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31 July 2018

Pete Willsman is the true face of Labour’s anti-Semitism problem

The toleration of Willsman by the Labour left is a symptom of the party – and Westminster’s – real problem. 

By Stephen Bush

For most seasoned Labour watchers, the only surprising thing about the leaked tape of Peter Willsman, a longstanding member of the ruling National Executive Committee, is that someone recorded it.

The content – in which Willsman blamed claims of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party on “Trump fanatics” within the Jewish community and claimed never to have seen any anti-Semitism within the party – is particularly inflammatory as Willsman has been a member of the NEC’s disputes committee, which means that if there is one member of the Labour Party who cannot with a straight face claim never to have heard or seen anti-Semitism within the Labour party, it is him.

But a rant by Willsman is essentially part and parcel of a meeting of the party’s NEC, to the point that members of the ruling body tend to mention it almost as an aside when you speak to them about the executive’s proceedings. One of the trade unionist members of the body once quipped that they must have done “something terrible in a past life” to deserve spending eight hours in a small room with Willsman. A defeated representative of the party’s activist wing reflected to me that “at least I’ll never have to hear Peter Willsman go off on one again”. One member of the NEC recently speculated to me about whether Willsman was entirely well  “in the head” after a particularly vituperative rant. Another commented that they had become so accustomed to Willsman’s bad conduct that it had become white noise to them.

Even though these remarks were written up across the press and had not been denied, it is only with the emergence of a tape recording that some of JeremCorbyn’s media outriders have stuck their heads above the parapet to call for Willsman to be struck off the slate and removed from the NEC. 

Yet Willsman remains a member of the Momentum slate and is likely to be re-elected to the party’s ruling body as a result. (In fact, as most party members vote immediately after receiving their ballot papers, even were he to be removed from the slate at this stage, it is unlikely that one of the high profile pro-Corbyn independents, like Ann Black, would feel much benefit.)

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The toleration of Willsman speaks not only to Labour’s anti-Semitism problem but to Westminster’s collective failure to address allegations of sexual harassment (the only lasting casualty of which may turn out to be the Sports and Social, the staffers’ bar in Parliament, which has closed down).

It’s not as if Willsman’s behaviour is surprising or new. But he retained his position on Momentum’s slate because he is the chair of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy. (The CPLD is the original Bennite vehicle for campaigning for party reform and in internal party elections and has a backroom deal with Momentum to run joint candidates for the party’s ruling national executive committee and other internal contests.) The benefits of the deal to Momentum are frankly, unclear: Momentum has in excess of 105,000 followers on Twitter and more than 200,000 on Facebook, plus a large and growing mail list. The Campaign for Labour Party Democracy has 3,488 followers on Facebook and 4,644 on Twitter.

The indulgence of Willsman has a lot less to do with any organisational heft and a lot more to do with factionalism. It’s the cost of doing business as far as many professional Corbynites are concerned.

It’s also seen in the Corbynsceptic reaction to John Woodcock’s exit from the Labour Party. We’ve heard a great deal about the merits of Woodcock’s proposal that Corbyn’s internal opponents should seek to form a new party outside Labour: we’ve heard nothing about what, exactly, the “independent process” to which he pledged to submit the allegations of sexual harassment against him, will look like or when we can expect it to emerge. It’s also in the sound of silence emanating from the Conservative Party following Sayeeda Warsi’s allegations of Islamophobia from within the Tory party and cabinet. In all those cases, political convenience trumps any real effort to diagnose the extent of the problem, let alone find a cure.

And while there are undoubtedly people who hold anti-Semitic views within the Labour party, their strength comes not from people who agree with them, but who regard it as something that has to be ignored in order to prioritise retaining control of the institutional levers of power within the Labour Party. And that’s why Willsman is the true face of Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis.