I challenged Corbyn on antisemitism a year ago. Things have only got worse

I won’t walk away from the fight to root out antisemitism in the party. But the leadership remains in denial

Margaret Hodge MP addresses a “say no to anti-semitism” rally in Manchester.
‘I did not appreciate that fighting antisemitism on the left would become such a central part of everyday life.’ Margaret Hodge addresses a rally in Manchester. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Today marks one year since my face-to-face encounter with Jeremy Corbyn in the lobby of parliament in which I called him a racist and an antisemite.

Afterwards I went out for the evening and switched off my phone. It was late that night when I switched it back on again and realised our confrontation had hit the headlines.

The next morning I was in the dentist’s chair with painful toothache when Luciana Berger rang to say that the Labour party was about to initiate disciplinary action against me.

I did not appreciate that fighting antisemitism on the left would become such a central part of everyday life. Although I am a secular Jew and a critic of the Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, my politics have become defined by my Jewish identity in a way I never imagined they would.

Quick guide

Labour's antisemitism crisis

When did accusations of antisemitism in Labour start and how have they escalated?

Two major public furores about antisemitism occurred in 2016, with Labour MP Naz Shah apologising for an antisemitic Facebook post, and former London mayor Ken Livingstone making remarks about “the Israel lobby” and Hitler supporting Zionism in broadcast interviews that eventually led to him quitting the party after a lengthy disciplinary process. A report that year by Shami Chakrabarti exonerated the party of widespread antisemitism but reported an 'occasionally toxic atmosphere'.

Matters escalated in 2018 when it became evident that the party was receiving more and more complaints, to the extent that there was a backlog of disciplinary cases. Jeremy Corbyn apologised that April for hurt caused to the Jewish community by problems in the process and pointed to only 0.1% of members being under investigation for alleged antisemitic comments.

But the party was also mired in a row about whether to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which it ended up ultimately approving. Then accusations of political interference in the complaints process by aides close to Corbyn began to emerge earlier this year, which the party strongly denies.

When did the complaints about antisemitism turn into a full-blown crisis?

The resignations of some MPs and peers over antisemitism in February 2019 alarmed many Labour colleagues. Then Chris Williamson, a Labour MP and ally of Corbyn, caused an outcry for saying that the party had been 'too apologetic' about antisemitism complaints. However, many of his supporters in the party backed a campaign saying he had been vilified and badly treated. Then came the announcement that the Equalities and Human Rights Commission was placing the party under formal investigation over antisemitism.

What allegations were made in the BBC Panorama documentary?

In a July 2019 programme, eight whistleblowers spoke to a BBC Panorama documentary, with some saying they felt there was political meddling from Corbyn’s office in the process for handling antisemitism complaints. Seumas Milne, one of Corbyn’s closest aides, told officials the party was 'muddling up political disputes with racism' and must review processes. Jennie Formby, the general secretary, was accused of attempting to interfere in who sat on a panel examining the case of Jackie Walker, a high-profile activist who was eventually expelled from the party.

What was Labour’s response to the BBC’s Panorama?

Labour strongly denied the allegations of political interference, and came out on the offensive, accusing the BBC of bias and calling for the documentary to be pulled. A Labour spokesman said the party had fully answered “a number of questions” put to it by the programme, and had also sent 50 pages of documents in response. The complaints to the BBC had been made “at various levels, including the director general”.

Rowena Mason, Deputy political editor

I never thought I would become a victim of Jew hatred from the hard left. I never dreamed that one year on the situation within the party would so dramatically deteriorate and that the antisemitism crisis in Labour would spiral out of control. In the last month I have been accused of being an operative for the Israeli embassy. Conspiracy theorists accuse me of running a cartel of “Nazi rabbis” and say that Jeremy Corbyn is the “final solution” to the Zionist question. I receive shameful attacks seeking to question my Jewish identity and express doubt about my family’s suffering under the Nazis.

Hateful language has now become part of mainstream political discourse. Antisemitism always existed on both the extreme right and the extreme left fringes. But under Corbynism it has been allowed to flourish in the mainstream.

The Labour party should be the natural home for Jews with its historic commitment to fighting racism, promoting equality and fostering international solidarity. Instead, it has become a hostile place. So much so that many Jews and lifelong activists have left the party, forced out by the toxic antisemitic culture.

Last week saw the departure of three Labour grandees from the House of Lords, including a former general secretary. A BBC Panorama programme featured young Labour activists and workers, the very people who should form Labour’s future but whose aspirations and hopes have been crushed by antisemitism and bullying in the Labour party. We saw a frightening display of deliberate denial by the party leadership. The way they have intimidated those calling out Jew hate echoes many of the dangerous populist forces that have surged across the west.

Over the last year the list of revelations of Corbyn’s personal association with antisemitism has only grown. His coded language about “English irony” after being heckled by Jewish people at an event. His attendance at a wreath-laying ceremony for anti-Israel terrorists. His overlooking antisemitism when he penned a foreword for a book. Further examples of controversial figures with whom he shared a platform. All have reinforced the view I expressed last July about Corbyn’s character and beliefs.

The claims by the leader’s entourage that the complaints process has improved are laughable. In February I met with Jeremy. I put to him the allegation that his office was intervening in individual cases and corrupting the complaints process, seeking to protect Corbyn supporters from accusations of antisemitism.

I was given absolute assurances that there was no political interference. Yet, soon after, leaked emails in the Observer and the Sunday Times showed regular meddling by the leader’s office. The Panorama programme last week confirmed the extent and depth of political interference. Seeing those young party members driven to desperation was sickening. Yet still the party claims “it’s all under control”.

When party staff decided to blow the whistle, the leadership responded by trying to silence them with expensive lawyers. That is an abuse of power. As chair of the public accounts committee I saw PricewaterhouseCoopers treat whistleblowers responsible for the Luxembourg leaks on tax avoidance in precisely the same manner. It’s how HSBC reacted when their employee Hervé Falciani gave us the Swiss bank leaks showing aggressive tax avoidance and evasion.

A woman takes part in an antisemitism demonstration in Parliament Square
Pinterest
‘Many Jews and lifelong activists have left the party, forced out by the toxic antisemitic culture.’ A woman protests in Parliament Square. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Reflecting on other events in the last year provides further evidence of the deteriorating culture. The election of Peter Willsman – who was caught calling 68 British rabbis “Trump fanatics” – to the NEC. The attempt to reinstate Chris Williamson MP – who has a string of antisemitic offences to his name – to the Labour party. The selection of a Labour candidate in the Peterborough byelection who has liked a Facebook post that accused Theresa May of pursuing a “Zionist slave masters agenda”. All of these examples demonstrate the normalisation of Jew hatred in my party.

But I will not walk away. I am often asked why I stay. My response is 57 years. That’s how long I have been a Labour party member and for 54 years it has been one of the greatest relationships of my life. Three bad years versus 54 good ones. That’s worth fighting for.

It’s hard and frustrating, but I am resolute that my job is to keep calling out antisemitism. I will continue to campaign for a completely independent complaints process free of political corruption. I will work with others for a rule change so that offenders face immediate expulsion from the Labour party. I will argue for a zero-tolerance approach in what we do, not simply in what we say.

Antisemitism is deeply damaging to the Labour party. But fighting to eradicate it is central to upholding the values on which the Labour movement was founded. Denying its existence or pretending to solve it behind closed doors will not do.

It’s not our calling out antisemitism that is destroying Labour; it’s Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to act that is threatening our great party’s future. We are running out of time.

Margaret Hodge is the Labour MP for Barking