Hello and welcome to the first episode of Corbynism: The Post-Mortem, a limited podcast series hosted by Oz Katerji exploring Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure as leader of the Labour party.
Episode 1 – Labour’s Institutional Antisemitism Crisis
The first episode exploring Labour’s institutional antisemitism crisis features Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland, former Labour councillor Adam Langlaben and human rights barrister Adam Wagner.
The episode can be found at these links, and the full transcription can be found below:
(Transcription software did a lot of the work, so please be cautious of any unintentional typos)
Episode 1 Transcription
Oz Katerji – 00:32
Hello and welcome to Corbynism: The Post-Mortem, a new limited Podcast series investigating Corbynism, and the impact Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure as Labour leader had on British politics.
I am your host, Oz Katerji, and before I introduce my guests, I’d like to talk about what we are seeking to explore with this series.
On September 12th 2015, Jeremy Corbyn, the man who had represented Islington North as MP for over thirty years, was elected as leader of the Labour party, a decision that, for better or for worse, would fundamentally alter the course of British political history.
Corbyn’s victory sent shockwaves through the political establishment. A lifelong socialist and anti-imperialist campaigner, Jeremy Corbyn was a stalwart of the near-dormant radical left-wing of the Labour party, a wing that had been sidelined since Michael Foot’s crushing defeat by Margaret Thatcher in 1983, the same year Corbyn was elected into Parliament for the first time.
On December 12 2019 history repeated itself as the Labour party, now firmly refashioned in Jeremy Corbyn’s image, after denying Theresa May a majority in 2017, was humiliated by Boris Johnson’s Conservative party, who were returned to Parliament with a 79-seat majority.
Speaking shortly after he was returned to Parliament as MP for Islington North, the Labour leader announced he would stand down.
Today, in the aftermath of that defeat, we will assess what went wrong for Jeremy Corbyn, the man, and for Corbynism, the movement, as we interrogate what lies ahead for the future of British politics, and for the future of the Labour party.
As I am sure is true with many of the guests we’ll be talking to throughout the series, Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party had a profound impact on my view of British politics.
While to many people in Britain in 2015 Corbyn was an unknown quantity, his brand of foreign policy activism as chair of the campaign group Stop the War Coalition, had led to bitter disagreements with journalists and activists covering foreign policy, myself included.
Those disagreements were often down to irreconcilable differences with regards to how we each view the world, and ultimately, Labour’s failure to adequately address many of these concerns led to the downfall of the project.
In trying to conduct a post-mortem of Corbynism, I seek not only to understand the reasons Corbynism failed at the ballot box, but also to understand the political conditions that led to its ascension in the first place and what lessons can be learned from that for the future.
I hope that over the course of this series that my guests and I can also explore our own relationships with Corbynism, to reflect on the things we got right, the things we got wrong and what impact the end of Corbyn’s political project will have on the country as a whole.
So without further ado, it gives me great pleasure to introduce the first guests of the series for a discussion about one of the defining issues for understanding how Corbynism became utterly toxic as a brand – Labour’s institutional antisemitism crisis.
First we have Adam Wagner, a barrister acting in the EHRC investigation into Labour antisemitism for complainant, we have Adam Langlaben, former Labour Councillor in Barnet, and Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland.
Hello, thanks for joining me on the show.
Jonathan Freedland – 03:35
Adam Langlaben – 03:36
Oz Katerji – 03:37
Thanks. So I’m going to start with Adam Langlaben, you were there from the early days of Corbynism, can you talk us through Corbyn’s election as Labour leader and the events that led up to it?
Adam Langlaben – 03:44
During the 2015 leadership contest, so let’s start before that. Ed Miliband lost. And I played a part in that loss in the fact that I voted for Ed Miliband, something I now deeply regret because I think that led us to this point. Ed Miliband lost and we went into a Labour leadership contest, same time, there was a mayoral selection contest for London. So I was working on Tessa Jowell’s campaign to be mayor of London and Tessa started off as the clear frontrunner to win the selection and it was Sadiq Khan, and David Lammy and Diane Abbott, and because it was running consecutively alongside the Labour leadership contest, I kind of had a front row seat on how the vote shifted throughout.
And it became clear to me that not only were people joining the Labour Party from the hard left, but also there was a serious appetite for a fresh start. And Jeremy Corbyn represented that fresh start, primarily, I think, because he was up against people who looked and sounded boring and tired. But the consequence of that on the contest I was helping run for Tessa was Sadiq was able to place himself as sort of the semi-Corbyn candidate at the time, although I don’t think he is. And I think he would reject that. And I think it’s probably unfair for me for me to even say that now.
But about three or four weeks into the contest, it became clear, whereby the first few weeks calling up members, Tessa was way ahead. We felt it will be the same for another moderate candidate. And then suddenly I think is actually around the time of the votes on benefit changes.
And the moment that I think Harriet Harman issued the whip to vote with the government on those changes, and that was when everything changed, everything, and the membership and the new people who joined decided they wanted to completely break from everyone who was already there. So, so that was sort of when you could feel something was changing. And then over the course of that summer, history was written and Jeremy Corbyn while landslide and everything changed.
Oz Katerji – 06:06
Jonathan, before he became a frontrunner, what was your reaction to the campaign and to Jeremy Corbyn putting himself forward?
Jonathan Freedland – 06:12
What I do remember very well, the feeling that this was just going to be another going through the motions run by the campaign group. Remember in 2010 Diane Abbott had been the candidate I think came bottom of the poll, then earlier in the Gordon Brown-period, Gordon Brown, in some ways did not want to contest to take over from Tony Blair. But what they thought there might be was that he would just, you know, crush with a sort of light sweep of his fingers, John McDonnell and McDonnell couldn’t get the nominations. So that never happened. But they did do once a TV debate, which is, you know, you have to be a nerd among nerds to have seen that. But there was a TV debate in 2007.
