Rebecca Long-Bailey kicked off the Jewish Labour Movement hustings held in a north London synagogue tonight, and she did so with an apology for the “hurt and anxiety” caused by Labour antisemitism. Asked about how to rebuild trust with the Jewish community, she talked about her own constituents in Salford and vowed to prioritise: a disciplinary process that is “legally independent, free from political bias or interference”; educating members; and calling out antisemitism.
Although seen as the candidate closest to Jeremy Corbyn, Long-Bailey made clear efforts to distance herself from much of the approach taken by the current leadership team on this key issue that naturally dominated the JLM debate. Referring to the ‘bunker mentality’ that has often been attributed to the leader’s office, she said: “There was a bunker that formed. That bunker remained for many years and created a further escalation of the crisis.”
On the specifics of what happened when Labour’s ruling body – of which she is a member – appeared to resist adopting the IHRA definition of antisemitism and all of its examples, Long-Bailey’s answers were found by audience members to be vague and far from satisfactory. She was never going to be the favoured candidate of JLM, but could have been clearer about what exactly happened in that situation and why.
Asked about the Labour whistleblowers who appeared on Panorama, however, Long-Bailey was willing to criticise the leadership. She said: “I don’t think the party gave the right response. We should not have called out or attacked former members of staff… We should apologise for how we behaved. We should settle any claims that were made.” She also confirmed that she would welcome Luciana Berger and Louise Ellman back into the party, saying what they “have been through was absolutely shocking”.
Most surprisingly of all, the Shadow Business Secretary offered an answer on Zionism that raised eyebrows among a number of her supporters on the Labour left. While frontrunner Keir Starmer declined the opportunity to self-describe as a Zionist, Long-Bailey concluded: “I also agree with a secure Israel alongside a viable Palestinian state… I suppose that makes me a Zionist because I agree with Israel’s right to exist and right to self determine.” It’s not difficult to see that one commanding Labour Twitter discourse for the next few days.
Emily Thornberry sat beside Long-Bailey, and wasn’t entirely frosty towards her despite having delivered some of the most cutting comments about her record on antisemitism in the Newsnight debate on Wednesday evening. The Shadow Foreign Secretary was on top form for JLM, always ready to challenge her rivals while offering wit and charisma to the proceedings.
Even when discussing the serious subject of antisemitism within Labour, Thornberry said: “The next Labour leader will have political capital. What she needs to do is use that political capital…” Starmer chuckled along with the rest of the room.
Thornberry also informed us that Boris Johnson used to live in her constituency, Islington South and Finsbury. He moved out, she told the event, “because he said that everybody kept shouting at him and could I stop them shouting at him, and I said: “No, Boris, you deserve it frankly.””
Perhaps her most confrontational moment actually came when Lisa Nandy was talking about social care and the need to build a “cross-party consensus” and “reach across the political divide” to deal with the crisis. Thornberry tried to interrupt, indicating that she had a relevant point to make. When she did manage to take her turn to speak, she pointed out that she had already tried to work with the government on the issue and it was fruitless.
“I was shadow social care minister and I went to No 10 and I tried to engage. To be honest, we sat around a table and… there was no trust between the two parties at all. And so I think it sounds good to say the two parties need to come together, but just from my experience, it ain’t gonna happen.” In sharing this anecdote, Thornberry reminded everyone that she has been in the game a long time and has experience to back up her policy positions.
Keir Starmer was strongest when talking about issues in great detail, as you might expect. The format of this hustings, chaired by Robert Peston, gave candidates the opportunity to speak at length – there were barely any interruptions – and this allowed Starmer to expand on his points. Like Corbyn, and in fact like most of these candidates, he is not brilliant at putting his point across both well and in a concise way.
The frontrunner in Labour’s leadership race often raises his experience as a former Director of Public Prosecutions. It is a point that inspires trust from members who believe the party needs a thorough upheaval in order to be fit for government – and, before that, the next election campaign.
But Starmer put this attribute into greater perspective tonight when he talked about Labour’s handling of the Equality and Human Rights Commission investigation. When confronted with this kind of scrutiny, organisations “either open the books, or they circle the wagons”, he said. Starmer told Labour that it must do the former and take an open approach. “I’ve said we’ve got to ask for preliminary findings,” he added – a suggestion that sounds like it comes from real and valuable knowledge of running a large organisation.
He was also honest about his view of an independent complaints process. “I wasn’t an instant convert,” he told us, admitting that he had reservations about the workability of the idea – something that the leadership candidates have arguably not yet explored in enough detail. However, he added: “It became clear to me that trust with the Jewish community wouldn’t be restored if we didn’t have that.”
Starmer also explained that he “didn’t break rank and tell people what was going on in the shadow cabinet” but said: “We spoke up in shadow cabinet. Emily spoke up loud and clear. Sometimes the row went on for the whole of the meeting, on the definition, on auto-exclude.” This kind of clarity is helpful.
He did, again, pitch further left than expected with his final answer on Zionism. Some of his Corbynsceptic supporters were disappointed with his list of ten pledges earlier this week, which seemed to be really quite Corbynite. Those same members may not be pleased that he was the only leadership candidates not to say they described themselves as a Zionist. “I don’t describe myself as a Zionist but I understand, sympathise and support Zionism,” Starmer replied. This provoked ‘ooh’s in the room.
Lisa Nandy undoubtedly ‘won’ the JLM debate, if we’re going to put it in those straightforward terms. She was remarkably specific about antisemitism, in terms of both where Labour failed and what it needs to do next. She often answered questions differently to the other contenders by cleverly finding a way to make a nuanced point – as she did earlier today, when she said “no” she would not expel Pete Willsman from the party as Labour leader, because there would be an independent process and the decision wouldn’t be up to her.
As a result of antisemitism within Labour, Nandy said: “I’ve considered my position in the Labour Party… I’ve questioned that every single day.” She specifically condemned the way in which it was described by high-profile figures as “smears and mood music”. She also pointed out that Labour has “a leadership that is still now refusing to disclose the submission that we made to the EHRC”.
Asked about whether as leader she would “abandon Labour’s defence and settle” with regard to the Panorama whistleblowers, who are threatening legal action against the party, Nandy replied: “I want to do more than just settle… I will make the Labour Party one that values and celebrates that sort of action.”
There is no doubt that those members in attendance at the event today were most impressed by Nandy. She offered concise responses, and she was completely unencumbered by having held a shadow cabinet role, as she quit during the coup and never returned to the fold. Certainly those most active in JLM appear likely to vote in favour of nominating Nandy for the top job as a result.