Paul Flynn must explain his comments about Jewish loyalty

His ill-chosen words have nothing to do with the just cause of Palestinian liberation.

His ill-chosen words have nothing to do with the just cause of Palestinian liberation.

"Maverick" is a term I usually avoid, because all too often appears to mean "those who reject the prevailing consensus and are therefore a bit wacky". But -- with all due respect to Newport West's long-standing Labour MP -- Paul Flynn has a track record of both being a maverick and a bit wacky. "The only I way I'll vote for this is if they give me a full frontal lobotomy," he said over tuition fees in 2004. "If you find me with half my brain missing, the whips will have had their grubby, blood-stained hands on it." Witty and -- as I say -- a bit wacky.

But - if his comments to the Jewish Chronicle have been accurately reported - then Paul Flynn has discredited himself. The paper challenged him after he questioned the acceptability of Matthew Gould as Ambassador to Israel. In a sitting of the House of Commons Public Administration Committee, which discussed meetings between Gould, the former defence secretary Liam Fox and his friend Adam Werrity, Flynn alleged that Gould "has proclaimed himself to be a Zionist and has previously served in Iran, in the service."

There is a case for Flynn to raise this. Zionism is a political movement, after all, and an MP is well within his rights to query whether there is a conflict of interest. But there is no justification whatsoever for his subsequent comments. According to the Jewish Chronicle, Flynn argued that previous ambassadors to Israel had not been Jewish "to avoid the accusation that they have gone native." He apparently added that Britain needed "someone with roots in the UK [who] can't be accused of having Jewish loyalty."

Flynn has dismissed accusations of anti-semitism as "ludicrous" on his blog. But he still must adequately explain -- or apologise for -- these reported comments.

Firstly, his remarks imply that being Jewish would make a person inherently supportive of Israel. Given the long tradition of Jewish critics of Israel -- recent prominent examples include the late Harold Pinter, Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky -- this is outright nonsense.

In actual fact, many hardened Zionists are not even Jewish. US Presidents ranging from Richard Nixon (who privately indulged in anti-Semitic tirades) to Ronald Reagan were non-Jewish Zionists. The US Christian Right could not be more supportive of the worst excesses of Israeli governments. There are plenty of non-Jewish British ultra-Zionists who -- it could be argued -- would fail to hold Israeli governments to account if they served as Britain's Ambassador.

Of even greater concern is Flynn's clear suggestion that a Jewish person has no "roots in the UK". This echoes classic anti-semitism, which is based on the slur that Jews outside Israel are aliens in whichever country they live (a myth that, unfortunately, is these days also promoted by the Israeli government.) Perhaps Flynn's words simply were ill-chosen but he certainly should clarify what he meant by this.

Apologists for Israeli policy have long alleged that their critics are motivated by anti-Semitism (and that Jewish critics are "self-hating Jews"). It is an ingenious means of shutting down scrutiny, because nobody wants to be associated with a bigotry that, in the 20th century, culminated in the extermination of millions of people. It is as untrue as to suggest critics of Apartheid South Africa were motivated by a hatred of white South Africans.

But Flynn's comments will now be used by ultra-Zionists as evidence that their critics are motivated by bigotry. The immediate danger is that the affair risks overshadowing legitimate questions about the Fox-Werrity affair.

There is an ongoing struggle for a just Middle East free of Western interference, in which Muslims, Jews and Christians alike can live secure, peaceful lives. Hatred of the Jewish people has nothing to do with this struggle -- except that it must be fought against to the bitter end.

I have proudly marched in support of Palestinian liberation, and I will continue to do so. But Paul Flynn's words have nothing to do with this just cause, and he should rightly be condemned.

Owen Jones is author of "Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class"

Owen Jones is a left-wing columnist, author and commentator. He is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He has published two books, Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class and The Establishment and How They Get Away With It.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Could Labour implement universal basic income?

The battle over this radical policy is moving gradually into the mainstream.

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell has called universal basic income (UBI) “an idea whose time may well have come”. It means a fixed regular payment to each citizen, irrespective of income or behaviour. It is seen by both socialists and Silicon Valley as a panacea for the post-industrial world, addressing unrestrained inequality, economic insecurity, and automation-generated unemployment in the modern economy.

Guy Standing, a professor at Soas and founding member of Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), says a “perfect storm of factors have suddenly pushed us into being a mainstream policy question” in recent years. “A lot of people who were sitting on their hands, as it were, have started to come out in favour ... I'm inundated with requests to speak and involvement in conferences, and it's indicative of the sudden realisation that if the growing inequality and growing economic insecurities persist, then the drift to fascist populism will continue. 

“Of course, in the background, a lot of these techies including prominent names in Silicon Valley have come out in favour because they see robots displacing us all. I don't buy that argument, but it's added to a growing chorus of people saying that we should take it more seriously.”

Standing's recent book charts the long history of thinking about UBI (through ancient Greece, Thomas More, and Martin Luther King). But the idea's rise to prominence is the result of a interlinked developments in the economy and the nature of work. As Labour MP Jonathan Reynolds argues, changes such as the rise of self-employment and the gig economy challenge the appropriateness of the traditional welfare state. It's “based around the principle of compulsion, and broadly believing there's two binary states – people in work, and people out of work. We know it's becoming a much more complicated picture than that... The state can't keep up with the complexity of people's lives.”

For Standing, the prospects of UBI being implemented successfully depend largely on how it is framed. He is wary of libertarians who see it as an opportunity to dismantle the welfare state, and believes it needs to be placed within the context of chronic economic insecurity for a growing number within the post-industrial economy.

“The argument that I think is going to prove really important for the left is linked to the growth of the 'precariat',” he says, meaning those living without predictability or security. “People in the precariat are experiencing chronic insecurity that will not be overcome by any existing policy.” 

Even so, support from business could be key. Peter Swenson's work on the history of the welfare state finds that reforms and expansions of social policy have only succeeded when key sections of the capitalist class are in support. He, and other academics, resist the idea that the welfare state is simply the focal point for the battle between left and right over Robin-Hood style redistribution. If UBI is to make its way into policy, support from business may be more important than the strengthening of the left.

Reynolds claims UBI may solve not just policy problems, but political ones.  "You have to say that Labour's situation, in terms of how we've struggled on all of these issues (the party's polling is significantly behind on running the welfare state) over the last few years, means that we should definitely be open to new thinking in this area.” Both he and Standing  are part of the working group that was brought together by McDonnell in February to produce a publication on the issue before the next general election, which would then be discussed across the country. Understandably, the group didn't quite meet its deadline. But Standing says “the general thrust of the plans hasn't changed”.

Standing is hopeful that important sections of the Labour Party are either in support, or can be won over. Clearly, the leadership is generally supportive of the idea – both McDonnell and Corbyn have expressed as much in public statements. Standing says many MPs are “rethinking their position ... many of them have not taken up a position because they thought that this was not an issue to be considered. I think we're seeing a real opening for a much more constructive discussion.”

Reynolds says that “there's people on the right and the left of the party who are in favour, there's people on the right and the left who are against”.
 
Nevertheless, discussion is winning over important Labour constituencies. It's not just radical activist groups, but also trade unions, who are coming round to the idea. According to Standing: “Unite now supports it, as well as a lot of unions in Europe. It used to be the case that the unions were among the most fierce critics of a basic income, on the spurious grounds (in my view) that if people had a basic income they wouldn't push for higher wages and employers wouldn't give higher wages.

“We found in our pilots and in our psychological research that people who have basic security have a stronger bargaining position and are therefore more likely to stand up for their rights, and can lead to improvement in wages and working conditions. So I think that all of those objections are gradually being exposed by theoretical arguments against them, or empirical evidence, from pilots.”

Reynolds agrees that “there's a lot of support coming from the wider labour movement”, but warns that people must not be too optimistic about anything happening quickly. “Clearly it's going to need a radical change to how the tax and benefits system would work, and you'd obviously be completely recasting how personal allowances work, and all of that,” he says. “I think this is sort of the cutting edge of thinking about the future and what our economy will look like in 50-100 years' time, that is the frame that we're looking at.” 

Rudy Schulkind is a Danson scholar who recently graduated in philosophy and politics from St Anne's College Oxford.