Yvette Cooper secured the nomination of Jewish Labour. Photo: Getty Images
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There is still work to do to repair Labour's relationship with Britain's Jews

Last night's hustings were a vital step forward - but there is a lot of work to be done to restore Labour's relations with the community.

On Monday night at JW3, the Jewish Cultural Centre in North West London, Labour Leadership candidates pitched their vision to a part of the electorate that largely abandoned it in May. Not a group usually found to believe in second comings, the Jewish community was always going to be a tough gig for the leadership hopefuls trying to win back their votes. Tickets for this event had sold out in less than four hours (One Direction eat your heart out), and the desire to have grievances heard was evident from the very start.

For those concerned with Labour’s recent electoral (mis)fortunes, its dire performance in North West London was particularly striking. Hendon, Harrow East, Finchley and Golders Green – all seats with significant Jewish populations – bucked the London-wide trend and voted Conservative at the general election. Cited reasons range from the Party’s position on Israel, its inadequate response to a surge in antisemitism over the past year, and a lack of support for the former leader. Candidates were expected to deal with these issues in turn, and a tough 45-minute opening debate on Israel made sure there was little room for avoidance or obfuscation.
The questions submitted on Israel were so numerous that Jonathan Freedland, chair of proceedings, had to composite them in advance. It also became clear that questions would demand answers from Jeremy Corbyn. Fresh from his exchange on Channel 4 News, the audience was keen for clarity on his use of the word ‘friends’ in relation to Hamas. Further, he was questioned on his role with the Stop the War Coalition and whether he supported Al-Quds day, described by CST representatives as a ‘celebration of hatred’. It would be fair to say his answers did little to allay the concerns of an audience who place as much importance on the company politicians keep, as the intentions they may innocently state. Candidates too expressed their distaste for certain ‘friends’ being invited to the Westminster Terrace, with Burnham suggesting he would sanction Members for doing so should he be elected as Leader.
Despite imparting the commonly accepted platitudes urging  “honest dialogue” and “hard conversations” in resolving the Middle East conflict, Corbyn’s night will be remembered for his claim that the Balfour Declaration of 1917 was essentially pushed through by Jewish Cabinet members. The audible gasp from community leaders spoke volumes. It is for Jeremy Corbyn alone to explain why he thinks Jewish politicians of the day were able to leverage undue influence over their contemporaries in deciding this country’s foreign policy. I will not strive to explain this historically pernicious sentiment in this piece, nor anywhere else for that matter.
But this was not a one-man show. There was huge intrigue surrounding candidates’ views on a range of issues and the loudest cheer of the night came when an audience member dared to suggest asking a question on “something other than Israel”. The matter of child-benefits being limited to two children was a particular community focus and Cooper, Burnham and Corbyn were relatively united in opposition to the cap. Kendall stuck to her campaigning mantra i.e. the need to restore economic credibility, a view that received a mixed reception from those present. The Jewish community in this regard broadly reflects the position of the public at large in its belief that social progression can come both from government support, but also independent endeavour.

That said, there were divergent views on candidates’ performances following the event. In terms of “repairing the relationship”, it was suggested that Yvette Cooper carried herself most naturally, yet there was an evident fondness for Liz Kendall who seems a natural friend to a community that has felt so antagonized in the past year. Andy Burnham was acknowledged “for saying the right things”, with several big promises, including a visit to Israel surely to be remembered if he is elected. Corbyn’s foreign policy was always going to be a point of contention, but to his credit, many were taken by his calm demeanour when making his calls for domestic social justice.
Ultimately, there is still much work to be done if Labour is to win back the degree of support it saw from the Jewish community throughout the 1990s. Monday night was never going to provide closure on the residual issues from the Miliband era, but the display at JW3 was an important start. Whilst we do not vote as a homogenous block, the causes for angst were clear and whoever wins in September will have a real challenge in persuading Jewish citizens not to burn the fragile bridges that remain.

Jay Stoll works at the Jewish Leadership Council. He writes in a personal capacity.

 

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder