When Labour last came to Brighton for its annual conference, I sat in a studio listening to people who had faced abuse because they were Jewish. I heard statements recorded at a fringe event suggesting it was fine to question whether the Holocaust had ever happened. As leader of the city’s council, I had to act. I wrote a letter saying Labour would not be welcome back in Brighton if it failed to sort out its issues with anti-Semitism. Two years on, I have been forced out of the party I loved. But Labour’s dark problem remains.
The backlash against my message was swift and took me by surprise. I had been a member of the party for a quarter of a century. Perhaps I was naïve, but Jeremy Corbyn’s vow to root out racism made me feel I was helping. And what is an elected politician for if they don’t speak out on a subject like this?
Yet few of my fellow Labour members seemed to agree. The charge from some in my local party and Momentum was that I’d always opposed Jeremy Corbyn. This was a chance, they said, for me to ‘weaponise’ ‘fabricated smears’ of anti-Semitism against him. They claimed I had brought the party into disrepute, insisting I should have raised any concerns in house.
But it was clear to me that this is not the way to do things. When the EDL wanted to return to Brighton in 2014 to hold another ‘March for England’ demonstration, I told the organiser of the event publicly that they were not welcome. Representatives of the city’s Muslim community had made it clear to me they wouldn’t feel safe; it was right to show my support and take a stand. I can only imagine the response of my local party chair had I said: “I’ve sent a strongly-worded letter to the national secretary of the EDL, best leave it to them to sort and not make any fuss in public.”
So when Jews were made to feel unsafe at Labour conference, I acted again in a similar way. For all my good intentions in speaking up for Jewish people who were afraid, months of emails, motions and unpleasant messages followed. Apologies and retractions were demanded. There were calls for me to step down. Many of these messages came from the local party, where now-suspended or expelled members labelled Jews “Zios”, depicted councillors – including me and one whose husband is Jewish – as dancing Rabbis and called for people to march on the local synagogue in response to the suspension by Labour of a council candidate for tweeting about the “Israeli bloodline”.
Finally, a motion calling for me to resign passed by some forty votes to two. It had been moved by the person later suspended after calling for a march on a local synagogue.
Since the 2017 conference, there have been further damaging revelations about the Labour party and Jeremy Corbyn’s attitudes towards Jews, including the row over the anti-Semitic mural which led to a demonstration by the Jewish community against Labour, the shameful spectacle of Livingstone and Williamson failing to be suitably punished and the resignations of Luciana Berger, Ian Austin and others. Hundreds of examples of awful anti-Semitism have emerged.
But despite the promises of action two years ago, and the small number of suspensions and expulsions, those pushing the same anti-Israel messages which so quickly morph into anti-Semitism have not gone away.
Some of those disciplined have been quietly readmitted, or their suspensions taken no further. Those like me who have spoken out on anti-Semitism, however, have been pushed to the point of resignation, or deselected while the party has simply stood by. Perhaps the most damning indictment came when Labour Friends of Israel pulled out of this week’s conference, saying their staff could no longer be subjected to the anti-Semitic abuse faced in previous years.
It is clear that for some Labour members, the perceived role of Jewish people in the global capitalist economy and the actions of the Netanyahu government in the occupied territories are things that every Jewish person should be held accountable for. Make no mistake: that is racism.
And those still left in the party must continue to speak out against these views. If a family member speaks and acts in a racist way, do you respond or keep quiet so as to not rock the boat and end up an outcast? If you are elected to a position of authority, do you put the people you are accountable to ahead of the party that got you elected?
For me the answer was and always will be ‘yes’. You don’t get to pick and choose the racism you stand up against; and being a member of a political party gives you a greater responsibility to challenge it, not a free pass to stay silent. In these dangerous times, silence serves no good at all.
Warren Morgan was Labour leader of Brighton and Hove City Council from 2015 to 2018. He resigned from the party in February