Is the Conservatives’ ‘holier than thou’ act on antisemitism credible?

Meme by the author

The findings of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) on antisemitism in the Labour Party have set social media ablaze. According to the report, the Labour Party is responsible for three breaches of the Equality Act (2010) relating to (1) political interference in antisemitism complaints, (2) failure to provide adequate training to those handling such complaints and (3) harassment. The report said:

“The equality body’s analysis points to a culture within the Party which, at best, did not do enough to prevent antisemitism and, at worst, could be seen to accept it.”

Using Labour’s process to handle complaints of sexual harassment as a benchmark, the EHRC noted that there was comprehensive guidance and training in place, and so concluded that antisemitism could have been tackled more effectively.

As if that wasn’t sensational enough, Jeremy Corbyn then downplayed the report in a way he had been expressly asked not to. This led to him being suspended from the Labour Party as well as having the parliamentary whip withdrawn, pending a formal investigation into his comments. “One anti-semite is one too many,” Corbyn said in a statement released on Facebook, “but the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media.” The next day on BBC Radio4’s Today programme, Keir Starmer expressed his disappointment. He had called Corbyn the night before and told him about the content of his speech, in which he said anyone seeking to deny the findings of the report was “part of the problem”.

It is important to note that (a) the report did not accuse Corbyn of being an anti-semite, but rather of having failed in his management of the crisis, and (b) it was not Starmer who suspended Corbyn from the Labour Party, but the Party’s national executive council (although Starmer will have been responsible for following up on their decision by withdrawing the whip). However, what then happened within the Labour Party, and even in the press – which has trumpeted a Labour ‘civil war’ – is not nearly as interesting as what the Conservative party did next…

David Lammy faced deselection calls for attending “Enough is Enough” rally against Anti-Semitism. He is now Shadow Justice Minister

Michael Gove mounted his high horse – the name of which we don’t know, but if we were to hazard a guess, we’d go with ‘Pompous’ – and wrote a letter to Keir Starmer with a series of questions.

Gove question 1: How do you account for your failure to stand up to Jeremy Corbyn on Antisemitism within Labour during your time in the shadow cabinet?

False premise. Starmer last year called for the rulebook to be changed so that in a clear case of antisemitism a member is automatically expelled, and urged the executive of the party to ‘throw open’ Labour’s books to the EHRC.

Gove question 2: When Louise Ellman’s comments were put to you that Jeremy Corbyn was a danger ‘not just to the Labour Party but to the entire Jewish Community’ you said “I don’t accept that”. Do you now?

Here we have a member of the Tory Party who taunts Starmer for reacting in hindsight (unfairly, as Gove would be even unhappier if Starmer criticised Tory policies before results were known) now encouraging him to indulge in hindsight. Again, Corbyn wasn’t found guilty of being an anti-semite, but of not designing a process that was as robust and effective as processes to handle other types of complaint. Gove seems to be hinting that he thought Corbyn’s complacency liable to result in loss of human life, which is outrageous given his own government’s negligent handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has led to thousands of avoidable deaths.

Gove question 3: Why did you not address the issue of disciplinary action against Jeremy Corbyn at your press conference this morning?

Perhaps because there is such a thing as due process in the Labour Party and, unlike the law-breaking Tories, they do their best to respect the rules? (There does need to be an investigation as to why the Labour Party leaked their decision to suspend Mr Corbyn pending an investigation to the press, which resulted in him hearing about it from a photographer before he checked his emails and read the letter for himself.) It is odd to hear a member of a government that is managing a major pandemic by leaks about something as serious as a national lockdown to pals in the press late at night on a Friday, criticise another politician for the content of his press conference.

Gove question 4: Who took the decision to suspend Jeremy Corbyn? Was it you, or was it Labour HQ?

Why is Michael Gove asking this? Is he trying to find out how to run a political party properly? As it happens, Starmer has said it was Labour HQ, which is right and proper. Membership shouldn’t be at the whim of the leader and his entourage, as it is in the Tory Party – witness the purges by Dominic Cummings, who isn’t even a member of the Tory Party and openly despises it.

Gove question 5: In light of Jeremy Corbyn’s statement responding to the EHRC report, why have you not expelled him?

See the answer to N°3 — DUE PROCESS. Everyone has a right to a hearing, and a fair one at that. Gove is revealing his authoritarian ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the keys’ proclivities here. Never mind about fair trials, legal representation and juries. No matter how grim the crime —and Antisemitism is undoubtedly grim – we should not deliver summary ‘justice’ by diktat according to the thumbs up or down of the mob.

Gove question 6: Does suspension mean it is still possible that Jeremy Corbyn will be a Labour candidate at the next election?

