The big Labour beasts who stayed away

Left: John McDonnell, Diane Abbott. Right:, Emily Thornberry, Keir Starmer
Left: John McDonnell, Diane Abbott. Right:, Emily Thornberry, Keir Starmer

I spent Sunday at the Jewish Labour Movement conference. It was a bit like the curate’s egg — good in parts (is there such a thing as a rabbi’s egg, I wonder anxiously? Perhaps best not to explore).

By any token, the conference was a roaring success, with 500 people attending, compared with last year’s 175.

There was even the starry, and extraordinary, appearance of former prime minister Gordon Brown, proving that comparing him charisma for charisma with his predecessor, Tony Blair, is not an unfair exercise.

There was much to admire in both the presentations and the audience, many of whom were young, enthusiastic, and apparently desperate to rescue what their elders — though not necessarily their betters — had told them was a lost cause.

And yet, I felt that there were people missing from Sunday’s event.

They were: John McDonnell, Diane Abbott, Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry — basically the big beasts of the Shadow Cabinet.

Each, in his or her own way, has been lining up to tell the Jewish community that there is nothing to fear from Project Corbyn.

Indeed McDonnell, currently occupying the “Good Cop” pulpit in contrast to his Voldemort leader’s All-Bad-Cop-All-The-Time, went on breakfast TV on Sunday, fluttered his eyelashes at former chief rabbi Lord Sacks, and implored him to come and meet Corbyn.

Based on current rhetoric, it seems the other side of unlikely that such a meeting will take place, but McDonnell appears to have cast himself in the role of Mr Emollient.

This is perhaps so that he can say with conviction “I tried to reach out to the Jewish community, but they weren’t having any”.

However, any of his colleagues on the shadow front bench could have done themselves no end of good by popping in to the JLM conference to see what was going on — and engage with us there.

Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, who never ceases to remind everyone that she represents hundreds of Jews in her Hackney constituency, could have dropped in; Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, needed to be there to make a cogent case for the full adoption of IHRA and still show that it is possible to criticise the Israeli government.

Sir Keir Starmer, who has demurred on the sidelines about the toxic swamp that now surrounds Labour’s hierarchy, could have shown his face.

But no. There were plenty of familiar names, from MP Ian Austin, currently facing disciplinary proceedings for having had “words” with Labour chair Ian Lavery, and Dame Margaret Hodge, currently the surprise pin-up girl of the Jewish community for her face-to-face confrontation with Voldemort.

Also present was the trenchant Ilford MP Wes Streeting, still a champion of the Jewish community despite all the heat he has received from some sectors; and new MP Rosie Duffield, bravely joining the fray.

The sole voice of the other side was Momentum’s Jon Lansman, a man who can hardly be said to be unfamiliar with what the Jewish community is thinking.

I am as sure as I can be that JLM organisers would have been delighted to welcome such high-profile MPs.

Lord Sacks, perhaps aware that it is Ellul, the month of repentance, has called for Corbyn to “atone” for his past behaviour. That’s never going to happen, in my view.

But a bit of reaching out by his colleagues would go a long way to reassure us of the genuine goodwill, as displayed by Gordon Brown, towards Jews in Labour.

There’s still an opportunity at the party conference in Liverpool. Make it happen.

About the Author
Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist.
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