So this felt like it was the ritual candidacy of the Far Left. And in fact, I’m told that in the meeting of the campaign group, they sat around thinking, ‘well somebody is going to have to do it’. And McDonnell said he couldn’t do it because of heart trouble. And Diane Abbott said, ‘well, I did it last time’, and anyway, she wanted to have a go at the London mayoralty. And they sat around and then Jeremy Corbyn himself said ‘well I’ll do it’, and I’m told people sort of looked at their feet slightly sort of awkwardly a bit, you know, and who wants to tell him that obviously, it can’t be him, because he was known even among that group, and I’m told that there were 20 people in there.
I’ve been told by one of the ones, member people who’s in the room, that he was, you know, the sort of the fourth choice, even then among 20 people, and they thought, so okay if he wants to do it… And the reason, by the way, they were hesitant was they, among his fellow campaign group people, they didn’t think his reputation was… was of being somebody who wasn’t that bright. Means well, but not the sharpest pencil in the box. And so they sort of shrugged and went, alright, okay, you do it. And in fact Diane Abbott announced it before, they were fully ready, there were some people there who still wanted to think about and she tweeted, ‘Jeremy Corbyn is the campaign group candidate’.
And so then he was, but there was some who were ready to try and talk him out of it because they didn’t think it would end well. My reaction at the time was okay, this is the ritual candidate and then to the limited extent I ever had thought about him, I was aware of him and I think this is important.
Anybody who has any kind of even passing interest in the Israel-Palestine issue, knew of Jeremy Corbyn simply because he would be on the platform at any meeting, no matter how small. So you know, if it was Enfield socialists for Palestine, you would have three names of people you’ve never heard of. And the fourth would be Jeremy Corbyn. And you know, I’m sure he had a season ticket to Friends House. You know, he was there. I would say, I would think it’s not an exaggeration. See, he probably did three or four, Israel-Palestine-related meetings a week, for 20 years. I think it’s, you know, if it’s not that number, it will be somewhere close to that. So if you were aware of this issue, you were aware of him.
And particularly, and I want to make this clear, there are lots of people who are very interested in Israel-Palestine, you know, Richard Burden MP, Peter Hain, who nobody would have any kind of problem with because, you know, they are just really principled campaigners for Palestinian rights, which, you know, I would say, I would want to include myself in that kind of category.
Corbyn you knew was different because of the kinds of people he had appeared with. So he was somebody you were just aware of in your peripheral vision, that if there was some sort of dodgy character around who had a bit of a dodgy record on Jewish issues, antisemitism, if there’s going to be an event, you know, the lineup would very often include Jeremy Corbyn, and that was the level of awareness I had of him. I won’t pretend I thought from the beginning that he would win. But I think what Adam says is right, which is it’s not as if it was a shock come September, by June, July. I remember, you know, Guardian meetings where we were saying, unless something happens, it’s going to be Jeremy Corbyn. So we, you know, you knew that the ground was shifting. But as I say, those of us who have had an eye on this territory for going back to the 80s, we knew of him.
Oz Katerji – 10:04
Adam Wagner, can you tell me about your first impressions of Jeremy Corbyn and his leadership aspirations.
Adam Wagner – 10:09
I don’t remember knowing who he was, until he, and I’m probably not as politically switched on as either Adam or Jonathan. But I don’t remember in 2015 having heard of him before he stood up, and I do keep a sort of peripheral eye on Israel-Palestine issues, but I just don’t, I mean, maybe I’d, in the back of my mind heard of him, but I remember reading about him and thinking, I don’t know very much about this guy, better read up on him.
Oz Katerji – 10:36
No, but I mean that that’s great to hear because in you know, it’s it’s not it’s not just you know, I was quite familiar with him because obviously Israel-Palestine something that’s quite close to my heart so I was familiar with him but I was aware that much, for much of the country, he was seen as this kind of new fresh face even though he’d been in politics since 1983.
Adam Langlaben, can you tell me about when you first started getting worried about antisemitism in the Labour Party? The first inklings of it.
Adam Langlaben – 11:02
I think antisemitism is a consequence of their politics, and is the consequence of decisions that they, that they took. So I think, to really think about where did antisemitism first start with this, you actually have to look at the decisions that were taken. So, the first decision actually, and the blame, I think lies with the moderates who ran the Labour Party before Jeremy… in the run up Jeremy Corbyn’s election in that, by creating an atmosphere whereby anyone who had once tweeted that they voted Green was expelled or suspended or their membership was revoked the Labour Party, it enabled a conspiracy theory to develop around the idea that the Labour establishment are trying to stop people from taking part in Labour Party democracy.
I think that was the sort of root, as the how sort of, this antisemitic conspiratorial thinking started in the party. And since then it simply ballooned. So everything became a conspiracy from that moment, and it was inevitable that it was going to eventually end up with the Jews. However it didn’t take very long. I think the first moment really was where it became clear there was a massive problem, was a year later during the Owen Smith challenge, whereby Owen Smith was essentially being demonised as being essentially a Zionist controlled-puppet trying to take out Jeremy Corbyn. I think, that was sort of the first key moment where there was something big happening. I think, for me, it’s something we may touch on… Actually, the first moment I thought Jeremy Corbyn himself has a problem was when he made some comments about Jonathan Freedland in the Vice documentary.
Oz Katerji – 12:53
So, Jonathan, you were one of the first mainstream journalists on the centre left to flag up the problem with antisemitism that had been developing Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, and in March 2016 you wrote an article called ‘Labour and the left have an antisemitism problem’, with the strapline ‘under Jeremy Corbyn the party has attracted many activists with views hostile to Jews. Its leaders must see why this matters’.
I’ve got a clip here that we can take a listen to of what Jeremy Corbyn said about you following the publication of that article, which was filmed in a Vice documentary called Jeremy Corbyn: The Outsider…
Jeremy Corbyn – 13:25
The one thing I’ve learned over the past six months or so is how shallow, facile and ill-informed many of the supposedly well informed major commentators are in our media. They shape a debate that is baseless and narrow.
VICE Narrator – 13:43
In a conversation with Seumas Milne, his head of strategy, it’s clear Jeremy sees an article from a leading political economist as the latest attack.
