Labour peers are not natural rebels. Mostly we devote our often all too long experience to Select Committees and government Bills. We have produced comprehensive analyses of the follies of Brexit. We spend far more time than the Commons on the detail of Bills, forcing changes that soften the edges of ideological legislation.
But the Lords occasionally makes a very big difference, as it did when throwing back amendments to the Commons that make the constitutional outrage of a Boris Johnson no-deal Brexit, achieved by proroguing parliament, much more difficult.
Yet on anti-Semitism, Labour Peers have raised their heads above the parapet, stirred by the recent Panorama expose, outraged by the Labour official spokespeople who dismissed the “whistle-blowers” with contempt and threatened to use members’ money to employ law firm Carter Ruck to pursue them for breach of non-disclosure agreements.
Many of us felt a moral compulsion to defend the young staffers and members who offered public testimony in a manner that displayed courageous honesty. Yet those who condemned them would not have spoken as they did without knowing they enjoyed Jeremy Corbyn’s full support: their condemnation has been allowed to stand with no qualification or apology.
Initially our four group officers sent a measured letter to the leader setting out our anxieties with detailed proposals as to how the internal party processes for tackling anti-Semitism could be made more independent and transparent. Then a group of 67 signed a Guardian advertisement, initiated by our former general secretary, Margaret McDonagh, demanding in more graphic terms that Jeremy Corbyn take personal responsibility for tackling this intolerable evil in the party.
Late last Wednesday night, as we were debating abortion rights in the Northern Ireland Bill, we got the staggering news that the Leaders Office had sacked Dianne Hayter from our frontbench for criticising the bunker-like mentality of the Leader’s Office. (They cannot sack her as our deputy leader because our group elects its own officers.) Following this, a special meeting of the group was summoned for this Monday to debate a potential vote of no confidence in the party leader.
Our critics in the party say we are a bunch of unelected Blairites with no standing in the party: we are a small discredited faction determined to bring down the Corbyn leadership. We are certainly unelected, a position many of us would like to change. (Personally, I favour a Federal Britain with a Bundesrat-style Upper House). But we are where we are and, in the present set up, we play a useful role.
As for being Blairites, I confess I worked in Blair’s No 10, as did my colleagues Andrew Adonis and Sally Morgan. That makes three out of a group that was well over 200 when I first joined, but is now fast reducing due to death and retirement. The group is very representative of “broad church” Labour – former MPs and Ministers of different shades of Labour, former party general secretaries and senior officials, and, unlike today’s Commons, a large contingent of senior trade unionists, who speak from deep practical knowledge on issues such as workers’ rights and pensions.
The Labour peers are not a hotbed of Corbyn enthusiasts. But neither are we a bunch of student activists who think that real change can be brought about by no confidence motions. If our motive was purely tactical we would think twice about ‘no confidencing’ Jeremy, simply because it would strengthen him, in the short term at least. But it isn’t tactical or factional: it’s moral and strategic.
There are many social injustices in Britain which can only be righted by a successful Labour government. But the argument for party unity to achieve that goal cannot be used as a cover up for what is the profound moral evil of anti-Semitism, which in the twentieth century led to the greatest stain on humanity – the Holocaust.
As of Monday’s PLP, the leadership now accepts that the party has an anti-Semitism problem (something of which no one was ever conscious before 2015), but the remedy now put forward – a mix of political education and a constitutional amendment give the power to the general secretary and the NEC officers’ group to suspend or expel gross offenders is still highly politicised and cannot offer the guarantee of a fully fair and independent process.
This is a critical juncture for Labour. Our duty is to stop a Boris Johnson Brexit. We may face in months a general election in which Labour must be the party of Remain. Unless we act decisively now – in weeks – to tackle the scourge of anti-Semitism in our own party, Labour will lack the moral confidence to speak for Britain in a united way.
Lord Roger Liddle is a Labour peer and former special advisor to Tony Blair.