This has been a difficult week for the Labour Party. It stands accused of allowing a culture of anti-Semitism to exist unchallenged amongst some of its members. For a political party that has long prided itself on its record on equalities, it is an extremely serious row to be embroiled in, and one which it has struggled to get to grips with.
The appalling comments made by Naz Shah and by the former London Mayor Ken Livingstone have thrown a much-needed spotlight on the challenging issue. There is an evident problem, regardless of how big or small it may be, and the first thing to do is to tackle it head-on. The suspension of the two Labour figures is a good start, and the independent enquiry to be led by former Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti is to be welcomed.
Anti-Semitism, much like Islamophobia and other discriminatory behaviour, is deplorable and disgusting. There is no place for such discrimination in modern Britain.
People of all faiths and those of no faith must stand united against discrimination, wherever it raises its ugly head and whatever form it may take.
It’s also important to draw a distinction between anti-Semitism and criticism of the Israeli government. One is aimed at a religious community, and the other at a state. The two are quite clearly distinct, and yet far too often mistaken as being one and the same. That confusion leads to an environment where individuals wrongly feel it is permissible to use anti-Semitic language when being critical of Israeli policies. That mindset needs to change, and fast. Some Labour members appear to have struggled with that distinction, and that has led to the latest debacle.
I am a proud Labour activist who has worked hard to challenge misconceptions about people of faith and faith communities for a number of years. However, this week has made me feel concerned about the way that issues regarding faith are dealt with by the Party.
The lack of faith literacy in modern society is something that people of faith know of all too well, but it seems that it extends to political parties too.
People of faith want to be treated with the same level of respect and intellect as others, and that includes having an open dialogue on all issues to do with faith, even if it doesn’t necessarily lead to agreement on a subject.
Labour isn’t alone in the way that it treats such matters. A senior Conservative member in Bradford has been accused of anti-Semitism and was suspended less than a month ago.
However, there is an evident need to challenge such behaviour with immediate and decisive action, and that is where the Labour could have been better this week. The same should be true of any other discrimination within the Party, including racism, sexism, homophobia, and disablism.
The timing of this particular row couldn’t have been worse for Labour. Local and regional elections are just days away, and London will be deciding who its next Mayor shall be. Tooting MP and Labour’s Mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan has very good relations with the Jewish community. He has acknowledged that Jewish Londoners may find it difficult to feel that the Labour Party is a place for them at the moment, and he knows this will have an impact upon his chances of being elected.
The Conservatives do not come out of this row with clean hands either. The dog-whistle politics and divisive nature of their campaigning in the run up to the London Mayoral election calls into question their own discriminatory behaviour, namely Islamophobia. References to Sadiq Khan as a ‘radical who has shared platforms with Islamic extremists’ are disgraceful as an obvious distortion of the truth, and are very clearly meant to draw a line between ‘us’ and ‘them’.
Using religious identity to divide people along political lines is dangerous in a diverse democracy such as ours, and the repercussions could be felt for some time to come.
However, if the parties can deal with issues such as anti-Semitism and Islamophobia whenever they arise in a swift manner, it will allow people of faith to trust and believe that politicians and their parties truly have their best intentions at heart.
The recent rows provide a strong opportunity for both Labour and the Conservatives to learn from their mistakes and make faith literacy and dialogue a key part of their engagement with faith communities, as well as provide proper equalities training to staff and potential candidates. For all of our sakes, I hope that they make the most of it. Otherwise the challenges for a truly inclusive and cohesive society are only going to get worse.