LONDON — Britain’s opposition Labour party should be investigated in order to discover whether it is “institutionally anti-Semitic,” Labour MP Ruth Smeeth has demanded.
Smeeth, who is Jewish, also accuses her party leader Jeremy Corbyn of lacking the political will to root out Jew-hate from the party and warns that Labour won’t “deserve to exist” unless it does.
In a frank interview with The Times of Israel, Smeeth says the resignation of fellow Jewish MP Luciana Berger mid-February from Labour was “completely heartbreaking” and has left her feeling “isolated and devastated.”
Smeeth — who herself has suffered a torrent of abuse from the hard left — was speaking after a tumultuous 10 days in which nine MPs have quit Labour, in part because of the anti-Semitism crisis which has roiled Corbyn’s party for the past three years.
She announced last week that she would not follow those who have resigned into the newly formed Independent Group, but now calls for a no-holds barred effort to tackle anti-Semitism in the Labour party.
“I’ve never, ever walked away from a fight. I’m not walking away from this one. This is the most important fight that the Labour party has faced, the battle for its heart and soul,” she says.
Asked if she agrees with Berger’s charge that Labour is now “institutionally anti-Semitic,” Smeeth says: “I think under the legal definition it looks like we might be. I say that with no pleasure. I say that with complete devastation.”
“I have never called the party institutionally anti-Semitic. I think the party needs to be investigated to prove whether it is or not. But, from my perspective, if one Jew is uncomfortable in a Labour party meeting anywhere in the country then the Labour party has got a problem regardless of whether we have a legal definition or not,” she says.
This week marked the 20th anniversary of a pioneering report into racism in London’s police force. It concluded that the Metropolitan police’s handling of the 1993 murder of a black teenager in the capital suggested the force was “institutionally racist” and defined the term legally.
Smeeth draws hope from the manner in which the Met has been transformed over the past two decades.
“No one would say that the Met is institutionally racist now. There are ways back but people have to be determined to fix things,” she says.
The youthful moderate, who was first elected to parliament in 2015, believes Corbyn has failed to show the political will to rid Labour of anti-Semitism.
“I don’t think any of us have actual faith that the processes are working because the political will to make them work isn’t there … Jeremy actually needs to get involved and Jeremy can’t pretend this isn’t happening,” says Smeeth.
Had any of Corbyn’s predecessors as Labour leader read newspaper headlines about anti-Semitism in the party, Smeeth argues, “they would have called in the general secretary of the Labour party and said, ‘I don’t care how you do it, you get rid.’ Because it requires political will.”
As a vice-chair of the parliamentary party, Smeeth meets with Corbyn on a regular basis.
“I have been raising it [anti-Semitism] every week in private for three years,” she notes. “But now this is a level of determination and anger. I suppose I just hoped that he would see reason and now I’m not sure he can, so now this is about [something] much bigger. The whole party needs to mobilize to make sure this is fixed because there needs to be clear political will.”
I have been raising anti-Semitism every week with Corbyn in private for three years. I just hoped that he would see reason and now I’m not sure he can.
Smeeth reveals that no approach she has tried with Corbyn — “whether I’ve been upset, whether I’ve been angry, whether I’ve been rational, whether I’ve been cold, whether I’ve been dismissive … whether I have appealed to his humanity — has met with success. It has not mattered how this issue has been raised with him, nothing has changed,” she says.
She is similarly forthright on the reasons for Corbyn’s alleged inaction.
“I think it’s too difficult,” Smeeth says. “I think that too many of his friends from the last 30 years have said unpalatable things and, whatever else I think about Jeremy, I think he’s probably very loyal to the people that he likes and to his friends. So he didn’t want to see that. He didn’t want to engage.
“He’s definitely never stopped anybody. He’s never intervened when someone said something horribly unpalatable on any issue, I don’t think, but definitely not on our issue. I don’t think he wanted to acknowledge it, then he viewed it as a method of attack that this was to undermine him and then he got angry. Honestly, I don’t really care what his emotions are now, he just has to deal with it,” she says.
Smeeth says that Corbyn’s time as a leading light in the anti-Israel movement in the UK may have had an impact on his behavior now.
“I think that the things that he would have seen on the demos he has been on, on the platforms that he’s shared, that he’s never criticized, that he’s never stopped, is a worldview that I can’t recognize … so maybe he and I are at an impasse,” she says.
However, she continues, “there is no excuse for ignoring what is being said when you are the leader of the Labour party. There is just no excuse.”
Smeeth admits that she has found the split in the Labour party “completely heartbreaking” and personally difficult.
“Especially for me to lose Luciana from the Labour party given she and I together — primarily because we’re not of a dissimilar age — we’ve had to face things that are unique to us. So isolated, devastated, but more determined, because they’ve nearly broken one of my friends and they don’t get to do that,” says Smeeth.