Jeremy Corbyn – 13:52
“The big negative today is Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian. Jonathan Freedland article in the Guardian, it’s antisemitism… Labour has a problem with antisemitism under Corbyn. Utterly disgusting, subliminal nastiness, the whole lot of it, you know… He’s not a good guy at all, but he’s kind of, he seems kind of obsessed with me, you know?”
Oz Katerji – 14:21
So, first things first, how did you feel when you first heard him say that?
Jonathan Freedland – 14:28
Well, it’s very funny you’ve got me on this because I have made a point of never saying a word about this. I never tweeted about it when it happened. I’ve never written about it, I’ve never mentioned it, so this is the first time I’ve ever talked about it…
Oz Katerji – 14:38
Oh it’s a first!
Jonathan Freedland – 14:39
It’s a first. I didn’t… Quite why I decided not to do that, but I didn’t. I was quite shaken by it. I mean, a lot of people, you know, the first I knew about it was, I remember it was during the children’s half term, and we were away and I woke up later than normal. There was a text that said ‘badge of honour!’, and then there were several more like that, in that vein.
Adam Wagner – 15:02
Was that from your Mossad handler?
Jonathan Freedland – 15:05
No, that was from a Guardian colleague. And ‘badge of honour’, and I thought what are they referring to? and I said ‘what do you mean?’…I realised some people think those two categories of Mossad handler…
Adam Wagner – 15:17
I was going to say!
Jonathan Freedland – 15:18
…and Guardian colleague… might be the same thing…
Adam Wagner – 15:19
I mean, it wasn’t really a denial was it!
Jonathan Freedland – 15:20
There is no Mossad handler! No, I got that message, and I thought, what are they referring to? And I, you know, then eventually somebody said, look it’s this Vice film and I watched it. I was quite shaken by it, for a few reasons. I mean, the first is that he’s in conversation with a former colleague of mine, Seamus Milne, and Seamus and I had sat next to each other at The Guardian for 10-15 years, we were, you know, very friendly. And so, it was quite unsettling to hear. I think when you heard that in exchange, it can only be understood that Seumas Milne has said to Jeremy Corbyn, he’s not a good guy. And you know, we had been in each other’s homes and known each other for a long time. So that was a bit of a shock.
I found it, even at the time quite funny, this idea that somebody who is leader of the opposition thinks that if a columnist is writing about them, they must have a personal obsession with them! As if you know, you should pay no more interest to them than you would in, you know, some local neighbour. But the main thing about it was the piece in question was so mild. I’m almost embarrassed how timid it is actually now. All I do is very gently say, of course, I spell out, nobody is saying Jeremy Corbyn himself is an antisemite, it’s just we’ve noticed there are these few things and it’d be very easy for you to deal with them. It’s almost sort of unctuously hesitant. It’s a tone that I would then change very much but it’s, it’s just timidly flagging up, there is a potential problem here, you know, you can deal with it now, and then it won’t be a problem anymore.
And to have that response: utterly disgusting, subliminal nastiness, is so telling, that actually becomes a part of the sort of case file against Corbyn. Because it shows that even when he was warned that there was a problem, his reaction was not to be outraged by the problem, but to be outraged by the person sounding the alarm. And the last thing say on it is, in parallel, in the same programme, he is confronted with evidence of something Ken Livingstone has said, when Ken Livingstone had sounded off that ‘Hitler supports Zionism’ and all this… and he’s pushed to say something condemnatory about it and the strongest language he can manage is to say Ken has made some inappropriate remarks maybe. So actual antisemitism is perhaps inappropriate, sounding the alarm about antisemitism is utterly disgusting, subliminal nastiness.
We can deconstruct a little bit more the word, the use of the word subliminal, which I think is a fascinating word to have used, as if Jews don’t say things overtly, they say them in a kind of the language of the hypnotist, that it’s somehow subliminal. So that’s fascinating. And then the last thing I would say about it is it was all in the piece that he was so frantic about, all I was doing was, as an aside, was mentioning that he himself had had a few things in his back catalogue that he needed to address that he could address which actually I’d written about even the very week he was elected. And those are the episodes of, you know, Paul Eisen who was a Holocaust denier. Most people ran a mile from Paul Eisen when Paul Eisen outed himself as a Holocaust denier, in 2008, only one person kept on going to Paul Eisen-organised events when everyone else didn’t want to be in the same room. And that was Jeremy Corbyn. So the signs were there, but I very hesitantly and mildly put them together, and you heard his response.
Break – 18:35
Oz Katerji – 18:52
Adam Wagner, a big part of the problem with the crisis seemed to be that it got further exacerbated by the culture of denial surrounding the party. Do you think Jeremy Corbyn’s personal dismissals of the problem contributed to this culture?
Adam Wagner – 19:04
Yeah, I mean, I think that well, there’s a couple of things to say about that. The first thing is, I think that one of the features of this entire issue has been that denial is a kind of part of the centrifuge, which creates more antisemitism. Because there’s a premise underlying most of the denials. And the premise is that the Jewish community is making this up, and exaggerating, and doing it for its own sort of insidious reasons. Whether because of this, of its being in cahoots with the State of Israel, and therefore, it’s all about Corbyn’s Palestinian advocacy, or because they’re money-grabbing, you know, tax-avoiding people who are frightened of a socialist government, but either way, that in itself creates an antisemitic environment.
I think it’s at the heart, in a way of what’s happened, and why it’s gone from a few, why it’s accelerated and become something much bigger than a few antisemitic posts on Facebook or, you know, on Twitter. It’s this atmosphere of denialism, you know, and these organisations like Jewish Voice for Labour and Labour Against The Witchhunt, which were set up to serve that very purpose, to create this atmosphere of denial.
And I think in terms of Jeremy Corbyn, he’s always set the tone of the movement. And people have looked at, you know, it’s quite a personality-driven movement. I don’t, I wouldn’t go as far as saying it’s cultish. Although it, like a lot of political movements, it displays some features of cultishness, but that’s not the heart of it. The heart of it is that if you watch, what was interesting about the interview where he mentioned Jonathan was that he was being filmed and he knew he was being filmed. It wasn’t caught off-camera, you know, an off-the-cuff remark. He knew he was being filmed and he said it anyway. And I think that there’s a whole range of other interviews he’s given. And now if you cut out all of the times, he’s reading off a script, so the face-to-camera videos, or the articles that, you know, his team write for him, and that are obviously written by his team. And if you only look at his interviews, what he thinks is very clear, and I’ve tried to, you know, give attention to those.