Why on earth is a Tory Cabinet minister even asking this? Corbyn will be 75 in 2024 when the next election is scheduled. Why would he even want to stand, supposing he has been welcomed back into the Labour fold by then? Also, the Tories welcomed back some of the members it had purged and allowed them to stand in 2019. Meanwhile, there is currently a Tory MP under police investigation for rape who has not been suspended from the party, and has only agreed to stay away from parliament because of the public outcry. Gove’s pearl-clutching smacks of hypocrisy.

Gove question 7: A number of other complaints have now been submitted to the Labour Party, including – as reported – against the Deputy Leader. Will other MPs who are being investigated also be suspended?

Gove is referring to a past incident where Ms Rayner referenced a book, written by a Jewish person, which contained an accusation that Jewish people exploited the Holocaust for financial gain. She went through the disciplinary process in 2018 and has since apologised. Is Gove asking for the case to be re-opened? On what grounds? Does that also mean all the disciplinary proceedings against Boris Johnson for his incidents of racism and unparliamentary behaviour should be re-opened? This is not to excuse either of them for what they did, but either we believe in due process or we don’t, and Michael Gove’s partisan call is particularly odd in the context of a government that wants to enshrine in law, a power to enable it to break the law.

Gove question 8: Do you agree with your deputy leader Angela Rayner who said today that Jeremy Corbyn is a fully decent man?

This is an astonishing question, given Michael Gove is serving under the indecent Boris Johnson who sparked a 375 per cent increase in Islamophobic incidents, particularly against women, after saying Muslim women choosing to wear a veil was ridiculous because it made them look like letter-boxes and bank robbers. The perpetrators tended to be white males and 42 per cent made specific reference to Mr Johnson’s remarks while carrying out the offence. Mr Johnson has also made racist, homophobic, misogynistic, anti-Scottish and anti-working-class comments, as well as writing a novel containing anti-semitic tropes.

Is Michael Gove practising for when he becomes leader of the Tory Party, fails to win a general election, and has the opportunity to face Keir Starmer across the dispatch box at Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) every week to ask probing questions? This is the same Michael Gove who scuppered Boris Johnson’s 2016 leadership chances, because in his judgement Johnson was not fit to be Prime Minister. “I came reluctantly, but firmly to the conclusion that I should stand, and that Boris should stand aside,” he said at the time. Three years later in the next leadership contest when he was indeed a contender, Michael Gove’s own chances were scuppered by revelations of his cocaine habit. He didn’t have the grace to step down, even though he was forced to admit that he had broken the law and that as Justice Secretary he had presided over people being locked up for what he had done.

Gove was one of the five final hopefuls who pledged to hold an enquiry into Islamophobia in the Tory Party, live, on national TV, during a debate hosted by the BBC. MPs had the sense not to vote him through to the final round, but the damage had been done. A new Tory philosophy of impunity had been born: brazen out the outrage and cling to your post like a limpet, no matter how undeserving a piece of human detritus you turn out to be.

Ten months ago, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) sent a dossier of 150 incidences of Islamophobia in the Tory Party to the EHRC and asked them to investigate, in the same way the Labour Party was being investigated for antisemitism. The EHRC responded that it was waiting to see the terms of reference of the Tory Party’s own internal investigation. However, despite his very public pledge, it seemed Johnson had *quietly* u-turned on any such inquiry. The MCB sent a further request to the EHRC, this time with a dossier containing 300 incidences of Islamophobia in the Tory Party. Then in May this year the Tory Party finally published the terms of reference for its own internal inquiry to look into discrimination ‘over religion and belief and significantly Islam’ led by Professor Swaran Singh. The EHRC then declared itself satisfied and dropped its enquiry.

Five Conservative leadership candidates pledging to a “tory islamophobia” enquiry during a BBC debate, 19 June 2019 

In light of all this foot-dragging, it is hard to argue that Islamophobia is taken as seriously as Antisemitism by either the government or the EHRC, and it is not at all clear why this should be the case. They are both grim. Are we going to have a hierarchy of racism under the Tories? Surely, that’s what they’re criticising the Labour Party for: not taking antisemitism as seriously as other forms of racism?

Amanda Milling, co-Chair of the Conservative Party, has said having the terms of reference agreed is a positive step forward. She is one of the Tory MPs who has been most enthusiastic about jumping on Gove’s bandwagon of trying to smear Starmer for having served in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet. Her Twitter timeline descended into anti-Starmer hysteria (or obsession?) on 29 October, when out of 24 tweets, 23 were aimed at him. For reference, she had tweeted once on the previous day, not at all on the two days before that, and only once on 25 October… and so on.

