FULL Jewish News interview with John McDonnell: ‘MPs shouldn’t face deselection’

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FULL Jewish News interview with John McDonnell: ‘MPs shouldn’t face deselection’

In a wide-ranging interview, Labour's shadow chancellor urges talks with Jewish leaders but has a stark message for those calling for a Corbyn apology

Justin Cohen is the News Editor at the Jewish News

John McDonnell being interviewed by Jewish News. 

Credit: Marc Morris Photography
John McDonnell being interviewed by Jewish News. Credit: Marc Morris Photography

Justin Cohen (JN): You’ve said Labour should have dealt far more quickly with the row over IHRA. How can you expect the Jewish community to support a party that so blatantly ignored the wishes of the mainstream community on anti-Semitism?

John McDonnell (JmD): We’ve got to engage thoroughly in discussions, an open-door policy, and making sure we can start that dialogue up. It’s been an absolute nightmare. But, and I know this might sound difficult to some people, in some ways being forced into soul-searching has done us some good. So I’m looking for something positive out of this. What I think will be positive is an ongoing – because this doesn’t end with one decision about one set of examples – process which will be an educational experience for everyone.

JN: Can you understand why many Jews feel there is no place for them any more in Labour?

JmD: Yes, I can understand the concerns that have been expressed. I don’t want to aggravate people but some of the expressions that have been made don’t bear any reality to what has been going on either, and maybe that’s because we haven’t been clear enough about understanding of it and our own depth of empathy. I completely understand how people feel. Jonathan Freedland put it in a really good article in The Guardian about empathy… that’s what we’ve got to show now on a much greater scale than in the past.

JN: Who’s responsible for getting the party into such a mess over IHRA? Is it down to the leader or those around him?

JmD: No, I think it’s everybody. All of us are involved. There was a lack of understanding that it needed time to bring people up to speed on this issue. For example, I hadn’t read before the submission to Congress of Kenneth Stern, who was involved in drafting the definition, and during that period I did. I’m trying to move beyond blame because I don’t think that’s productive. I actually think the soul-searching has happened, it’s been effective, and now we want a process of engagement, dialogue and discussion and hopefully agreement and consensus. It’s important to get the words right but there’s stuff on the ground going on that we’ve got to tackle as well. I’m really fearful about what’s happening, the insecurity that people have. We should not live in a society where pupils go to Jewish schools and they have to have security, we shouldn’t live in a society where gravestones are daubed with swastikas. I’m worried as well about the rise of the far-right, not just in this country but across Europe.

LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW IN FULL on the Jewish Views podcast:

JN: Yesterday though was an opportunity to put IHRA issue to bed but there’s huge concern that the extra text that Jeremy Corbyn put forward has exacerbated the situation. Did you support that?

JmD: Yes I did. Jeremy wanted absolute clarity that it did not impose any restrictions on freedom of speech other than, what you would expect to do, to use appropriate language and you can’t use it in a way that attacks Jewish people. There will be a detailed consultation, which I hope everyone gets involved in, on the code of conduct, because that will in practice be how you interpret it.

JN: Whenever the community has felt things couldn’t get any worse in recent years, they have done. Can you give a guarantee today that we won’t be attempts to put Jeremy’s extra text into the code of conduct?

JmD: I can’t give guarantees because I’m not in control of the process but my understanding is the NEC will undertake a consultation. I have not seen the details of how that will be done or the timescales, but my advice is to do it promptly, as openly as we possibly can, and when you come to your conclusions be open and give people time to consider your conclusions. They may well say in the code of conduct some commitments around freedom of expression, I think we’re already there, but as I say, let’s have that debate, let’s not close down the debate.

JN: You say you think those protections are already there so will you take the opportunity today to say that you wouldn’t like to see Jeremy’s extra text added?

JmD: No, I quite like the extra text, because it was absolutely explicit, and from what I heard during the period in which there was some consultation going on, people hadn’t got the message, so they needed to have it more explicitly, and I think that’s what he tried to do. The wording said ‘the circumstances around the founding of the State of Israel.’ It is anti-Semitic to oppose a Jewish state, of course it is. But it is not anti-Semitic to call a state racist, I call the British state racist on a regular basis of the way it acts. The argument that people put forward is that there were racist acts that took place, dispossession and things like that. Again, that’s part of the debate

Again, if people come back and say those form of words weren’t right or wasn’t appropriate, then we’ll listen to them.

John McDonnell being interviewed by Jewish News’ Justin Cohen
Credit: Marc Morris Photography

JN: You know the position of the mainstream Jewish community. They’re not going to suddenly come to the conclusion that extra additions are required. Numerous councils, countries, the CPS, none think it is needed…

JmD: There’s a number who do think it is and we’ve got to listen to them and see whether we can build consensus. We might not be able to, but let’s at least try. We’ve got to try to come out of this where we secure agreement right the way across the piece. If we could do that it would be a huge achievement for the whole community, not just for Labour.

LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW IN FULL on the Jewish Views podcast:

JN: A lot of people will listen to this and wonder how on earth Labour can find an accommodation with the community if you’re taking that position on Israel…

JmD: That means we have to have a proper debate to explain the position. What we’re saying is it’s anti-Semitic to oppose a Jewish state, of course it is, but it is not anti-Semitic to be able to criticise the role of that state at times, just as I criticise this state. As I say, there are a large numbers of people in my constituency who are detained in a detention centre unnecessarily. It’s interesting that most of them are black. As we saw in the ‘hostile environment’ policies of this Government, that was a racist state in action.