“My job now is to make sure that these people understand that they will rue the day. I have been very, very clear that I’m not leaving the Labour party, especially when, for a lot of these people, I was there way before they were. They do not get to break the Labour party. They are not worthy of the Labour party, they do not get to do this. It is my responsibility to get rid of them,” she adds.
They do not get to break the Labour party. They are not worthy of the Labour party
In a combative performance, Smeeth underlines her determination to take the fight to the anti-Semites in the Labour party and their defenders.
“I want to be really clear about the scale of the battle that we’re fighting for. Her Majesty’s Official Opposition cannot be anti-Semitic. Full stop, the end. I won’t allow it. So, on that basis, this isn’t a battle that I am prepared not to win,” she says.
“I am not prepared to let a small group of people in the Labour party think that they can get away with whatever they want. I will not allow it. So, if I have to be a thorn in their [the leadership’s] side every hour until they fix it, if I have to go to every Jewish group in the country, if I have to go and call out every Trot … that is spouting some of this nonsense, if I have to hunt down every bloody one of them, then I will,” she says.
But does Smeeth believe that a Labour government led by Corbyn represents an “existential threat” to the Jewish community, as Jonathan Goldstein, head of the Jewish Leadership Council charged last summer?
“I know how angry and upset the wider community is. I understand why Jonathan said that,” she says. “I can’t allow myself to believe — and maybe this is my weakness — that a Labour party in government would act in a way that would destroy a community. That doesn’t mean that I don’t understand that my friends are making contingency plans [to leave Britain] for if we ever win an election.”
My friends are making contingency plans [to leave Britain] for if we ever win an election
Unlike Corbyn and his allies, Smeeth makes no criticism of those who have decided to leave Labour. “Whatever personal decisions people make, I can’t hold that against them,” she says.
Last year, Labour expelled an activist for bringing the party into disrepute after he criticized Smeeth at the 2016 launch of an anti-Semitism report. Marc Wadsworth accused Smeeth of working “hand in hand” with the media to undermine Labour. She walked out of the launch and charged that he had engaged in “vile conspiracy theories.”
Smeeth later revealed that she had subsequently received 25,000 pieces of anti-Semitic abuse. She was placed under police protection after an individual, claiming to be a Corbyn supporter, said on Facebook that she should be hanged.
While Smeeth still has to have security, she refuses to be cowed.
“I can’t let these bullies win. I was born into this movement as much as I was born into my faith. The two of them are the two main parts that have defined who I am,” she says.
Through it all, Smeeth believes, she has been buoyed by local support. “My constituents are amazing,” she says. “I get presents sent to me because they are so worried about me.”
She notes, that unlike Berger and Louise Ellman, a Jewish Labour MP who has also been targeted by far-left activists in her constituency, she has a highly supportive local party.
“My constituency [party] unanimously passed a motion of solidarity with me. They know that this is a battle that I can’t be quiet on. They’re fiercely anti-racist,” she says. “I don’t have the vitriol that Luciana and Louise face at their local Labour party meetings. I have nothing but solidarity, and for that I am blessed. I know how lucky I am.”
But, Smeeth argues, the battle against anti-Semitism in the Labour party is not primarily about Jewish members of parliament.
“With the greatest of respect, this isn’t about Luciana, Louise, [or] Margaret [Hodge]. It’s not about us. We’re here, we got elected to parliament, we have massive support networks,” Smeeth says. “This is about the 17-year-old that should be joining the Labour party. This is about the activist who doesn’t want to go to a Labour party meeting because they’re scared. How dare anyone make someone scared to go to a Labour party meeting.”
Smeeth sounds a bleak warning about Labour’s future — and the future of those it claims to represent.
“After the events of the last week, the Labour party may well be out of office for quite a long time,” she believes. “We don’t fix this, we don’t deserve to exist. But my constituents, who are struggling every day because of the actions of this government need a competent opposition.
We don’t fix this, we don’t deserve to exist
“They need a strong Labour MP that’s focused on them and they need the chance of a Labour government and, at the moment, our very actions undermine all of that and that’s the bit that’s unforgivable,” she says.
It has not escaped Smeeth’s notice that it is female MPs who have borne the brunt of the hard left’s abuse – with non-Jewish moderate MPs also receiving far more attacks online than their male counterparts.
“They’ve got a big problem with women,” she argues. “They’ve got a big problem with Jewish women.”
“I am a Labour activist who just happens to be Jewish,” Smeeth says. “The events of the last three years have made me a Jewish politician, which I thoroughly resent. But they did that and so now they will have to deal with the consequences of it because they do not want me as part of this fight.”
There is, she concludes with a laugh, “nothing stronger than a Jewish woman.”