In the run up to a vote by Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee to water down the IHRA definition and examples for use in its internal disciplinary procedures, something remarkable happened. Decades of delicate intercommunal management of cross communal rabbinic engagement went out the window.
For a brief moment in time, and for one letter, the Stanmore Accords were suspended as 68 rabbis called on the Labour Party to drop its new code of conduct on antisemitism. No serious Jewish communal organisation had been consulted in its development, and its treatment of the incendiary elements of antisemitic anti-Zionist discourse had left everyone asking how the Party could seriously suggest that it was tackling its daemons with the seriousness and resolve it requires.
In disbelief, MPs both Jewish and not have registered their outrage that the Party could behave in such a deliberate and reckless behaviour. As a consequence of some heated exchanges, both Margaret Hodge and Ian Austin are the subject of complaints made by other MPs to the Party, and received letters overnight telling them that investigations into their conduct had been launched.
Emanating from behind the closed doors of that NEC meeting, word had got out that the discussion over the code had become a little intemperate. Pete Willsman, a longstanding activist within the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy faction, and a member of Momentum’s slate of candidates for the forthcoming NEC elections, was reported to have suggested that the disquiet over antisemitism had been caused by Trump supporting elements of the community, and that in 50 years, he’d never seen antisemitism in the Party.
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On paper, these claims were concerning. As a member of the Party’s governing body, Willsman will have participated in many discussions over the Party’s disciplinary process, and sat in judgement to decide whether the Party should pursue disciplinary cases against people who fall foul of the rules.
Following a complaint from JLM, a hastily arranged apology was facilitated by the Party’s new General Secretary, who was also present at the meeting. Willsman claimed that reports of his contribution had been misrepresented. He was correct. His contributions had been misrepresented. They were far worse.
Audio emerged of Willsman claiming that complaints against Party members were a fabrication. That those expressing concerns were Trump fanatics. That our Rabbis were inventing false claims of antisemitism. As his colleagues pleaded with him to sit down and stop his commotion, he challenged them to raise their arms if they’d ever seen antisemitism within the Labour Party.
As ballot papers for the forthcoming NEC elections hit doormats and inboxes, Pete Willsman will in all likelihood be re-elected. As a member of the “#JC9”, Willsman’s factional allies have, to date, found space to tolerate his odious behaviour. Only now, when documentary evidence is made public are they beginning to realise just how much of a liability he his.
The paucity of action from the Party however is telling. For Jewish MPs, immediate letters of investigation. For factional allies, something else.
Over the summer, the Labour Party will attempt to engage Jewish organisations in the consultation over the new antisemitism code of practice that should have taken place before they agreed it. As the self imposed deadline of July has passed for the Party to handle all outstanding cases of antisemitism, the lack of trust remains at an all time low. For as long as Pete Willsman remains on Labour’s NEC, there can be no trust at all.
- Peter Mason is the National Secretary of the Jewish Labour Movement, and a member of the Labour Party’s National Constitutional Committee