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Shami Chakrabarti’s fall from grace: how a liberal hero lost her reputation

Once, it was trendy to say you liked the former director of Liberty. No longer.

It might be hard to remember now, but there was a time when it was trendy to like Shami Chakrabarti. In the mid-2000s, amid the Iraq War backlash and the furore over identity cards, speaking well of the barrister and head of the human rights campaign group Liberty was a handy way of displaying liberal credentials. She was everywhere: Question Time, Desert Island Discs, Have I Got News For You. A young indie band from Worcester called the Dastards was so keen on her that it even wrote a song about her. It included the lyric: “I turn on my TV/The only one I want to see/Is Shami Chakrabarti.”

The daughter of Bengali immigrants, Chakrabarti was born and brought up in the outer-London borough of Harrow, where she attended a comprehensive school before studying law at the London School of Economics. Her background was a great strength of her campaigning, and during the most authoritarian years of New Labour government she burnished her reputation.

Fast-forward to 13 September 2016, when Chakrabarti made her House of Lords debut as a Labour peer. Baroness Chakrabarti of Kennington wore a sombre expression and a rope of pearls looped round her throat beneath her ermine robe. It was hard to recognise the civil liberties campaigner who was once called “an anarchist in a barrister’s wig” by Loaded magazine.

Yet Chakrabarti has also been cast in another role that is far less desirable than a seat in the Lords: that of a hypocrite. On 29 April this year, Jeremy Corbyn announced that Chakrabarti would chair an independent inquiry into anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in the Labour Party. The inquiry was prompted by the suspensions of Naz Shah, the MP for Bradford West, and Ken Livingstone, for making offensive remarks that were condemned as anti-Semitic. On 16 May Chakrabarti announced that she was joining Labour to gain members’ “trust and confidence”. She said that she would still run the inquiry “without fear or favour”.

The Chakrabarti inquiry delivered its findings on 30 June at a press conference in Westminster. The atmosphere was febrile – there were verbal clashes between the activists and journalists present, and the Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth was reduced to tears. The report stated that Labour “is not overrun by anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism” but that there was an “occasionally toxic atmosphere”. It listed examples of “hateful language” and called on party members to “resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons”. Many Labour supporters were surprised that the report’s 20 recommendations did not include lifetime bans for members found to have shown anti-Semitic behaviour.

Then, on 4 August, it was revealed that Chakrabarti was the sole Labour appointment to the House of Lords in David Cameron’s resignation honours. Both Chakrabarti and Corbyn have denied that the peerage was discussed during the anti-Semitism inquiry. But critics suggested that her acceptance undermined the report and its independence.

In particular, it attracted criticism from members of the UK’s Jewish community. Marie van der Zyl, vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: “This ‘whitewash for peerages’ is a scandal that surely raises serious questions about the integrity of Ms Chakrabarti, her inquiry and the Labour leadership.” A home affairs select committee report into anti-Semitism in the UK has since found that there were grave failings in the report for Labour.

Two further incidents contributed to the decline in Chakrabarti’s reputation: her arrival on Corbyn’s front bench as shadow attorney general and the revelation that her son attends the selective Dulwich College, which costs almost £19,000 a year in fees for day pupils (£39,000 for full boarders). She said that she “absolutely” supports Labour’s opposition to grammar schools but defended her choice to pay for selective education.

Chakrabarti told ITV’s Peston on Sunday: “I live in a nice big house and eat nice food, and my neighbours are homeless and go to food banks. Does that make me a hypocrite, or does it make me someone who is trying to do best, not just for my own family, but for other people’s families, too?”

This was the end for many of those who had respected Chakrabarti – the whisper of hypocrisy became a roar. As the Times columnist Carol Midgley wrote: “You can’t with a straight face champion equality while choosing privilege for yourself.”

Hypocrisy is a charge that has dogged the left for decades (both Diane Abbott and Harriet Harman have fallen foul of the selective school problem). The trouble with having principles, it is said, is that you have to live up to them. Unlike the right, the left prizes purity in its politicians, as Jeremy Corbyn’s squeaky-clean political image shows. Shami Chakrabarti started the year with a campaigning reputation to rival that of the Labour leader, but her poor decisions have all but destroyed her. It’s difficult to recall a time when a liberal icon has fallen so far, so fast. 

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood

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Labour will win the London elections – they’ve just lost the spin war

The question is, does that matter? 

Cancel the champagne in Jeremy Corbyn’s office? A new YouGov poll for Queen Mary’s Mile End Institute shows Labour slipping back from the record-breaking heights of 53 per cent in the local elections in London… to the still record-breaking heights of 51 per cent.

There are two things to note first off: the first, of course, is that Labour would still be posting the best result of any party in the capital since 1971, and its best since these boroughs were founded. The second is that as the change is within the margin of error, it could all be noise.

My sense, from talking to the local parties throughout the capital is that there has been a slight fall in Labour support but it is not evenly spread. In Barnet, the party’s ongoing difficulties with antisemitism have turned what looked a certain victory into a knife-edge fight. In Wandsworth, stories in the Standard about the local Momentum group have successfully spooked some residents into fearing that a Labour victory in that borough would imperil the borough’s long history of ultra-low council tax, while the presence of a fairly well-organised campaign from new party Renew is splitting angry pro-Remain vote. But elsewhere, neither Labour nor Tory local activists are reporting any kind of fall.

However, it does show how comprehensively Labour have lost the spin war as far as what a “good” set of local election results would be next week: as I laid out in my analyses of what a good night for the major parties would be, Wandsworth and Westminster councils, both of which would stay blue if this poll is borne out, should not be seen as essential gains for Labour and should properly be seen as disastrous defeats for the Conservatives.

However, CCHQ have done a good job setting out a benchmark for what a good night looks like to the point where holding onto Bexley is probably going to be hailed as a success. Labour haven’t really entered the spin wars. As I noted on our podcast this week, that’s in part because, as one senior member of Team Corbyn noted, there is a belief that whatever you do in the run-up, the BBC will decide that there is merit in both sides’ presentation of how the night has gone, so why bother with the spin war beforehand? We may be about to find out whether that’s true. The bigger question for Labour is if the inability to shape the narrative in the face of a largely hostile press will be a problem come 2022. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.