The story: Sepember 2014, Kirby is suspended from the party after offensive comments comparing Israelis to Hitler. Not to mention a tweet from her Twitter account regarding Jews and big noses, as Tom Harris, sometime of this parish, noted in the Telegraph.
March 2016: It is discovered that Kirby has been reinstated. When this appears in the media, she is suspended again.
While we might be glad that, in the end, the unpleasant Ms Kirby will be prevented from spreading hatred around her fellow activists, the whole episode shows that existing membership controls have become a shambles.
Right now, control sensibly exercised by the party machine is clearly being overridden by the NEC; but that may just be the opening salvo in a war over the party’s “border controls”.
What happens next? The situation will, by definition, continue until either (a) the NEC stops reinstating suspect members – requiring a change in the balance of power between left and right on the NEC itself, and possibly a conference rule change – or (b) the Head Office executive powers to suspend them in the first place are relaxed.
Given that Head Office changes are easy for the party leadership to make and changes at the NEC level are hard, it is easy to see that the most likely outcome is (b), that the Compliance Unit at Labour HQ will be weakened or even removed, as John McDonnell proposed two weeks ago. Along with such a move would go all the party’s defences against people like Kirby rejoining.
Extraordinarily, yesterday there were still activists on Twitter complaining about fellow members drawing attention to this. As Wes Streeting MP pointed out, this is not an adequate response.
The fact that we are called out on something which is totally unacceptable for any political party is not a moment to bleat about party loyalty or whine about the unfairness of the media.Poor responses:— Wes Streeting MP (@wesstreeting) March 14, 2016
❌Why are you speaking up about this?
❌Why are you sharing Guido?
✅ Labour must never tolerate antisemitism
It is a moment to take a long, hard look in the mirror.
Honestly, do we really think stories like this are happening because people are being “unfair”? Tosh.
It is happening because some deeply unpleasant people, who have always hovered on the party’s fringes, are suddenly getting access to its heart. We either take action or we not only lose control of our local parties but we see the party’s name dragged through the mud in the process.
In other words, aside from the stomach-turning effect of having such people as fellow members, there are real practical side-effects. Each one is a potential negative press story, a drip-drip-drip of gifts to Conservative Campaign HQ, each one further entrenching the image of a down-and-out party peppered with political freakshows, or worse.
Ah, but, say the Corbynites. These people are just being picked on because they are anti-Israel, and the Establishment is pro-Israel. Critics are conflating being anti-Israel with being anti-Semitic.
They are not. Anti-Semitism is anti-Semitism, whether it first derives from a left-wing hatred of Israel or not. It has pretty clear definitions, for a start (although amazingly some on the far left of the union movement have tried toplay with those definitions, as well, to avoid being labelled anti-Semites. And that same union movement has long been riddled with the same kind of prejudices now hitting Labour, as Nick Cohen noted back in 2011 when he boycotted the TUC).
But what is the most depressing thing about these events is the continuing lack of specific condemnation from the leadership, when words and not deeds are demanded. As Mike Dugher MP put it:
“Labour will be judged by what we do, not by what we say. We must take these issues incredibly seriously straightaway and act immediately.”
Yes, when pushed, Corbyn or McDonnell might make vague mumblings about being “strongly against anti-Semitism”. But an immediate and specific comment about a case, even just to say that this is something which is taken very seriously, is absent.
And why? It is truly hard to avoid the conclusion that these people, our leaders, feel in their hearts that the whole thing is a bit “unfair”. That they do not feel quite sick to their stomachs like the rest of us at such behaviour. That there are fine lines and that sometimes “good” (that is, Israel-hating) people come down on the wrong side of one. That these are not bad people, merely over-excited idealists who took a wrong turn. That we should relax, and “go easy” on them.
And that, for a mainstream political party, is the biggest worry of all.
This post first published at Labour Uncut