It is not often you start writing an article knowing that by the time you have finished it the subject will have been suspended. But then it is not often that a member of Labour’s National Executive starts free-associating on radio about whether Hitler was a Zionist. It is not every day that a Labour MP tells a member of the National Executive to his face, in front of cameras, that he is a “Nazi apologist” and a “f***ing disgrace”.
I have never seen anything like it. Things got rowdy in the Labour Party in the early 1980s. People shouted at each other as the SDP broke away. In the Chamber of the House of Commons, Clare Short shouted at Labour MPs (including Jeremy Corbyn) who voted against the Labour Government over the bombing of Slobodan Milosevic that they were “like those who appeased Hitler”. But even that was not quite like this.
This started off as a discussion about what Labour should do about Naz Shah, the MP who defeated George Galloway in Bradford. On Tuesday, Paul Staines, whose Guido Fawkes website is one of the powerhouses of the new media, reported her two-year-old Facebook posts. In them she mockingly suggested that Israeli Jews should be transported from Israel to settle in America.
That was difficult enough for the Labour Party. John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, had said last month – to Ben Chu of The Independent, as it happens: “Out, out, out. If people express these views, full stop they’re out.” Those were the words quoted by David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions. Then Shah, who had had a meeting with Jeremy Corbyn before PMQs, had another meeting with him and was suspended from the party.
When I say that was difficult for Labour, I am not being sarcastic. Shah’s apologies appeared to be heartfelt. She seemed genuinely contrite. Anti-Semitism is obviously an offence requiring immediate expulsion, as McDonnell said, but what do you do about someone who previously made anti-Semitic remarks, but who genuinely now wants to help fight anti-Semitism? Yes, the offence was recent, but if she has seen the error of her ways, then the best way to try to persuade others that anti-Semitism is wrong might be to enlist her to the cause, not cast her to the outer darkness.
Before we could reach a considered verdict on this point, however, Ken Livingstone waded in with the latest of his increasingly erratic media interviews. He is like a once-great actor, whose performances were sometimes compelling because he took risks, finally losing his inhibitions and self-discipline. How he came to utter the sentence about Hitler “he was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews” is one of the higher mysteries of psychology, politics and neuroscience.
Once he said it, however, he did what Livingstone always does, which is to refuse to accept he had made a mistake and to alternate between attacking anyone who criticises him and to affect injured innocence – “it’s just a historical fact”.
If the precise thought process is unclear, one theme was unmistakeable, which is that Livingstone seeks to play down or deny any suggestion that the Labour Party generally, or the so-called hard-left bit of it that he inhabits, sometimes tolerates anti-Semitism.
Hence what Shah had said on Facebook was not anti-Semitic – “it was rude and over-the-top” – even though she accepted it was and apologised for it. Hence Livingstone’s refusal to accept that he had ever come across anti-Semitism in his 47 years in the Labour Party. And hence his refusal when pressed on the BBC’s Daily Politics today to accept that Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, whom he invited to London and who wrote that “every Jew in the world” should be fought by “every Muslim”, was anti-Semitic because he had never said anything anti-Semitic to him.
By the time I had got this far, Livingstone had been suspended. The outcry was unstoppable, as Labour MPs queued up to demand that he had to go. But it took another hour and a half for the leader of the Labour Party to say something. It is difficult for him, and again I am not being sarcastic, although this time I am being unsympathetic. Because the reason it is hard for him is because he and Livingstone have the same politics. I imagine, although I have no window into Corbyn’s soul, that he finds it hard to condemn “left-wing” anti-Semitism unequivocally because he regards it as a right-wing smear against people like him who support the Palestinian cause and who regard the government of Israel as very bad.
He is oblivious – in a way in which McDonnell appears not to be – to the danger of opposition to the policies of the Israeli government shading into anti-Semitism. That may be why, every time Corbyn condemns anti-Semitism he finds himself unable to do so without in the same sentence condemning Islamophobia.
Finally, at 3pm, Corbyn managed a short interview on camera. He managed to say, “We are not tolerating anti-Semitism in any form whatsoever in our party,” but he went on “– or indeed any other kind of racism...” When will he simply condemn anti-Semitism, which is the kind of racism he is being asked about?
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