Speaking at a press conference on Labour’s anti-Semitism inquiry report, Jeremy Corbyn joked: “Last summer, I called for a kinder, gentler politics. Sadly I have to report that is still a work in progress.”
A wry aside, but one that grimly summed up how this event played out. Perhaps unsurprisingly, at a time when an official report has to recommend that elected politicians “resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons”.
The recommendations from Shami Chakrabarti’s report, following her inquiry into Labour anti-Semitism.
Corbyn called for a reflection on the recent “hateful language” used by politicians, including when Boris Johnson “compared Hitler’s murderous tyranny with the European project created from its ashes” and Michael Gove “compared pro-Remain economists to Nazi collaborators”. (He didn’t mention Ken Livingstone, and Shami Chakrabarti banned him from responding when he was called on it.)
But Corbyn’s warning against such incendiary historical comparisons was undermined by a clumsy line in his speech, which seemed to equate Israel to Islamic State:
“Our Jewish friends are no more responsible for the actions of Israel or the Netanyahu government than our Muslim friends are for those various self-styled Islamic states or organisations.”
When asked if he was comparing Israel to the terrorist group, Corbyn said “of course not”. His office later clarified that he was not speaking specifically about IS, but a collection of governments and groups.
But the tone was set, and the inflammatory language didn’t end there. Tensions between the press and a handful of people claiming to be part of the pro-Corbyn campaign movement Momentum (though it’s unclear whether they were paid-up members) overshadowed the event.
A few of these activists clashed with journalists covering the event. I received a lengthy, angry lecture about media “hostility” by one activist, and Kate McCann from the Telegraph was accused of being a “troublemaker” and “racist”, as part of the “witch-hunt media”. During a Q&A with Corbyn, one supporter publicly accused the Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth of colluding with the Telegraph. She walked out of the event, and her office confirms to me that she was reduced to tears by the incident.
In a statement on her website, she writes:
“This morning, at the launch of the Chakrabarti Inquiry into antisemitism, I was verbally attacked by a Momentum activist and Jeremy Corbyn supporter who used traditional antisemitic slurs to attack me for being part of a ‘media conspiracy’. It is beyond belief that someone could come to the launch of a report on antisemitism in the Labour Party and espouse such vile conspiracy theories about Jewish people, which were ironically highlighted as such in Ms Chakrabarti’s report, while the leader of my own party stood by and did absolutely nothing.”
She has made an official complaint to Labour HQ, and is calling on Corbyn to resign “immediately and make way for someone with the backbone to confront racism and anti-Semitism in our party and in the country”.
Corbyn denounced the language of the literature that activists were handing out (some of the leaflets referred to MPs as “traitors”):
“There should be no bad language used, there should be no abuse used, and I don’t like the use of the word ‘traitor’ either. I’ve sent out statements already saying whatever the situation in this political debate in the party at this present time, no abuse, no name-calling, none of that kind of behaviour. I’ve made that absolutely clear to people who agree with me, or don’t agree with me, and conduct debate in a civilised, civil way.”
These activists are not representatives of the Labour Party, and they may not even be official representatives of Momentum. But their aggressive behaviour towards Smeeth and people trying to do their jobs was bleakly poignant at an event specifically about stamping out hatred in politics.
I have contacted Momentum for this story, and am awaiting a response.
A Momentum spokesperson comments:
“Momentum is aware of an incident that occurred at this morning’s launch event for the Chakrabarti Report into antisemitism and racism within the Labour Party.
“Following complaints, Momentum is investigating an individual, who is not a Momentum member, for possible breaches of our Momentum Code of Ethics.”