He talks about Luciana Berger being threatened at party conference. And Jon Snow is saying, you know, here’s a picture of her with police. He says ‘nobody, nobody’s under any threat at the at this conference, nobody’. And over and over again you see, you saw it finally with Andrew Neill, and I think that was the kind of straw that broke the donkey’s back for many people in the public where he just so obviously thinks this is all a media concoction, he thinks it’s a Jewish concoction, he thinks it’s something which has been, for some reason exacerbated because of an agenda against him and that all you know, brings it full circle, back to the interview about about Jonathan really.
Oz Katerji – 22:01
Adam Langlaben, a lot of our followers from America and other places are going to compare what’s happening in the UK with some of the accusations that have been aimed at Senator Bernie Sanders. My personal feeling is that that they are very different situations and most of the attacks against Sanders on this issue seem to be totally baseless and made in bad faith. How would you compare the two?
Adam Langlaben – 22:19
I think there’s very little similarity between Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, at all. I think that both movements like to feed on each other as examples of success or failure. But Bernie Sanders is far more mainstream than Jeremy Corbyn in lots of respects. Equally, the problems the Labour Party have with antisemitism, whilst parts of it are definitely transferable, and we have been seeing similarities with grassroots programmes/initiatives in the States. It’s rooted in it in a very British antisemitism of the British hard left, I’m not quite sure that you’ve got the same apparatus for it to sort of take off in the States in the same way that it has in the UK.
Oz Katerji – 23:11
So what do you think British antisemitism on the Left is like? What are the unique sort of elements of it?
Adam Langlaben – 23:16
I think it’s an odd curiosity of White old men who think that they’re educated, who think that they’re anti-racist, and, and therefore, have zero ability whatsoever to spot it.
Jonathan Freedland – 23:32
I so want to come in on this. I think this is completely fascinating to me. First of all, I agree that the parallel between Sanders and Corbyn is non-existent. In fact, I’ve covered Sanders in 2016 in New Hampshire and wrote a piece afterwards saying, trying to channel Lloyd Bentsen to Dan Quayle, you know, ‘Jeremy you’re no Senator Bernie Sanders’, because there’s no comparison. First of all just in ability and charisma and all those things. Obviously on Israel. Bernie Sanders is a very proud identifying Jew you and is supportive of Israel’s right to exist, but the main thing I think is Sanders is obsessed with domestic policy about the economy and about health care and those things. And foreign policy is a real gap in Bernie Sanders.
The absolute opposite is true, I mean, Jeremy Corbyn loves this thing about being the foreign minister of the Left, that was his reputation. But he and people close to him, a lot of them, you know, barely bothered with talking about or writing about, campaigning on the NHS or social care. This is, what got Jeremy Corbyn out of bed in the morning was Israel, number one, and then Israel-Palestine, Venezuela, imperialism…
Oz Katerji – 24:37
Jonathan Freedland – 24:38
America, Iran. These are the things that he’s in politics for. And I think that became a big miscalculation through the whole period. And we’re obviously going to come on to later periods, but there were moments where people thought, why is he not just for his own political self-interest, closing this down?
And John McDonnell, I think felt like that. Just say whatever is needed to make this thing go away, like the IHRA definition. And then, but as somebody who has met, known them and known some of his closest aides for a very long time, I never thought they would close this down, because this is why they’re in politics. That time when they met for the IHRA meeting in the September after the so called ‘summer of antisemitism’. Everybody in the room, NEC allies of Corbyn were thinking ‘just make this go away’. Corbyn turns up with this page-and-a-half new definition. Anyone normal is thinking, ‘you’re mad, stop spending energy on this’, but he does it because this is why he’s in politics. Almost, forget NHS and social care, railways. I’m not interested in that, this is what I’m in politics for.
Adam Langlaben – 25:36
There’s another example of that, which is just literally in the first week of the campaign. Labour spent the first week talking about Bolivia, and what was going on. For the average person living in West Bromwich East. Like, they will not have a clue. I think I have a sort of decent knowledge of international politics and I haven’t got a clue about what’s going on in Bolivia.
Jonathan Freedland – 26:00
But you are right and I just wanted to mention your point about English middle class because I think that is really right. I’ve mentioned particularly a couple of times the point about Israel-Palestine, I want to be really clear. Nobody has a problem with somebody being a Palestinian rights campaigner.
I think often they try to say Labour, the Corbynite people, oh your problem is that Jeremy is just too passionate a supporter Palestinian rights. No. Hence my exemption, and in fact, admiration for Richard Burden, Peter Hain, these longtime pro-Palestinian campaigners, the beef people had with Jeremy Corbyn was almost nothing to do with Israel-Palestine, it was often quite old-school, English country-house antisemitism.
The moment when he said, ‘some of these Zionists no matter how long they’ve lived here, even if they’re born here, they don’t understand English irony’. There wasn’t a Jew in the country who hadn’t heard at some point… You know, if they’re a woman, the boyfriend’s aged-father, or the girlfriend’s aged-father, who you’re there at breakfast the first weekend you’re staying with him, who makes a remark like that, that makes you feel hot around your neck, because he’s saying you don’t really belong here. You know? And even if you’re born here, the English irony.
It’s a tiny thing. But my phone started buzzing during that TV debate when he said ‘Epshtein’ because we all know people like that, old English sort of posh people who foreignise Jewish names, and he’s such a type Jeremy Corbyn.
He’s so much like a sort of blue-blazered country club, 70-year-old, grew up in Shropshire antisemite, and I once said this at a Guardian morning conference and I said there’s nothing left wing about his antisemitism, he’s like Farage antisemitism, you can imagine how that how well that went down. You know, that’s what I thought about him. I thought I know what type you are. You know, those people who listen to Any Questions and sort of, say Jewish people’s names, ‘Goldstein’ or whatever, you know, it’s a particular type and he is absolutely it. There’s nothing cool and nothing left wing about it. He’s just a creature of the public school, manor house that he was brought up in, upbringing, and I think Jews saw that in him, even as everyone else around the country thought he was Che Guevara. We thought, no, you’re not, you’re that bloke in the 19th hole of the golf course, who doesn’t really like Jews very much.
Oz Katerji – 28:15
Adam, how did that start affecting you on the doorstep when you were talking to Jews in your constituency?
Adam Langlaben – 28:22
So the first sort of major electoral test was 2016, and Sadiq Khan’s election for the London mayoralty. And it was a live issue at that point in time, and people were beginning to raise it. But the swing voters had already sort of at that point moved away, to be fair, most of them had moved away in 2015, a year earlier. The difference was people, those same voters who had already moved away from the Labour Party, had begun to raise this as one of their issues. So bringing them back was not, was not going to happen. However, in 2016 the Jewish Labour vote was still sizable, and it held, and Sadiq Khan won the election.
He didn’t win in Barnet, but he didn’t lose by a huge amount. And that’s quite, quite important. And it’s because Sadiq was clear about identifying the issue. And, and from the moment it became a public issue, dedicated himself to being on the right side, of history I guess. Going on a year, and things progressively got worse, and it got to the point by 2018, in my election, whereby you could no longer knock on a door, with a mezuzah, with a Jewish scripture on it, without either the person opening the door bursting into tears about, about being politically homeless, or being sworn at, or being called a racist, or being chased off of their front garden. It was the most depressing experience in my life, and I never want to do that ever again.
Oz Katerji – 30:13
Adam W, can you tell me about when you first started to think that there might be a legal problem of discrimination here in the Labour party?
Adam Wagner – 30:22
I got involved in this issue, I don’t really remember when it was, it feels like a thousand years ago, but I guess it was a couple of years ago, I was fairly late, late in the day. And the reason was, I probably like, I think there was, there’s a, if you’re not a sort of political obsessive and you’re, how quickly you buttoned on to this kind of issue is probably depending on where you were in the political spectrum.
So if you were on the right, I think your confirmation bias would immediately start, you’d start seeing it and seeing and reading the criticisms. But I think I probably, maybe I read one of Jonathan’s articles and I started to look at it and I thought, I realised, there wasn’t really anybody, or at least there were a few people on the Jewish left, and I consider myself very much on the Jewish left, who was looking at this issue from the perspective of, not, of understanding the movement and why the movement was so valuable and exciting and also couldn’t be said, well, you know, they are just sort of right wing on Israel, so that’s their point.
But also was looking at it from a human rights, legal perspective and I felt like that was something which was missing. I tried to, through Twitter, start getting involved and start engaging with people and start understanding the issue and I met with lots of people actually, I met lots of people in you know, in my chambers, I spoke to lots of people on the phone, from in the movement, from Momentum, from Labour itself, from Corbyn’s office, and just tried my best to understand what was going on, because I thought it needs to be understood, this is really serious if it’s true. And as things went on, I realised that there was a real problem, you know, and probably later, much later than Adam and the Jewish people in the Jewish Labour Movement who had been experiencing it at the coalface.
Oz Katerji – 32:18
Jonathan, you would have had a lot of experience because these are issues you raised through your Guardian column. As a Left-leaning British newspaper, many of the people reading it are of course Labour supporters. What was the reaction like towards you for discussing the crisis from some of Corbyn’s very online fans and from pro-Corbyn blue-tick media pundits? Was there a culture of hostility and denial that contributed to the atmosphere that we found ourselves in?
Jonathan Freedland – 32:43
That’s interesting. It was definitely, you know, tough and that period, I won’t pretend it wasn’t. There was a lot of hostility, a lot of the assumption that it was all made-up, that it was smears, that it was said with ulterior motives, obviously, you know, direction of a foreign power, all of that stuff. Blue-ticks, I would say they tended to be fairly respectful, I was pretty restrained. I mean, that’s the thing. I think other people were really out there and pushing the boundaries. I was very, very careful.
I often really couch things, tremendously cautiously, benefit of the doubt, and I used to have this formulation that Jeremy Corbyn is not an antisemite, he just looks past antisemitism when it comes from a source he deems ideologically sound. And I stuck to that formulation for quite a long time, and eventually sort of stopped using it because I thought, we’re slightly into walks like a duck, quacks like a duck territory now, so it became, it felt redundant.
But no, I felt as if, if I’m truthful, I think it was quite a lot of people, as you mentioned, blue-ticks, wanted to be sort of respectful to the position. And because, I hope that, you know, I’m thought of as a fairly sort of cautious kind of, you know, not kind of wild source and commentator. So people would say things like, if what you were saying were true, it would be so desperately serious. Of course, we would all have to resign the Labour Party and so these are very serious questions.
But in the end they are not, really, you know, we don’t in the end, it’s, it’s, we’re just on, foot falls on the right side of the line. So there was a lot of that kind of, this is awful, I’m so ashamed, so embarrassed, but I’m sticking with it, you know. Because I think it would have been too much cognitive dissonance for them to say, ‘here is racism, I am an anti-racist, yet, I am tolerating this’. So they would have, one of those bits would have to go, and usually the way it would be is, ‘that’s not really racism, there’s a there’s a reason’. You know, the English irony example, they were identified as Zionists, not Jews, and therefore somehow it’s not quite as bad. People try and find ways out of it, they didn’t really want to have to confront it.
So that was, you know, that was the best version, the more, the uglier version, was just to become this sort of lightning rod for Corbynite rage at the mainstream media, Corbynite rage at The Guardian. And I have to say, I think the cue for it was that Vice video, because, truth is about Corbyn is he very rarely speaks negatively about anyone. He doesn’t really, he never really attacks Theresa May or Boris Johnson. You know, when he was next to the melting ice sculpture, he wouldn’t say anything negative about it. One of the only people he’s ever been actually negative about, in terms of really getting the vocabulary out, you know, utterly disgusting, was me. And so therefore that did sort of paint a sign on my back where people thought, St. Jeremy has allowed us to slag off this guy. And so I think a few people did do that. And because I was giving them news that they didn’t want to hear they wanted to believe this man was some kind of saintly figure who had come to redeem the country and I was out there saying but just look at he’s been friends with, look at what he’s ignored, look what he’s condoned, look what he’s never done.
