It’s time for Labour to root out antisemitism

The last few months have been pretty traumatic for anyone who wants Labour to be an open inclusive, compassionate and comradely place where we can challenge each other and come together to campaign to create a different sort of country and a different sort of society.

At a time when we are facing one of the worst governments in my lifetime – more riven than Major’s miserable regime in the nineties and more incompetent even than Heath in the seventies – Labour is focused inwards, unable and seemingly incapable of addressing the huge political challenges facing us. We seem to have spent the whole summer struggling and failing to come to terms with antisemitism.

And let’s be under no illusions. This is awful. We should not be in this place. We should never have been anywhere close to it. And this week it got even worse with the former Chief Rabbi comparing the UK Labour leader with Enoch Powell and comparing Corbyn’s words with Powell’s rivers of blood speech. Some may argue that the comparison is misplaced or inappropriate but no-one can possibly argue that Jonathan Sacks’ words do not powerfully illustrate the complete breakdown in the relationship and trust between the Labour Parry, particularly Jeremy Corbyn, and the Jewish community.

For many of us these months have been depressing and distressing. The bad situation is made worse by the way in which too many Jewish members have been treated both by the party and by some members on social media. The harrowing experiences of Luciana Berger and Margaret Hodge demonstrate the hard and inescapable reality of what happens when we allow the stain and smell of antisemitism to infect our debates and our political discourse.

And let’s also be clear. There is no smear and no orchestrated campaign. No attempted coup and no conspiracy. This pain is self-inflicted.

So let me say this and let me be crystal clear.

Whatever is decided by the party’s NEC next week, if I am elected as leader of Welsh Labour I will ensure the complete IHRA definition, along with all of its examples, is adopted in full by Welsh Labour. I will also ensure that this is enforced in the spirit as well as in the word. Under my leadership I will make Welsh Labour a party that positively welcomes Jewish members and supporters alongside all others as a valued part of our national community. We will also celebrate the Jewish culture and community and celebrate the part it has played and continues to play in Welsh life.

I am completely clear in my mind that it is absolutely possible to debate and discuss the Middle East and to be highly critical of the actions of the Israeli Government or the Israeli Defence Force and do so without suggesting antisemitism or doing so alongside those who are clearly antisemitic or by sharing platforms or speaking on behalf of groups, organisations and individuals who express antisemitism. I know this because I have done so for most of my adult life.

I have worked in Beirut, in Damascus and in Amman. I have worked alongside Palestinian activists and have visited the refugee camps of Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. I have spent time talking and listening and witnessing the intense and heartbreaking suffering of the Palestinian people. I was on the West Bank at the beginning of the second Interfada in 2000. But I have also visited Israel and spoken with ordinary Israelis who live in constant fear for their lives and the lives of their families and who sometimes also live in a never-ending terror of the future. And I have stood in the rubble of the gas chambers in Auschwitz.

I disagree with fundamental aspects of the recent nation state legislation passed by the Knesset, I am appalled by the recent violence in Gaza, I disagree with the policy of expanding settlements on the West Bank and I disagree with the building of a wall to separate Israeli and Palestinian communities. But I am also appalled at the indiscriminate killing and violence of Hamas and some other Palestinian organisations.

It is right and proper that we debate and discuss these matters. But we must do so in a spirit of goodwill and comradeship putting our Labour values at the heart of our debate. And our values can never allow us to offer any support to organisations who practice terrorism or antisemitism.

The IHRA is neither a threat to freedom of speech and neither does it prevent open, measured and intelligent discussions of the actions and decisions of the Government of Israel. What it does prevent is the ugly, nasty and discriminatory and chauvinistic abuse of Israel and Israeli citizens – and it prevents this because such rhetoric is always deeply antisemitic. Sustaining and supporting and protecting free speech should never be used as a pretext for allowing or even enabling antisemitic abuse and behaviour to be tolerated in any way. This spurious argument is a chimera and should be exposed as such. 

But why on earth would we as a political party want to encourage, enable or tolerant such behaviour anyway? Why would we want to allow the obviously grossly offensive comparison between Israel and Nazi Germany? Why would we want to hear our members describing Jewish people in terms which we would never tolerant if those same terms were used to describe other peoples? Why on earth would we allow antisemitic tropes of a Jewish conspiracy or of shadowy Jewish control of our institutions reminiscent of the thirties to become a part of our political currency today?

Over the past few months we as a party have demonstrated our failure to understand some of the basics of antisemitism and how images and suggestions of antisemitism have been used to attack Jewish people and the Jewish community. We have also failed to understand the fundamental and intense cultural fears of this Jewish community for whom the holocaust isn’t only a constant part of their history but a part of their present as well. Where persecution, intimidation and discrimination form a part of an identity where such harassment has been a constant over the centuries. And this is neither an academic or abstract issue, something for the history books or for other people in other countries. It matters to us in Wales.

The Jewish community has always played an important part in the life of Wales. And we have our own history to come to terms with. I am from Tredegar and the Jewish Riots in 1911 is a part of our history that we have not fully accepted or recognised.

