It was one of the odder political tweets of the month. Tory Party Chair and Hertsmere MP Oliver Dodwen posted a picture of himself in a Washington DC hotel practicing for his speech to the Heritage Foundation, using an ironing board as a makeshift lectern. (I was mildly impressed that he’d found a DC hotel that supplies ironing boards instead of the ubiquitous Corby trouser press.)
Even odder than the tweet was the organisation he had travelled to DC to address. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, are unabashed climate change deniers. Heritage (as it is known on the Washington beltway) has been close to political hardliners such as Pat Robertson who denounced Hinduism as “demonic” and Islam as “satanic”. Those are some of his less extreme positions. Heritage was a strong proponent of practices at Guantanamo Bay during the G.W. Bush administration. It was criticised in 2005 over a business relationship between its President and Malaysia’s antisemitic Prime Minister. Recently, Heritage was pivotal to the Trump presidency with over 70 Heritage employees and alumni on the presidential payroll. The Foundation strayed into the realm of conspiracy theories publishing articles by Mike Pence and others making false claims of voter fraud in 2020 and other wild allegations.
It wouldn’t be the first time a leading Tory figure had engaged with American hardliners. But for me, Dowden’s speech was close to home. And deeply problematic. As widely reported, he used the opportunity to frame an attack on the ‘woke agenda’. In reality it was a speech long on rhetoric but short on any meaningful discourse at all. He attempted to chart a political paradigm in which positions to the left of his new friends at Heritage can be dismissed as part of the ‘woke threat’ without engaging with any genuine discussion.
The reason the speech hit home for me was twofold.
Firstly, as Labour Leader at Hertsmere Borough Council, Dowden’s home constituency – I’m acutely aware of the pernicious impact of the cost of living crisis. I know that people around here want an MP who is engaged with their daily problems – not one who jets to Washington to buddy up with extreme Conservatives.
Secondly, as reported in Jewish News and the national media, Dowden cited the “large and growing” Hertsmere Jewish community, to rebut claims that UK society is structurally racist. Most of the Hertsmere Jews I have spoken to about this were appalled to have been ‘used’ in this way. They reject the essence of what Heritage stands for. In the post-Corbyn political era we ought to be more sensitive to ‘weaponising’ Jews in political discourse, using them as some kind of political football.
Let me be clear. I am not for a moment suggesting that Oliver Dowden is antisemitic. We are on the opposite side of most issues. But I’ve always found him to be a steadfast supporter of the Jewish community. On that, we are on the same page. But, in seconding the Hertsmere Jewish community as a political prop, he made an offensive error. Hertsmere’s Jews are thriving because of fantastic local Rabbinic and lay leadership. They are thriving because of the increasing investment many communal bodies have made in the Borough. None of this is proof that structural racism doesn’t exist in Britain.
Hertsmere’s Jewish community is not monolithic as Dowden appears to suggest. As a local Council I deal with members of the community in dire poverty, homelessness, victims of abuse and victims of antisemitism. Maybe these are not the kind of Hertsmere Jews that Mr Dowden spends time with. Perhaps, he ought to spend less time in Washington and more time in his own constituency, in wards like the one I represent, Borehamwood’s Cowley Hill – where far from thriving, many local people Jewish and otherwise are struggling in of the UK’s areas at the very bottom of multiple national indices of deprivation.