As with Gove, Ms Milling attempted to lay blame at Starmer’s door for the actions of Jeremy Corbyn. Oh dear. Could it be possible that in Michael Gove and Amanda Milling we have a Cabinet Minister and Party co-chair who do not understand the concept of collective responsibility? Collective responsibility is the convention whereby individual members of the government are held accountable for the actions and decisions of government as a whole. It does not mean that they are co-responsible for individual actions beyond the policy sphere, particularly unlawful actions. How extraordinary to have to explain this to them.

Other Cabinet Ministers, junior ministers and back-bench MPs also piped up to take a pot-shot at Starmer: Jenrick, Cleverly, Hands, Dorries, Graham, Fabricant, Kearns, Coutinho and Blackman to name a few. Other Tory MPs took the path less travelled, and adopted a more measured, mature approach. To single out just one, Johnny Mercer tweeted, “The integrity of some Labour MP’s today is in sharp contrast to some of their colleagues. Politics does transcend political lines – most things worthwhile are cross party. It’s based on shared values, respect for each other’s views, and integrity more than anything else.”  

It would be good if Tory MPs were to re-read the speech Steve Baker gave on this topic when he opposed the motion to recall MPs for crossing the floor:

“I think all the people who left the Labour party were heroic in what they did. They were seeking to ensure that this country had a fit Opposition and an alternative party of govt, and it was necessary for them to have the scope, the space and the freedom to still sit in this House and have this platform in the national interest to try to recreate a viable Opposition.

As it happens, those who chose to stay in the Labour party and rescue it have won. I congratulate them because we do need a good Opposition, but in conclusion I want to say that surely this House is about nothing if it is not about restraining power.”

Trying to attach blame to Starmer for staying on and fighting for what he believes in from within is a childish thing for government to seek to do. Antisemitism was never Labour policy —indeed, the contrary was true, so no ‘collective blame’ can attach to shadow cabinet members for Corbyn’s individual actions.

Why is the government doing this? Desperation. In Starmer, they know they have a principled opponent who regularly makes mincemeat out of the PM at PMQs and could beat Johnson in the next general election. He is the opposite of Johnson: born into a working class family, he worked his way up to the top of his profession before becoming a politician, and unlike Johnson’s hack journalism, he did a lot of worthwhile pro-bono work as a lawyer. He’s a family man with only one family, whereas Johnson has had at least six children with three or more women, some concurrently. As it happens, Starmer’s wife, who works in the NHS, is Jewish and their two children are being brought up in the Jewish faith, so there will be no antisemitism from that quarter. Starmer’s skill set, taking policy seriously, quickly grasping the details and basing decisions on evidence, is eminently more suited to the role of PM than Boris Johnson’s ‘spin your mess as triumph’ approach to governing. The Tories can’t win against him by playing fair, so the only way to beat Starmer is to smear him.

Then there’s the pasting they government has taken over voting down Free School Meals (FSM). Its propaganda machine has been in overdrive, pretending it had already provided for that in money doled out to local councils. In many cases, this is patently not true, as the time limit to apply the money had expired before the FSM debate took place. For those councils that have had a subsequent grant of money more recently, spending it on FSM vouchers was not included in the guidance, and so councils were not on the ball until galvanised by Marcus Rashford’s campaign and the fall-out from the FSM vote.

Finally, the attack on Starmer was a smokescreen to cover for the announcement of ‘Lockdown – the Sequel’, leaked on Twitter late at night on a Friday — again. Starmer called for a two-week circuit-breaker to coincide with half-term so as to minimise disruption on October 13th. The government demonised him, calling him an opportunist, and refused to countenance the measure. Now, because of their dither and delay, it looks as if the circuit-breaker ship has sailed. We will have to go into full lockdown once more for 3-4 weeks. In the meantime, more people have died and become infected than would otherwise have been the case. All that sacrifice we made, and it is now clear that the government has learnt nothing from the first lockdown, has looted the Treasury through dodgy procurement practices, and is not properly prepared for the second wave.

The Tory Party is standing in the proverbial glass house, throwing stones at others. Sessions of parliament may be less fraught than of yore, but if anything, the government is even more inept and rudderless now than it has ever been. One of the world’s highest Covid-19 death tolls, procurement scandals, half-baked policies, u-turns, loss of influence in the world, muddled communication, lack of preparation for the end of transition, failing to extend it in the midst of a pandemic, lawbreaking as a solution to messes of its own making, the greatest dip in economic performance for 300 years —Johnson, Cummings and Gove should resign. We need a government of national unity, and the one MP who has consistently shown himself to be capable of the type of leadership we need to lead us through this crisis is Keir Starmer.