Suspensions, controversy… and a coup in the Commons?

Well. Last week was certainly an interesting, and shall we say lively week. It will, however, be a week the Labour party would wish to consign to the history books, or preferably obliterate from memory. Unfortunately, time cannot be rewound, and so the Labour party is stuck facing down yet another round of the ongoing anti-Semitism row which has engulfed the party. But the recent debacle involving Labour party members becoming embroiled in anti-Semitism remarks may just yet serve to highlight the internal vulnerabilities of the Labour party, and de facto the party leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

This latest episode commenced at the beginning of last week, and it there I shall start my own post. It came to light that the Labour MP for Bradford West, Ms Naz Shah, had commented and shared Facebook posts about Israel. The Guido Fawkes website brought to our attention the particular Facebook post in question, and also highlighted a post in which Ms Shah seemingly likened Israeli policies to those of Hitler.

In a Facebook post from 2014, Ms Shah had shared a post containing an image of Israel’s outline superimposed on a map of the US, under the headline ‘Solution for Israel-Palestine conflict – relocate Israel into United States’. She also commented on the post, saying”problem solved”. The post suggested the US has “plenty of land” to accommodate Israel as a “51st state”, thereby enabling Palestinians to “get their life and their land back”. The Facebook post also said Israeli people would be welcome in the US, while the “transportation cost” would be less than three years’ worth of Washington’s support for Israeli defence spending. Here, Ms Shah added a comment suggesting this might “save them some pocket money”. You can imagine that once the existence of these posts, and Ms Shah’s comments became known, the Labour Press team must have wept.

After a day of Press scrutiny, and Conservative Government questioning regarding Ms Shah’s political future, the Labour party eventually realised action must be taken. And once the course was drawn, its delivery was swift. Ms Shah firstly stepped down from her position as an unpaid aide to the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and was duly summoned to a meeting with her party leader. (We have since been informed that she was left sitting for forty minutes outside Jeremy Corbyn’s office as apparently he and his team forgot she was there).

Evidently, a statement of apology was eventually drafted, for on Wednesday Ms Shah called a Point of Order in the Commons, and issued her apology. Ms Shah apologised thrice, saying: “Anti-Semitism is racism, full stop. As an MP I will do everything in my power to build relationships between Muslims, Jews and people of different faiths and none.” It was clear her apology was sincere, and recognised as such in the House.

But apologising three times (did a cock crow in the distance, I wonder) did not spare Ms Shah from being suspended. Yet this was perhaps unsurprising, given the pressure facing the Labour party and the context of the row. It had, after all, only been a mere ten days since Labour’s General Secretary had reassured Labour MPs that those accused of anti-Semitism would be expelled or suspended from the party. To ignore or dismiss this pledge would have only served to heighten the row, and emphasis the apparent branding of the party as being the allegedly ‘anti-Semitic’ party. Moreover, Prime Minister’s Questions had provided the Government with the opportunity to pile on the pressure. Mr Corbyn had issued a statement prior to Prime Minister’s Questions, highlighting that the posts were made before Ms Shah entered Parliament, stressing her apology and concluding that “The Labour Party is implacably opposed to anti-Semitism and all forms of racism.” Yet the Prime Minister proceeded to comment how it was “quite extraordinary” that Labour had not withdrawn the whip from Ms Shah over what he suggested were “racist” comments.

Ms Shah was thus suspended, and Labour was caught in a new row, becoming divided over whether or not Ms Shah should have been suspended. Now, that surely would have been enough intensive news-coverage and controversy for the week. But then along came one Ken Livingstone.

On Thursday morning, Mr Livingstone took to the airwaves to defend Ms Shah, arguing she should not have been suspended. He submitted that anti-Zionism was not the same as anti-Semitism, but instead of simply leaving his point there, proceeded to dig quite the proverbial hole for himself on BBC London:

“When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.”

(Remember the Labour Press team? They must have wept buckets by this stage.)

Thereafter followed a surreal, almost The Thick Of It moment when Mr Livingstone was later confronted outside the BBC’s studios by Labour MP John Mann, who angrily accused him of being a “Nazi apologist”. And he did this in front of television cameras. Mr Livingstone and Mr Mann had a verbal tussle, which ended up with Mr Livingstone locking himself into a toilet. (Proving that irony is a key feature in British politics, an online petition has since been launched, calling for the discipling of… Mr Mann.)

Now, this is would have been the point when the SAS-equivalent of the PR crisis management team would have been called in, and they probably called for ‘no statements, no public comments, no more interviews’. Mr Livingstone however had other ideas, despite being suspended himself from the party on the very same day. He promptly appeared on another radio programme to defend himself alongside Ms Shah.

By the weekend, Mr Livingstone was on LBC radio, saying that he stood by his commets and he was ‘not sorry for telling the truth’. He seemingly claimed the media storm being generated by his comments was being blown out of proportion, and deliberately being stirred up by Blairite MPs in an effort to undermine Mr Corbyn as leader:

“I never regret saying something that is true…

“If you look at what this is all about, it’s not about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party… What this is all about is actually the struggle of the embittered old Blairite MPs to try to get rid of Jeremy Corbyn…”

Referencing the council and London Mayoral elections taking place in England on the 5th May, Mr Livingstone again argued this was a political stab in the back from by a movement of MPs seeking to replace the party leader:

“The really appalling thing here is dishonest MPs who know that what I said is true have stirred up all this nonsense because they want to damage our chances at the local election so they then have a chance of undermining Jeremy.”

