The Liberal Democrats have always been a party of contradictions. In the time I’ve been a member, as well as a journalist covering the party, few of its contradictions have baffled me more than the fact that it is called the Liberal Democrat party but it unequivocally fails to support the only liberal democracy in the Middle East.
There has always been a strong link between British Jewry and Liberal parties, but the present day Liberal Democrats are broadly not trusted by the Jewish community. This is despite the best efforts of Nick Clegg and others to rebuild links.
This was brought home to me only a couple of months ago, when I was knocking on doors for the Lib Dems as a council candidate in the London Borough of Barnet. My ward took in part of the Jewish community in Golders Green. One evening a man answered the door, only to slam it very quickly when I told him which party I was from, shouting: ‘I won’t vote for you, you’re an anti-Semitic party.’ If only he had been an one off…
For a party that tries to be accessible and politically correct, the Lib Dems have a cultural blind spot over the Jewish community. A perfect example is that, come October, they will have held their autumn party conference over Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, four years in a row. Once happens, twice is a bad coincidence, four times and you’re telling a community that you don’t really pay them much attention.
You can’t help but ask: what is the Lib Dems’ problem with ‘the Jews’?
Many people joined due to a strong belief in human rights and a determination to stick up for the ‘little guy’. Honourable positions to hold, but easily warped when looking at the Middle East. Lib Dems, particularly at the grassroots level, see Israel with a thriving economy and a proper military, and assume that this makes it an evil Goliath, and the Palestinians therefore the noble David. It’s a binary view, not to mention a misinformed one.
They all too easily ignore that Israel is about the same size as Wales or the state of New Jersey and has been attacked ever since its formation. They don’t think about the human rights of Israeli citizens to live their daily lives without being bombarded by Hamas’s missiles.
With these foundations laid, the likes of David Ward and Jenny Tonge can share their vile views under some political cover. Indeed, there are plenty of Lib Dem members who publicly agreed with David Ward this week, and the same was true of Tonge before she was finally given her marching orders.
It demonstrates how easily anti-Israel and anti-Zionist sentiment can veer towards what could be regarded as anti-Semitism. It’s hard for the party leadership to take action against these outbursts. The perpetrators can legitimately say that party members are backing them. The leadership fears a backlash from activists. The Lib Dems remain a member and process driven party. Many times this works to the party’s advantage. Not so in matters of discipline. I have little doubt that Clegg and his whips would have liked to show David Ward the door this week, but the bureaucratic way the party is setup made that almost impossible. That said, it’s hard to imagine either of the other two major parties hiding behind ‘process’ when dealing with such comments from their benches.
David Ward’s despicable comments this week were just the latest in a series of incidents that have dogged the Liberal Democrats. With a bit of subtlety and nuance, it’s more than possible to make comments that are stridently critical of Israel without approaching the realms of anti-Semitism.
Subtlety and nuance were exactly what was missing from Ward this week, and his defender, former MEP Edward McMillan Scott. I have no idea how I’d now answer that man in Golders Green.