Stephen Daisley

Why are Labour politicians siding with Ken Loach?

Why are Labour politicians siding with Ken Loach?
Richard Leonard (photo: Getty)
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Richard Leonard, former leader of the Scottish Labour party, has posted a photograph of himself standing beside Ken Loach on his public Facebook page. The Central Scotland MSP, who was succeeded by Anas Sarwar as leader of Labour’s Holyrood wing in February, commented: 

‘Ken Loach is guilty of applying his rare talent to exposing the real life impact of poverty, inequality and injustice.’

Loach, director of Poor Cow and Cathy Come Home, claims to have been expelled from the party. The Guardian quotes Loach as saying: 

‘Labour HQ finally decided I’m not fit to be a member of their party, as I will not disown those already expelled.’ 

This appears to be a reference to four factional entities proscribed by Labour’s national executive committee last month: Socialist Appeal, Labour In Exile Network, Resist and Labour Against the Witchhunt. Labour Against the Witchhunt, which says those who ‘promote the false anti-Semitism smear’ are ‘not welcome’, lists ‘Ken Loach, film director’ among its sponsors. It also argues that Labour ‘should reject the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism’.

Loach went on to say: ‘I am proud to stand with the good friends and comrades victimised by the purge. There is indeed a witch-hunt’, before adding that Sir Keir Starmer and ‘his clique’ would ‘never lead a party of the people’. He concluded, in an apparent echo of Shelley's ‘The Masque of Anarchy’, ‘We are many, they are few.’

Leonard is a staunch man of the left, a former trade union organiser and someone who can be relied upon to take mainstream democratic socialist positions. If someone was expelled from Labour for membership of an organisation which characterised efforts to root out anti-black racism as a ‘witch hunt’, I imagine that Leonard would not be posting pictures in solidarity with that person. No matter how talented a director he was or how many films he made about poverty, inequality and injustice or how many Palmes d’Or he had won.

Nor would his successor, and current Scottish Labour leader, Anas Sarwar be silent on the matter as he is being over both Loach’s alleged expulsion and one of his MSPs thumbing his nose at the NEC’s (exceedingly modest) attempts to clean up Labour’s act. Contacted for comment, Scottish Labour gave me the same line UK Labour is handing out: 

‘We are not going to comment on individual cases. As previously reported, the NEC took the decision to proscribe a number of organisations at its last meeting.’

Sarwar’s silence is particularly unfortunate, given his past criticism of Labour anti-Semitism (and support for the IHRA definition) as well as his own experiences of racism within the Labour party. As reparations for its treatment of Jews in recent years, Labour’s proscription of organisations like Labour Against the Witchhunt is a pittance and yet too high a price to pay for some.

I revisit a point I’ve made before: the problem with the Labour party is not the hard-left but the soft-left. The former waxes and wanes but the latter is the backbone (and sentimental soul) of the party. It was the soft-left who went along with Jeremy Corbyn, who tried – in two elections – to make him prime minister, all the while sending thoughts and prayers and tweets in the direction of British Jews, the overwhelming majority of whom expressed a mixture of fear, anger and bewilderment at what was happening to a party that had once been a natural home for Jews and firmly Zionist in outlook.

Po’alei Zion (‘Workers of Zion’), a socialist Zionist organisation that was active in British left-wing politics before the Labour party was even called the Labour party, affiliated in 1920 as the Jewish Socialist Labour party. Today it is known as the Jewish Labour Movement and despite being achingly accommodating, tirelessly constructive and unfathomably loyal, it is an organisation viewed with suspicion, if not open animus, by a section of the party’s membership. Some might say that this is to be expected, for it has ‘Jewish’ in its name and Labour has long tolerated within its ranks people who have a visceral reaction to that word.

Richard Leonard is not one of those people. I observed and wrote about his tenure in charge of the Scottish party for more than three years, and while he never showed an ounce of leadership on the issue, he never displayed any obvious prejudice either. 

So I am left to conclude that he read Ken Loach had been expelled from Labour – the Ken Loach known to be involved with an organisation that downplays Labour anti-Semitism; an organisation that calls the problem ‘the false anti-Semitism smear’ – and decided that it was Loach who most urgently required his solidarity. Sir Keir Starmer cannot get back the old Labour party by kicking out members who think like Loach when there are many more who think like Leonard.