It’s time for Labour to clean up its act

Published in the Jewish Chronicle, March 17 2005

First, the good news. I spent last Saturday night in a room packed with maybe 700 people, in yet another sell-out event for what is fast becoming one of Britain?s leading literary festivals ? Jewish Book Week.

The bad news? The event in question was a discussion of anti-Semitism. That?s bad news for two reasons. First, because it?s always sad to accentuate the negative. And, second, because right now there?s plenty to discuss.

There was a time when those looking for evidence of Jew-hatred had to search on far-right websites or on the wilder shores of the Arabic press. Alternatively, they could, if they tried hard enough, pick up vague anti-Jew-ish sentiment in dinner-party conversation or in coded remarks in the workplace. Now, though, there?s an easier and more depressing place to look: our government.

The first clue came in a speech last year by the Labour Party chairman Ian McCartney, comparing shadow chancellor Oliver Letwin to Fagin. The reference was brushed aside at the time ? though now, in retrospect, it looks like a warning.

In January, Energy Minister Mike O?Brien wrote an article for The Muslim Weekly. ?Ask yourself what will Michael Howard do for British Muslims?? he wrote. ?Will his foreign policy aim to help Palestine? Will he stand up for the right of Muslim women to wear the hijab?? No problem there, you might say: a Labour minister, wooing Muslim voters by highlighting the long list of policy areas where the Tories were bound to disappoint.

Except the long list of topics mentioned were all areas where Labour and the Tories agree. There was no policy difference to attack. Rather, the piece implied that Michael Howard the man, rather than the Conservative Party, was not to be trusted to help Muslims.

Why might that be? The answer came in the same piece. When addressing Labour?s proposed law outlawing religious hatred, a move designed to please British Muslims, O?Brien mentioned Lib Dem opposition, singling out one MP in particular. Oddly, he chose Evan Harris ? who is not a spokesman on the issue and does not even sit on the Lib Dem front bench.

Why would he do that? The only possible explanation is that Harris, like Howard, is Jewish. O?Brien must have reckoned that that fact alone would turn off some Muslim voters ? and bring them home to Labour.

Next up were the now-notorious flying pig and Fagin posters, trailed on a Labour Party website. I read about these ads before I saw them and was fully ready to dismiss the furore around them as overreaction. That was harder to do once I?d taken a good look.

It?s true that the notion of flying pigs is essentially a joke, but there is something viscerally unpleasant about the faces of human beings superimposed on the bodies of animals. To see the faces of two Jewish men on pigs was especially uncomfortable.

As for the Fagin ad, I was prepared to believe the Labour claims that this was more Svengali or Victorian hypnotist than Fagin ? until I read that the Howard im-age bore an uncanny resemblance to a photograph of the actor Barry Humphries playing Fagin, right down to an identical knot in the watch-chain held by both men.

In other words, whoever made that ad had found a Fagin image, lopped off the head and put on Howard?s instead. In a word: deliberate.

Then, last weekend, cabinet minister Peter Hain took a shot at Howard calling him ?an attack mongrel.? It was an odd phrase to use. Politics speaks of attack dogs or rottweilers and even the occasional terrier. But an attack mongrel? That was a new phrase, specially minted for Howard. Besides its ugly ring, ?mongrel? has a specific meaning. Check the dictionary: it refers to a dog of mixed breeding or a person of mixed race. It?s a way of saying someone has impure blood. I?ve heard the tape and the word is used very deliberately; it is no slip of the tongue.

Now, Hain is an admirable politician with an impeccable record fighting racism, most famously in his struggles against apartheid. So we will take as read that he is no anti-Semite.

What should we say instead? How about this: that for a man who should know a thing or two about race, he was insufficiently sensitive to the resonances of the words he chose.

Maybe that formulation should apply to Labour generally (perhaps taking in Ken Livingstone, too, while we?re at it). But we, and they, should be aware that that?s a very charitable reading of the last few month?s events. A less generous view is also possible.

That would say that Labour is guilty either of voicing unconscious prejudices to which it, like the rest of society, is not immune ? or, worse, that it is knowingly flirting with anti-Jewish prejudice. The motive could be a crude appeal to Muslims, à la O?Brien, or a calculation that there are sufficient numbers in the wider electorate who are wary of Howard?s ethnicity that it?s worth reminding people of it.

Either way, the Labour Party, of all parties, should have nothing to do with such tactics.

Tony Blair will address the Jewish community in the coming week. When he does, he should use the opportunity to send a concise message to his party about its current, unhappy habit: give it up now.

The Heaven and Earth Show

Jonathan will be on The Heaven and Earth Show on BBC 1 at 10.30 am on Sunday March 20 — presenting a short film about schools and the dilemmas of passing on identity to the next generation.