For a week in August 1911 riots that had began in Tredegar spread across the coalfield. Jewish properties and shops and businesses were attacked, looted and destroyed. A frightening foreshadowing of that which would happen a little over twenty years later. In this way antisemitism isn’t something that happened or happens elsewhere. It is a part of our history in Wales, and a part of my personal history in Tredegar. My own grandparents would have witnessed the impact of that violence and probably knew, or were at least familiar with, some of the rioters. We all have a personal responsibility to act to recognise this and then to apply those lessons to our politics and to our country today.

By our words and actions and our failure to address these matters we have caused deep hurt, pain, anguish and despair throughout the Jewish community. These have been the worst of days for the Labour Party. And anyone who cares for the future of the party needs to recognise the depth and importance of this issue. We need to apologise for this and we need to put it right. 

To me leadership is about doing the right thing. And anyone who aspires to lead needs not only to understand these things but must also be prepared to drive radical change where it is needed. And adopting the full IHRA definition is the only the start. We also need a culture of respect and tolerance in our party. A culture where the language and the tone of our debate needs to change. Where our culture as a party reflects our values and our politics.



Let the people decide!

Welsh Labour should adopt primaries in our election for our new leader.

Last Friday I announced that I would seek support to stand for election as leader of Welsh Labour. One of the reasons I did so was because I felt that the debate we needed over the summer months and the autumn was simply not taking place. 

I am standing to drive that wide-ranging debate about the future of Welsh Labour as a political party and movement as well as our ambitions and visions for the future of Wales and then to be a leader of Welsh Labour with a clear mandate to deliver radical change.

And that radical change must begin with the way in which we elect our leaders.

Last month I wrote to Paul Murphy suggesting some significant changes to the process of nominating candidates that will eventually appear on the ballot paper. I suggested that the process of nomination be extended from the current system where AMs alone decided to include MPs, council leaders and our MEP. I was grateful to everyone who contacted me to welcome these suggestions.

But today I would like to go a step further.

My starting point is democracy and opening up our democracy as a party. If we are serious about being a party for the many and not the few then this needs to begin at the beginning. I do not want any tolerance or any acceptance of a democracy that is either fixed in advance, where back-room deals determine who gets to stand or a democracy where our elections are shaped and orchestrated by the few.

So this week I will write to Paul again. I will suggest that Welsh Labour adopt a system of primaries rather than to rely upon nominations from this very small subset of elected representatives. 

But why has my thinking changed on this issue?

Since last Friday I have spent a great deal of time talking with various people, from party members, to colleagues, friends and journalists. Almost the whole of this debate has been focussed on the process of nomination. I have come to the conclusion that until this changes then there will be no discussion of either politics or policy because no candidate needs to do anything except talk to their colleagues. There is no reason to appeal to a wider audience. 

My purpose in making such a suggestion on opening up the nomination process last month was to open the process beyond the Senedd in Cardiff Bay – after all this is our party leader in Wales. Under the current system the ballot paper and the election would be determined entirely by the Labour group in the National Assembly. And there’s nothing democratic about that. For me democracy means the real active involvement of the membership and our socialist societies and affiliates. It does not mean deals behind closed doors in the Bay. 

Primaries are a familiar part of the political landscape in the United States but tend to be treated with deep suspicion on this side of the Atlantic. They have been used as something of a novelty by political parties who have fallen on difficult times. Both the Lib Dems and the Tories have employed open primaries where all voters in particular constituencies being invited to select a candidate for a parliamentary seat. The motivation has usually been more to do the dreadful state of the party at the time and a need to generate some interest in the selection rather than to adopt primaries from a point of principle.

I hope that we can do better.

In fact the process of electing leaders in socialist or social democratic across Europe tends to be more open and more democratic than what has been so far proposed for either Welsh Labour or UK Labour. Most our our sister European parties have more open means of involving the whole party membership and only a few parties allow parliamentarians the veto that they effectively enjoy in either Wales or the UK. So what I am proposing is a primary nomination process which involves the whole membership of Welsh Labour.

So how could primaries work in Welsh Labour?

The purpose of this is to remove the power of patronage and appointment from professional politicians and return that power to party members as a whole. And the immediate impact of that will be two-fold. Firstly any prospective candidate has to do more than appeal to their friends and colleagues in the Bay. They will need to reach out across the whole country and the whole movement and speak to members about the sort of party and the sort of choice that they want to see. Secondly it would mean that potential candidates have to speak about those issues that matter to people and not politicians. The debate would be more about policy and politics and less about the potential for deals over jobs, roles, the process of governing and the politics of the group in the National Assembly.

In this way a system of primaries would be more open, more democratic and more empowering. By removing the sense of an internal narrow selection the party and the group would be strengthened and the election when it takes place would be the election that the party has chosen rather an election where the candidates are, in effect, imposed upon the party.

I would suggest that the party organise a series of hustings meetings in each region where every party member would have three votes and any candidate receiving over 15% of the total vote would appear on the final ballot paper in the election in the autumn. Each of the potential candidates would have the same opportunity to reach out and make their case. And each party member would be able to see and question everyone who wishes to be a candidate and would have the same opportunity to shape the election.