And just lastly, one thing is, the most striking thing about this whole period is, he never ever called out any of this stuff. It would have been so easy to do one little quote-tweet of a horrible antisemitic tweet by someone with three followers and to say ‘I’m disgusted by this, not in my name’. To my knowledge, he never once did that, it was the smallest thing. So therefore, I think people didn’t want to be told it and they took out some of the stress and angst on me.
Adam Langlaben – 36:14
I think Jonathan just touched on the key, the key problem with Corbynism, if there is a thing called Corbynism, which is, it is completely and utterly vacuous, it doesn’t exist. There’s no such thing as Corbynism, because Corbyn never said anything of substance. He enabled whatever he says to be so vague, that it allows his supporters to decide whatever they want, and to give his supporters permission to say and do whatever they want, because there was no red lines, he wasn’t saying yes or no to anything. And actually, his silence and his cult following is what enabled the growth of conspiracy theory and antisemitism in the Labour Party.
Break – 36:53
Oz Katerji – 37:09
Earlier this year was announced that Labour was being investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission for potential violations of discrimination law.
The Jewish Labour Movement prepared a 58-page long submission to the EHRC cataloguing the evidence, which was leaked to me and other journalists from the Times and the BBC, which I would later publish a redacted version of. It is an utterly damning read that spells real trouble for Labour if the allegations are proven.
Adam Langlaben, I believe you helped write part of the submission. Can you tell me some of the most egregious examples that you came across and talk about why was this document was created?
Adam Langlaben – 37:43
So I think, I think, so what was published during the election campaign was the closing submission of the Jewish Labour Movement. This has actually been a year, year-and-a-half in the works. And it originally came from a submission thousands of pages long, coming from hundreds of Labour party members who’ve been affected directly from antisemitism the party, coming from staff who’d spoken to us, coming from MPs.
And that initial document alongside other submissions to the Equality and Human Rights Commission from the Campaign Against Antisemitism, amongst others, is what triggered them to decide that the threshold had been reached to hold an investigation. And it’s important to note that the investigation is the highest level of investigation the EHRC can pursue. And it’s only ever been launched once and the BNP is the example everyone’s using, but actually the Metropolitan Police is the only other time that level investigation has been launched against an organisation.
I’ll give an example. Which was a young man who was working in the leaders’ office, who described to us that the moment that certain individuals, who may or may not have shared an office with Jonathan Freedland, the moment they found out that this young man was Jewish, he faced an inquisition, about his views on the Middle East, simply by virtue of being a Jew.
Now, no one else from any other faith or race, racial background was was asked to prove themselves in that way.
And I think sort of it’s a really good example as to actually the worldview of the leadership and now large swathes of the movement, is if you’re a Jew, you’ve got to prove you’re the right kind of Jew, you are their kind of Jew, and if you can’t prove that, then actually you are the enemy.
Oz Katerji – 39:42
Adam Wagner, can you talk me through the legal side of the JLM submission? And if the allegations are proven, what do you think it means for Labour’s position on this?
Adam Wagner – 39:50
Legally, the thing to understand about the investigation is that it, the powers that the Equality and Human Rights Commission have are to investigate breaches of the Equality Act in, from a person, so that could be an individual or company or a political party.
And that, so they’ll be looking at, have people been discriminated against, directly or indirectly, have people been harassed within the legal definition, and have people been victimised, which means to be treated worse, because they’ve raised a complaint, which, you know, in the Labour Party has been a major issue.
And, you know, the thing about the JLM submission, which I read in detail was I think, almost none of it was new. And I don’t mean that in a disparaging way. I mean, a lot of it had come out in the past couple of years because they’ve been, they’ve been very public issues. They’ve been fully addressed in the press. The Labour Party had responded usually saying, this is all, you know, we’re doing everything we can to to fight antisemitism or whatever, or saying these are, you know, disaffected people with grudges to bear and that’s why they’re raising these complaints.
So, almost all of what was in there, what was useful about it in terms of the period it came in was it stitched it all together as a long, grim, you know, very difficult to read story, which for a lot of people who haven’t followed this obsessively like, I’m, you know, with no disrespect intended, probably the four people in this room have, it put it together in its full, dispiriting, depressing, upsetting way and if, you know, if a number of those incidents are shown to have been discrimination or harassment or victimisation, I think there’s a reasonable argument for that, then I think that that will be very serious for the Labour Party.
But you know, in a way, the law is only, is for me following, is behind, because what’s happened has happened and has caused four years of hurt and harm.
Oz Katerji – 42:00
I’m going to come to Jonathan shortly about the reaction, but I just wanted to come back to you, Adam Langlaben. Again, a lot of people listening to this might still be you know, denying that the problem is as serious as some have, as it’s been reported, and they’ll say well lots of it is about Israel-Palestine, you know, but there were some very, very serious examples in that submission, including, I believe Holocaust deniers standing for the Labour Party, have been, you know, allowed to stand for the Labour Party. And the reaction to those Holocaust deniers standing from senior Labour Party figures was, how should we put it…
Adam Langlaben – 42:39
Didn’t care, or it wasn’t enough of an issue to stop them from standing. And in some cases, senior figures intervened to try and help the Holocaust deniers remain party members. I think what’s, there’s the legal argument of how this goes with the EHRC but there’s a political argument. And I think the EHRC documents, the closing submission of the JLM, what it shows is that these people are liars. Like they’re hypocrites and they’re liars and they’re fundamentally corrupt and their corrupt politics is what has enabled everything to happen since then.
So the key example I would say is summer 2018. Everything’s going absolutely crazy in terms of IHRA, in terms of the Labour Party saying ‘We’re dealing with all these cases, it’s all fine, it’s all being sorted out. We don’t interfere, the leaders’ office don’t interfere, we sort of take a step back and we let the party processes just happen’.
