Five things we learned from parliament’s anti-Semitism debate

MPs debated anti-Semitism in the House of Commons.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

1. Jeremy Corbyn came in for criticism by Tories

Opening the debate, the Housing and Communities Secretary Sajid Javid accused the Labour leader of not showing leadership on anti-Semitism in his party. “There has, frankly, been a deeply worrying lack of leadership and moral clarity on this issue from him,” he said.

When this general debate was announced, there was some concern even among Corbynsceptics that it was being called at this time for political capital rather than as a helpful intervention, and wouldn’t help with those left-wing activists who call the whole thing a “smear” (a claim Corbyn himself has dismissed: “I acknowledge that anti-Semitic attitudes have surfaced more often in our ranks in recent years, and that the Party has been too slow in processing some of the cases that have emerged,” he wrote to Jewish leaders last month).

There was quite a bit of specific Labour-bashing from the opposite bench. It mainly centred around a recent row sparked by Jeremy Corbyn’s past Facebook comment opposing the removal of an anti-Semitic mural (he now says he regrets not looking more closely at the mural in question). 

The Tory MP Robert Halfon focused on the mural, the controversial circumstances of Shami Chakrabarti’s inquiry into anti-Semitism in Labour, and Facebook groups containing anti-Semitic tropes that had Labour high-ups, including Corbyn, as members.

His colleague Andrew Percy accused Corbyn of being in “racist, anti-Semitic Facebook groups” and “chuntering” when facing allegations of anti-Semitism among members of his party.

Corbyn was thanked by Javid for being present at the start of the debate, but he didn’t stay for the duration.

2. …and from Labour

But Labour politicians also focused on their party. Labour MP Angela Smith said anti-Semitism is “where the far left meets the far right”, and her colleague Luciana Berger, who has been a victim of online anti-Semitic abuse, told the chamber she holds “my own party to a higher standard”. Her speech received applause – unconventional in the Commons.

On the frontbench, Andrew Gwynne, the shadow housing and communities secretary, said that anyone who thinks “anti-Semitism doesn’t exist on the left isn’t living in the real world”.

One of the most high-profile Labour MPs campaigning against anti-Semitism, John Mann, said his wife was sent a dead bird and threatened with rape by Marxist anti-Semites on the left, and his children have also been intimidated: “Every party in this house should look after its own back yard first.” The chamber listened in horrified silence.

Ruth Smeeth read out a shocking list of abusive comments levelled at her online by Labour supporters – one ended in “hashtag Corbyn”.

3. Social media was the second culprit

Social media abuse was mentioned in many of the speeches, as was the responsibility of internet platforms to clampdown on anti-Semitism. There was also a call for the government to “act more strenuously with social media platforms”, bringing the hot topic of regulation of internet giants like Facebook into the debate.

4. Politicians were warned against “whataboutery”

Following the centre-left gossip blog Red Roar’s revelation this morning of Labour’s briefed top lines ahead of this debate – that the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism found in 2017 that there were lower levels of anti-Semitism among Labour activists than in the UK’s general population and Tory party – there were warnings for Labour MPs not to resort to “whataboutery”. Ie. Anti-Semitism is unacceptable wherever it takes place, rather than a subject to explained away by unflattering comparisons.

5. …which did nevertheless make an appearance

This was generally adhered to during the debate, but Karen Lee, Labour MP for Lincoln since 2017, commented in an intervention during the Tory Graham Brady’s speech: “Do you think it’s appropriate for members of this chamber, for instance, to use the n-word? I mean, I would condemn all forms of racism, would you agree?” There were groans and cries at this, and one MP snapped “sit down”.

Lee was referring to Anne Marie Morris, the Conservative MP who used the “n-word”, who the party suspended then readmitted.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.