Mehi Hasan on Jenny Tonge and Ehud Olmert - can you spot the difference?

Condemn Tonge for her comments on the future of Israel if you want to. But you'll have to condemn Ehud Olmert too.

Gotcha! Don't you love it when journalists corner a politician or pundit with an outrageous or offensive quote, which makes afore-mentioned politician/pundit look mad, bad or both?

I don't. I find it frustrating, juvenile and, above all else, lazy. It tends to happens a lot when the issue under discussion is controversial and/or sensitive: e.g. the Israel/Palestine conflict.

Jenny Tonge, Lib Dem peer and ex-MP, is under fire right now for saying, according to the Guardian, "Israel will not last for ever". Labour MP Ian Austin has said Nick Clegg must

make Baroness Tonge withdraw these remarks.

Martin Bright, political editor of the Jewish Chronicle, tweeted:

I can only assume Nick Clegg will finally remove the whip from Baroness Tonge. That would be consistent with what he has said in the past

Even Ed Miliband's weighed in with a tweet:

No place in politics for those who question existence of the state of Israel. Nick Clegg must condemn Jenny Tonge's remark & demand apology

(n.b. One wonders what Marion Miliband makes of young Edward's remarks.)

Admittedly, Tonge has made some pretty dodgy remarks in the past about Israel and Israelis - which cost her a position on the Lib Dem frontbench - but this latest controversy seems rather manufactured. Her comment, in full, doesn't seem so controversial:

Israel is not going to be there for ever in its present form.

Shock! Horror! Tonge doesn't think Israel "in its present form" - that is, as a Jewish and democratic state that also happens to illegally occupy Palestinian land while denying Palestinians both self-determination and voting rights - can survive. After all, the demographics make a one-state, non-Jewish, binational state almost inevitable.

Hmm, I wonder who else has taken a similar view? Oh yeah. That's it: Ehud Olmert, Israel's former prime minister, who once talked of how "the State of Israel is finished" if it continues on its current, rejectionist trajectory. Outrageous, eh?

Here's the then Israeli premier's full quote from Haaretz in November 2007:

If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights, then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished.

An article on the BBC news website was devoted to Olmert's words. Guess what it's headline was?

Olmert warns of 'end of Israel'

So condemn Tonge for her comments on the future of Israel if you want to. But you'll have to condemn Ehud Olmert too. Funny old world, isn't it?

And, on a related note, the truth is that a single, secular, binational, one-state solution is now a mainstream, much-discussed alternative to the Middle East status quo. Polls show it has the support of a third of Palestinians and, astonishingly, even a quarter of Israelis. It also has the backing of, among others, the late Edward Said, the late Tony Judt, Ilan Pappe, Shlomo Sand, Virginia Tilley, Meron Benvenisti, Ahmad Khalidi, Ali Abunimah, Noam Chomsky, Jeff Halper and Sari Nusseibeh. Oh, and, perhaps a little reluctantly, me too.

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.