But then we have a whistleblower in the party, a member of staff, a very, very brave member of staff, who disclosed to us that they were ordered by Jeremy Corbyn’s most senior aide to put all of their antisemitism cases onto USB sticks in Southside in Labour Party HQ, this person who works in the governance unit, to physically march them over to Jeremy Corbyn’s office in Parliament to then distribute the cases, to members of his team to make recommendations as to what should happen to these people.
And then was told never talk about this to your colleagues, and we want you to use personal email addresses to make sure that there’s no record whatsoever of this ever happening.
Oz Katerji – 44:24
Adam W can you tell me, is that standard procedure for political party’s governance unit?
Adam Wagner – 44:31
It’s standard procedure for an institution where the leadership wants to, you know, get away with something. And it seems like, I mean look, I take a slightly different perspective than Adam’s. In a way, although I don’t totally disagree with him. But I think of this less as a political, you know, political culture of something to do with the far left, although it maybe, I guess I’m not the best person say that.
I look at it from an institutional perspective. I’ve been involved in lots of cases over my career involving institutions that have gone horribly wrong. And you, I mean, the one that keeps coming up in my head, actually in relation to this as I acted in the Mid Staffordshire hospital inquiry for the Department of Health, so that was a case where a hospital had, over 400 more people had died in a hospital than had meant to be and this is had completely, the hospital in Staffordshire had just completely broken down. And to the extent that people were being told, you know, if you haven’t got a glass of water by you, ‘we can’t bring you a glass of water, but there’s a vase next to your bed, why don’t you drink from that?’
And it was kind of, you know, it was unbelievable, and there was an inquiry, a public inquiry, because there was a, in not dissimilar to ‘I’m a lifelong anti-racist, how can I be an antisemite?’ There was a real sense of well, these are doctors and nurses, none of them wake up in the morning and think ‘I’m going to go and kill people’, you know, unless you’re a psychopath, like Harold Shipman, you know, a complete outlier.
Most, the vast majority of medical nurses and doctors and healthcare assistants want to go and help people and save people. How do you get from there to, there are you know hundreds of people dying who shouldn’t be, people are drinking out of vases, you know, people are being left to rot in their beds. And it comes down, and what the inquiry found is it comes down to institutional culture. And institutional culture is not something that, it doesn’t happen overnight, it happens over many years where people aren’t held to account.
Where the senior management start to do bad things and then look after each other rather than hold each other to account. Where there isn’t, where there is a breakdown of civility and humanity and empathy and all it’s all common. And I looked at the Labour Party and reading up and I’ve read and lots of detail about what happened, it just seems to me like an institution, which is, where the culture has eroded away, you know, this, that there is this lack of empathy.
There’s a everybody’s out to get everybody else. There’s no trust. There’s no, there’s no accountability. There’s no, everything’s about who wins and who loses. And I think that is my impression based on no research at all about why people saw antisemitism as an issue in the election. And I’ve seen research says that they, a lot of people switch from Labour to the Tories saw it as quite an important issue, something like 17%,
Adam Langlaben – 47:36
Adam Wagner – 47:37
Yep, so it’s 16%. So as a really important issue, second only to Brexit. And I think what people cottoned on to, I don’t think people have a great love for Jewish people, most people don’t know Jewish people, we are only 250,000 people – I think they saw something which they recognised from the bad work, you know, we’ve all worked in bad workplaces. We’ve all worked with abusive bosses.
And I think they saw that in the Labour Party, and they understood that that’s not, we don’t want these people running the country, and I really believe it is, it does come down to that.
Oz Katerji – 48:06
So Jonathan, for me personally, after publishing the JLM submission, I noticed a real change in attitude from certain people that had been really hesitant to acknowledge the problem before. With the mountain of evidence before them, if it finally seemed to be like that gut punch they denied was coming, even after the Panorama documentary, which only scratched the surface of the allegations.
Do you think the submission marked a turning point in the discourse, and what impact do you think the antisemitism issue in Labour had on their electoral chances?
Jonathan Freedland – 48:33
Well, first of all, on the EHRC, I might be in a slightly different place from you because I think there were two or three moments in this election campaign where the Jewish and antisemitism issues were centre stage. I’m not sure the EHRC one was quite the defining moment as you’ve cast it. I think two or three moments, so there was a letter from a whole lot of I think crucially non-Jewish people of influence, John le Carré and Antony Beevor and Joanna Lumley, which sort of cut through the, here were people, John le Carré particularly was such as sort of Channel 4 News, sort of Jon Snow lefty-figure, it was quite a surprise for people saying ‘I’m not voting Labour’. So that was a big moment.
I think the Chief Rabbi’s intervention was huge. I think that cut through to a whole lot of people who don’t follow regular politics, the sort of Jeremy Vine audience-type people, they understand religious figures never say stuff like that. That had a huge impact. The JLM thing came relatively late in the campaign, and I would suspect that by then people’s minds had been more or less made up. And partly because it had staked out, although I agree you are absolutely right Oz, in less detail, it had been staked out by Panorama. So that notion that the Labour leadership office are meddling was already sort of known even before then.
And the reason why I partly say that about how late it came in the campaign is that I did do some reporting around the country where, you know, in different ways, but one of the things I did was to eavesdrop on focus groups that I’d had no role in convening or moderating, so I was just listening to what came up anyway. And these were in places where there are no Jews, you know, so one was in Newcastle-under-Lyme just outside Stoke, a seat incidentally that had switched from Labour to Conservative. And people who were obviously, obviously themselves not Jewish, but knew no Jews were nevertheless affronted by the antisemitism.
And I think it worked on two levels, the most mild it was, this has been on the news for four years, what kind of leader still hasn’t dealt with it?
I don’t even know what it is really. But I just know that it’s gone on and on and on and any competent person, you know, a head teacher or something, if there was an issue about a leaking radiator, and you were still hearing about it four years later, you’d say they’re obviously useless because it should have been dealt with.