Irony, thy name is Livingstone – it could be argued that by making these comments in the first place (and whilst we are all entitled to our opinions, we must take care with verbalising them, and be aware of the potential of any offence caused) Mr Livingstone may yet be the man to blame for any dip in Labour votes this Thursday. His comments placed the party in the headlines for the wrong reasons, painfully dragging up the ongoing issue of alleged anti-Semitism within Labour. At a time when it was been predicted that Labour could be on course for their worst council defeat in 34 years, the party could really do without negative media coverage of internal division, tension, and a party vulnerable to claims of anti-Semitism.

The party could also do without new revelations being brought to light by Guido Fawkes -a website doing a better job of scrutinising the Labour party than the senior Labour leadership- on Wednesday that two more councillors have been suspended, pending an investigation into allegations of anti-Semitism. On the day of Prime Minister’s Questions -which incidentally saw the Prime Minister and Mr Corbyn go to war over the alleged anti-Semitic streak within Labour – a Labour spokesman confirmed Miqdad Al-Nuaimi, a councillor in Newport, South Wales, and Terry Kelly, who sits on Renfrewshire Council, have been suspended “pending an investigation”. This news came after suggestions that the Labour party reportedly suspended around 50 party members over anti-Semitism and racism since Jeremy Corbyn was elected as leader last year. (When it rains, it pours…)

Members of the PLP began to complain about the behaviour of some within the party, and called on Mr Corbyn to step in. The party leader obliged in due course announcing that there would be an independent inquiry into anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in the Labour Party, and it would be led by former Liberty director Shami  Chakrabarti. He also announced his proposal for a new ‘code of conduct’ on racism at Labour’s national Executive Committee. But Mr Corbyn could not escape criticism for his slow response in the cases of  Ms Shah and Mr Livingstone. Which begs the question: shall we see a Labour leadership coup in the next few months?

The recent anti-Semitism row acted akin to a political barometer for the Labour party, seemingly highlighting Mr Corbyn’s weakness when it comes to decisive action. It also served to highlight the misdirection and miscommunication issues among his aides and their disregard for the norms of political communications. With ongoing rows at the top of the party, the murmurings of critics for a change of leader, the party appears trapped between two camps: those supporting Corbyn as leader, and those seeking change. The result is political deadlock, a weakness seized upon by the Conservative government.

Arguably, the recent council elections in England and the London Mayoral election served to act as another ratings measure for Labour, but also Corbyn’s leadership to date. As I mentioned previously, dire predictions had be cast, saying the party would suffered significant losses across England. Had this come to pass, no doubt those Labour MPs considering a coup would have commenced plotting. But, fortunately for Labour – and Mr Corbyn too, perhaps – such negative predictions proved premature.

The party managed to defy expectations to secure a number of councils in southern England, amid signs of declines in Conservative support in the region which served to contribute to Labour’s stronger than expected performance.  In addition, key battleground councils including Southampton, Crawley, and Hastings were all held by Labour, despite concerns Corbyn’s leadership may have disillusioned swing voters outside of the party’s traditional heartlands in the North of England and Wales.

However, it was not all good news for Labour: the party did see a net loss of around 30 council seats in England. Meanwhile in Scotland, Scottish Labour lost 13 seats in the Scottish Parliamentary elections, becoming the third party at Holyrood, behind the SNP and Scottish Conservatives. On the other hand, whilst the Conservatives suffered a decline in votes in the South of England, and a loss of Council seats, they did manage to gain 16 seats in the Scottish Parliament. In the Welsh Assembly, Welsh Labour won 29 seats, just two seats shy of a majority. Yet Labour critics of Mr Corbyn still criticised the party’s overall performance, arguing Labour should be making strong gains against the Conservatives if it has any hope of winning the next General Election in 2020.

Labour did however win the London Mayoral election through candidate Sadiq Khan, who polled 56.9% of the vote compared to Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith’s 43.1%. It is noticeable that Mr Khan made several pointed remarks in his first interview as London Mayor against Corbyn. Mr Khan stated his belief that with Mr Corbyn as leader, Labour was failing to address the concern of ordinary voters. Moreover, he warned that unless the party engaged with the whole electorate, then the party’s central mission to improve the lives of ordinary people would be at risk. It is telling that Mr Khan commented in an article for the Observer:

“Squabbles over internal structures might be important for some in the party, but it is clear they mean little or nothing to the huge majority of voters…

“It should never be about ‘picking sides’, a ‘them or us’ attitude, or a having a political strategy to target just enough of the population to get over the line. Our aim should be to unite people from all backgrounds as a broad and welcoming tent – not to divide and rule.”

It should be noted Mr Khan had voiced his concerns that the anti-Semitism row would hurt Labour in the elections and thereafter.

Intriguingly, there are those around the Labour leader who are concerned that Mr Khan intends to use his new office, and the accompanying national platform, to establish a rival power base to Mr Corbyn. Mr Khan’s apparent distancing of himself from the Labour leader will only increase these fears.

Is this a case of uneasy lies the head that wears a crown? Perhaps. Mr Corbyn won a landslide victory in the Labour leadership last year, but whilst he is popular with the Labour membership, there may be those within the PLP who would seek his replacement.

Mr Corbyn may be safe for now, but first he must weather the continuing storm over anti-Semitism within the party. And we cannot forget that his next challenge is merely a month away – the EU referendum on the 24th June. The Prime Minister is not the only party leader whose political career may rest on the referendum outcome. Both Mr Corbyn and Mr Cameron are campaigning to remain within the EU. In Mr Corbyn’s case, he may just also be campaigning to remain within the party leadership.

 

 

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