It is the gripe of every end-of-the-bar bigot you meet. ‘Look, I’m not saying there isn’t any racism but there can’t be as much as they claim. They exaggerate it. This isn’t me saying this, by the way. I know loads of black lads who say the same. They’re just milking it. It stands to reason.’
Place that paragraph before almost any Labour member and they would know exactly what they were looking at. They would call it textbook racism. The throat-clearing at the outset. The downplaying of the problem. The some-of-my-best-strawmen-are-black rhetorical device. Whatever the intent (though we can probably guess), the overall effect is to delegitimise critics of racism, to call them liars and fabricators, to make it more difficult for them to speak up in future. Most Labour members would tell you the speaker was either a racist or at the very least an apologist for racism. This kind of thing is unacceptable in the Labour Party.
Now, place the following paragraph, spoken by Labour frontbencher Chris Williamson, in front of the same people:
'I’m not saying it never ever happens but it is a really dirty, lowdown trick, particularly the antisemitism smears. Many people in the Jewish community are appalled by what they see as the weaponisation of antisemitism for political ends. It is pretty repellent to use that to attack somebody like Jeremy Corbyn, who has spent his whole life fighting for social justice and standing up for the underdog. But I feel people have stopped listening to the smears and lies and dirty tricks. I think for all the talk about Venezuela and antisemitism, and the latest thing is sexism now, Jeremy’s overwhelming landslide victories in the leadership elections and the general election mean people have stopped listening to the smears.’
Watch as a different process unfolds. Some Labour activists would recoil at the similarities. There it is again, the throat-clearing, the downplaying, the attempt to pass off a tiny fringe as representative of the Jewish community. They would agree that this kind of talk performs the same function as the first example and is just as unwelcome in Labour.
Others, perhaps a good many these days, would become immediately offended. Are you trying to suggest there is any comparison between the two?The first statement is about racism; the second is defending Jeremy against smears. These Labour members will swear they cannot see the parallels. This isn’t downplaying anti-Semitism; it even says at the start that it does happen sometimes. Everyone knows Corbyn's critics have been exaggerating claims of anti-Semitism to undermine Jeremy. This just proves what Chris was saying — anti-Semitism is a smear.
These kind of circular arguments become familiar the longer you spend observing the Labour Party. It’s a great progressive force in British politics, the fierce enemy of every form of racism but one. Bigotry against black Britains? Disgusting. Islamophobia? Contemptible. Anti-Semitism? Well, it depends...
Corbyn ally and shadow fire and emergency services minister Chris Williamson has accused those raising concerns about anti-Semitism within Labour of ‘weaponising’ the issue. Twice. In one week. The first time was in an interview with the Guardian and those were the comments above. The second was in an interview with Radio Derby, his local BBC station. He expressed ‘solidarity’ with victims of anti-Semitism, which he called ‘repugnant’. Alas, he didn’t stop there, and added:
'What can’t be acceptable is where it is being used in order to wage a proxy war against the leadership of the Labour Party and Momentum… These aren’t my words, these are the words of members of the Jewish community who are very upset about how anti-Semitism is being weaponised. I’m not speaking in isolation or making this up. I’ve been a member of the Labour Party for 41 years and I’ve never witnessed any anti-Semitism.’
The invocation of the Jewish community here is particularly deceitful, given the Board of Deputies of British Jews had called for Williamson to be sacked the day before for his first attack on opponents of anti-Semitism. The closing line is something special, on a par with a Met officer explaining that claims of racism must be overblown because he's never seen it.
Williamson's remarks didn't arrive in isolation. They come shortly after Sarah Champion had to resign as shadow equalities secretary over an article she contributed to the Sun. Reflecting on the prosecution of yet another grooming gang, Champion wrote: 'Britain has a problem with British Pakistani men raping and exploiting white girls'. That admission of a societal problem cost Champion her job. She was insensitive, inflammatory, demonising a whole community. Why haven't Williamson's comments, a denial of a societal problem, cost him his job?
None of the answers is palatable. Anti-Semitism is not a priority in the Labour Party. Many Labour people would struggle to identify it and not enough consider it a pressing matter. Charges of racism are accepted at face value; charges of anti-Semitism require a full-bench trial. A deeper problem lies in Labour's self-image as champion of the underdog. Blacks are underdogs; they are victims of racism and poverty. Muslims are underdogs; they are victims of Islamophobia and Western foreign policy. Jews are not underdogs; in Palestine, they're actually oppressors.
When Labour gets round to confronting its anti-Semitism problem it should quietly retire the clunky paternalism too.