But the second level I thought was really interesting, which was, and I think it makes British Jews feel, it should make British Jews feel differently and positively about some of their countrymen, which is, I think even people who don’t know Jewish people, very well have a very limited knowledge, particularly of Jewish life, but they have a, they know that it was connected with the Second World War. They may have, sort of be vaguely familiar with Anne Frank’s diary, and they basically know that good people don’t hate Jews.
And it was as simple as that, you just hear them say, and you know, I heard one man say, ‘and what’s this thing with him slandering the Jews?’, you know, it’s very old-fashioned sort of formulation, but it meant you’re a wrong’un, you know, that that’s those are bad people who think like that. They know that just because one of the defining events of modern Britain was that it stood alone against fascism in 1940. People know what side you’re meant to be on. The idea that this man just couldn’t do enough to make it go away.
And then the sort of emblematic moment of that was that interview with Andrew Neil. Two things I think people who understand antisemitism were gobsmacked when Andrew Neil reads out a sentence which most people would know was antisemitic, ‘Rothschilds control world governments’ and Andrew Neil says to him, as if a preamble to a next question, can we agree that’s antisemitic? And Corbyn can’t agree. Right, which is all these episodes rolled into one, it’s the mural that he can’t see that the mural is antisemitic, it’s the man next to him who says that Jews drink the blood of Christian children and he says ‘you deserve tea on the Commons Terrace’.
It was that, on TV, in you know, on BBC One at seven o’clock, the leader of the opposition who would be prime minister literally can’t recognise that when it’s read to him. But the second piece of it was, can you apologise and he can’t, and so even people who know nothing think, that’s just not right really. And that very, you know, one should not be, one should be wary of romanticising one’s fellow citizens. But the idea that people who are not steeped in it like us, on some level just knew that that isn’t right. And they recoiled from it. And hence the polling numbers that Adam is saying, you know, it was a factor.
Even if people didn’t have a nuanced way, I have to say Jewishly I’m very relieved, it wasn’t the main factor. I don’t think for anyone, Brexit and Corbyn’s leadership in general, you know, the size of the victory… It wasn’t because of that, but it played into an ocean. He’s a bit of a wrong’un, and all these video clips of him appearing on assorted platforms, I think did also mark him out as an obsessive and even a bit of a crank, that he hung out with these people who pursue these kind of quite obscure obsessions. But in the end, I think it was fed into a notion that he’s just not in the right place.
Oz Katerji – 53:34
Adam Langlaben, what was your experience in bringing these issues forward to the leadership and to senior staff members?
Adam Langlaben – 53:39
So I think I’d sum up JLM’s experiences over the last four years into two phases. The first two years, we came under immense criticism from the Jewish community because we tried to talk and we tried to engage openly and honestly. We tried to meet with Jeremy Corbyn, we met with his staff regularly. We tried to seek if this thing could work.
And then it gets to a point. And actually, the mural was the key moment, where actually, this ain’t working anymore. And actually, however much we’re engaging in good faith, in trying to make this better, to hold Hanukkah parties at Labour HQ, whatever else. These people are simply, they don’t want to fix it, or they don’t have the political will to fix it. And that’s what prompted us to, to go ahead and say actually, this has to be taken out of the Labour Party’s hands and this is why we have to, whereby we think, and we were advised legally that we have a case for the EHRC, and the rest is history.
Oz Katerji – 54:43
Did any senior members of staff concede that the leadership did have a problem with antisemitism?
Adam Langlaben – 54:51
Yeah, I think one senior member of staff in Jeremy Corbyn’s office admitted to me that, that they thought Jeremy Corbyn was an antisemite, but they were going to try and manage it.
Oz Katerji – 55:03
Jonathan Freedland – 55:04
Wow, that’s amazing.
Adam Langlaben – 55:06
This member of staff still works there.
Oz Katerji – 55:08
And a senior Corbynite member of staff?
Adam Langlaben – 55:10
Oz Katerji – 55:14
My final questions to you, Adam Langlaben. What do you think Corbynism got right? What do you think that the Labour Party can learn from Corbynism? What do you think the future holds for the Labour Party now? And what do you think it needs to do to reconnect with the Jewish community in particular?
Adam Langlaben – 55:28
So I think what Corbynism got right was it allowed the Left to talk about Left economics again. And if it wasn’t dirty. Like I’m someone who, I would consider myself of being on the left of the Labour Party, or at least I was, I think probably people don’t think of me as that now. We shouldn’t be averse to talking about nationalising things. If the private sector isn’t working in a certain sector of the economy, then why can’t we have that conversation to talk about, actually, are there different models for operating this service? I think those discussions were closed off during the Blair years and during Ed Miliband’s tenure, broadly.
I think the only benefit really I can see, well I think it is two actually. The only policy benefit has been the ability to talk about these, those economic issues again. In terms of the second thing is, even though the Labour Party has been infected by a number, of a large number of cranks, of old white men and a few antisemitic grandmas, the vast majority of people who joined the Labour Party in 2015 are good people who want to change the world. And actually the key challenge for the Labour Party going forward and for whoever wishes to be the next leader of the Labour Party, whoever is the next leader of the Labour Party, is to channel the energy and the goodwill and the sheer goodness in the vast majority of the half a million members to try and rebuild the Labour Party. I think, I think that is possible. I think they’ve been, for many of them, they’ve been radicalised and it’s a term I don’t use lightly but I think, I think that’s what’s happened over the last four years.
Radicalised to hate people or hate people who’ve got different views to you. But actually, imagine if, if those people, those people’s energies could be challenged away from hating your opponents, or hating certain things, or hating Zionists or hating whatever else, Jews, to actually trying to build, rebuild the Labour Party.
Oz Katerji 57:38
I’d like to thank you all very much for joining us for the first episode of the series and a special thanks to my guests Jonathan Freedland, Adam Wagner and Adam Langlaben for coming down today.
I hope to catch you all next week for Corbynism: The Post-Mortem Episode Two.
If you enjoyed the show and would like to support the project, please head on over to my Patreon account at Patreon.com/OzKaterji where you can subscribe for more.