Momentum, anti-Semitism and the problem with Labour's grassroots activists

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn condemned anti-Semitism, but MPs still had plenty of questions. 

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“I said Islamic states lower case,” Jeremy Corbyn told the Home Affairs select committee, in regard to accusations he compared Israel to the Islamic State. “It would have been better with hindsight to say Islamic countries.”

“If I'd used the word Islamic countries there would have been no doubt whatsoever. I'm disappointed some people said I made an equation. I do not make an equation in that way."

The way Corbyn tells it, Labour’s problem is with context and words. Fewer than 20 members have been suspended for anti-Semitism. As for his personal associations with anti-Semites, such acquaintances are simply the result of a busy parliamentarian interested in the Middle East peace process. 

Calling Hamas a “friend” was a manner of speaking. He invited the inflammatory preacher Sheikh Raed Salah for tea at the House of Commons when he was still free to travel from Israel. He stopped attending the pro-Palestine events of a constituent after he discovered the man also thought Jews caused 9/11. 

And he condemned Ken Livingstone’s attempts to attribute the Holocaust to Zionists as “wholly unacceptable”. 

As he put it with evident angst:

“Ken Livingstone has been a friend of mine for a very long time. I was very upset and disappointed by the remarks he made. He has been suspended."

It’s possible to sympathise with the embattled Labour leader. He condemned anti-Semitism multiple times. And yes, he could have taken more trouble to seek out Israeli as well as Palestinian hardliners, but his argument that MPs need to meet unsavoury characters from time to time is fair.

But again and again, Corbyn was forced to discuss blatantly anti-Semitic statements made by grassroots members. And Chuka Umunna, once tipped to be Labour leader, pounced. 

He noted Jackie Walker, a Labour party member who claimed Jewish people financed the slave trade, was a self-proclaimed Momentum activist.

When it came to anti-Semitism incidents, “Momentum seems to pop up quite frequently," he observed. 

Speaking less than a week after the vote of no confidence in Corbyn, Umunna demanded: “Momentum is  party within a party posing as a movement. In order to deal with this anti-Semitism issue, do you not think it would be helpful for Momentum to be wound up and shut down?”

Of course, Umunna had his own preoccupations (he was later told he was taking the discussion off course). And MPs only read out the anti-Semitic slurs, not the comments of the countless other party members who no doubt rebuffed them online and in conversation. But anti-Semitism is very much a live, grassroots issue. 

The latest anti-Semitic incident to rock the party took place only days ago, at the release of the anti-Semitism report written by Shami Chakrabarti (pictured along with Corbyn). An activist's accusation that Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth was colluding with The Telegraph left her in tears. Although the activist, Marc Wadsworth, has spoken at Momentum events, the organisation later stated the activist was not a member of the movement.

Corbyn has rightly pointed out that of all the parties, only Labour has been brave enough to investigate anti-Semitism in the first place. But when MPs believe their own grassroots supporters are attacking them because of their Jewishness, that's a bigger problem than rephrasing a sentence. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.