This is the radical and democratising way in which Welsh Labour can not only avoid some of the narrow debate that we’ve seen over the process or structure of nominations over the summer and can demonstrate how democracy can enliven and open up politics.  

Real politics. Real democracy. For the many and not the few. 

It’s time to confront UKIP and their prejudice 

Since they were elected two years ago UKIP has disfigured both the National Assembly and our national debate. For the first time I can remember we heard words like “foreigner” in our debates. But the election of Gareth Bennett as their leader last week and his words over the weekend cross a line. It would be easy to argue that a leader with a mandate of a few hundred votes shouldn’t be taken all that seriously. After all there are local councillors who have won with more votes and a bigger majority. But to not take him, and the direction where he wants to take UKIP, seriously would be a mistake. As leader of Welsh Labour I will take them on and confront them and their prejudice.

At one level they are a comedy outfit of inadequate, ineffective and mediocre individuals. Their performance in the Assembly has been wretched, woeful and feeble. But their inability to make any intelligent, rational or coherent contribution to our debates has not been questioned by either the media or by other parties. Sometimes Cardiff Bay is too comfortable. 

They succeed in making headlines either by their poor behaviour or conduct or by a series of confrontations in the chamber and elsewhere with their attacks on minorities or vulnerable people. Their use of ugly and unacceptable language leads to suspensions and interruptions to the business of the place. All too often the chamber sits in embarrassed silence whilst the UKIP spokesperson tries to read a poorly-written contribution onto the record.

I can think of no positive contribution that they have made since their election.

And this is where scrutiny is important. During the parliamentary passage of the Additional Learning Needs Act, the UKIP spokesperson, Michelle Brown, made no contribution to the debate over the legislation. She was clearly ignorant of the policy area and made absolutely no effort to either learn or to understand either the legislation – or – and this is important – the needs of this vulnerable group of children and young people. As a minister I was put under a great deal of pressure by both Plaid and the Tories – Darren Millar and Llyr Gruffydd – as well as the Welsh Labour chair – Lynne Neagle – all of whom worked hard to scrutinise and test the legislation. I made a number of changes as a consequence of this scrutiny and the Act is a better piece of law as a consequence. But UKIP played no part in this essential work of the parliamentary process, there was no UKIP amendment and apart from a few poor contributions virtually nothing said on the record. And this is what they are paid to do. 

And this inability to play even the smallest part in the work of the institution they they want to abolish and to do the bare minimum is not called out by either other politicians or the media. As a consequence they get away with their inadequacy, their idleness and their negligence. 

Some of us have refused to socialise with them, preferring to keep them at a distance. But at the same time some, including me, have felt inhibited from taking them on in the chamber because of their obvious inadequacy. It’s time to take them on and to expose them as a bunch of lamentable chancers with little talent and no commitment to their roles and their responsibilities.

I am not worried by Bennett’s quaint views on devolution – returning Wales to direct rule – all of our constitutional arrangements should always be contestable and always subject to test, debate and challenge. What is completely unacceptable is his views on our national community.

After a week of witnessing the best of Wales at the National Eisteddfod we now see the worst of Wales. And Bennett’s inadequacy should not stop us from taking him on. His brand of naked alternative right populism is the same hard right wing chauvinism that Steve Bannon is in Europe to promote. Bennett is probably copying Boris Johnson but it is this validation and repetition of prejudice that is dangerous. It is the same prejudice and same politics as the Front Nationale and the rest of the European right. And in Welsh Labour we need to campaign and to argue against it. We can no longer ignore them hoping that they will go away. Or even blame the electoral system for their election. People voted for UKIP because we failed to win the arguments against them.

But we must also work harder across the political spectrum to campaign and to argue for the Wales we want to see. The Wales of inclusivity and tolerance. The Wales where we enjoy and celebrate the diversity we saw in Cardiff Bay last week. The Wales where we reach out with a cwtsh rather than point fingers at differences. 

So let’s call them out. Let’s tell the truth about them. And let’s expose them as the nasty bunch of xenophobic chauvinists who will deliberately use their prejudice to create divisions, misery and distress because of their weakness, their ignorance and their cowardliness. And this isn’t simply an attack on Islam and the muslim community. It is an attack on us all.

The alternative is that this hatred, venom and this rancour will enter the Welsh political discourse and will become a normalised part of our political experience. And the consequence of that will be an increased threat to our whole national community across the whole of Wales. Wherever we live, however we live, whoever we worship, whatever we wear and whatever language we speak. 

But calling them out is not enough. We have to defeat their views and replace their prejudice with our values of liberal tolerance and compassion. And that means winning hearts and minds and not simply votes.

And this campaigning against populism and the alt right is part of the reinvention of our politics and our democracy that I spoke about when launching my leadership campaign last week. Last week I spoke about the structures and the process of politics. This, today, is about the principles and the values of our politics. The values of Nye Bevan and Paul Robeson that I tried to describe last week. Those values that reached out across an ocean to bring an American civil rights campaigner to sing at a Cymanfa Ganu at a National Eisteddfod in Ebbw Vale. It is those timeless values that must now drive our actions and our work.