the leadership are let off with nothing more than a slap on the wrist. The readmission of Williamson is an utter disgrace and is a damning indictment on the state of the Labour Party leadership. Perhaps we are not surprised after all.
Gillian Merron is chief executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews
Simon Johnson is chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council
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