John McDonnell being interviewed by Jewish News.
Credit: Marc Morris Photography

JN: The Birkenhead CLP discussed and passed a motion that rejected JLM training because of ‘possible links to ISIS.’ Does that not suggest a deep cultural problem in the Labour Party?

JmD: I’ve not seen the motion. I find it bizarre that anyone could link JLM and ISIS. It’s extraordinary and laughable. I’ll take that up and I’ll engage in the debate with the constituency. I’ve worked with the JLM, met them on a regular basis and done everything I can to bend over backwards and cooperate. If an individual constituency party has put a motion like that forward, it just emphasises the need for education. Let me have a look at the resolution itself and ask the constituency what’s happened there, and I’ll ask JLM as well.

LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW IN FULL on the Jewish Views podcast:

JN: Four young members of the community resigned their membership this week after Pete Willsman was re-elected to the NEC. I just want to read you one tweet from Amos Schonfeld who works for an organisation called Yachad, a left-wing Jewish group that’s very critical of Israeli government policy. He said: “Being a Jewish member of Labour was once a source of pride for me but as with many in my position, it is now a badge of shame. The election of Pete Willsman to the NEC is the end for me.” Does that make you feel ashamed?

JmD: We’re a democracy, he got re-elected. He’s apologised. I don’t think that goes far enough. I think he needs to understand the hurt he’s caused as a result of his statements. And I think what the NEC has talked about for him and others, what should go on, and if he persists in those attitudes I think he should be standing down. But what I’m hoping is that he’s learnt a lesson. And again, for that young person who’s stood down, I say look, we need you back in the party because we need people like this raising these issues, raising the level of debate and raising the level of understanding. When Pete Willsman said that – and I don’t know him that well – I don’t think he even understood what he was saying, or the implications of it. He does now. Maybe he needs to learn the lesson more effectively. But we’re a democracy in our party, he’s been re-elected and we’ll have to deal with that.

JN: Did you feel ashamed when you hear that from a young Labour Party member?

JmD: I feel really saddened. I ask the young party member to contact me because I want to get him back.

JN: A lot of people will be wondering how we can have a party and a leadership who can maintain that Labour has a problem with anti-Semitism and also at the same time have a person on the governing body who has openly and angrily said he has never seen any anti-Semitism and suggested that rabbis and others have made it up?

John McDonnell being interviewed by Jewish News.
Credit: Marc Morris Photography

JmD: I’ve heard this said before, in meetings where people have said ‘I’ve never seen any anti-Semitism.’ I go back to the Irish issue, 20-30 years ago during the GLC period, I’ve sat in meetings where people have been cracking Irish jokes in front of me not realising that they’re racist. I think we’re at that stage in terms of anti-Semitism within Labour, and I have to say as well, in the wider community. So again, I’m looking for positives from this, which is that people will start learning – and the programmes of education within the Labour Party has got to be absolutely first-class. We need to involve people in developing that, and JLM are one of those I’d like to mobilise to ensure we do that. That will raise the level of understanding. If you look at what we did with anti-Irish racism, we’ve eradicated that element from the Labour Party, and that’s what we’ve got to do here.

LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW IN FULL on the Jewish Views podcast:

JN: You could send out a really strong message today by saying you’re uncomfortable with Pete Willsman being on your governing body…

JmD: It’s a democracy. The democratic principles of our party over-ride everything as far as I’m concerned. With Pete Willsman, I’ve given him the benefit that he didn’t understand what he was doing.

JN: There’s been no contrition at all.  He suddenly discovered the day after he made the comment that he had seen anti-Semitism.

JmD: He did actually apologise. I don’t think that was enough and that’s why I’m saying its important now we engage with him so he thoroughly understands what he’s done, what his statements are. I come from a tradition, as you do, we believe that people can express remorse and move on and sometimes you need the generosity of spirit for that to happen. I’m willing to give him that and I hope the Jewish community is. But we will see from future performance if he does it, further action will need to be taken.

JN: You don’t think he should be suspended or at least kept out of any disciplinary cases from now on?

JmD: I understand he removed himself from that debate yesterday and at least I think that showed an understanding of what he has done, it showed an element that he’s learned a bit of a lesson and he needs to go further.

JN: Chris Williamson insisted yesterday that his re-election was a victory over the haters and the smearers.

JmD: I disagree with that, let’s be clear, Chris is a good friend of mine. On most issues I agree with him, this one I disagree.

JN: Chris Williamson remains a massive sore in relations between the community and the Labour Party. He was at the rally yesterday against IHRA, he’s spoken out against Ken Livingstone’s suspension…There’s an opportunity to send a message to the community…

JmD:  I’ve made it clear to Chris that I disagree with him on this. I disagreed with him on Livingstone and I disagreed with him yesterday, because I was one of those people that advocated and accepted the principles and examples and we moved forward. He’s got this wrong and I’ve told him so.

JN: Should he be disciplined?

JmD: No, not for that matter.

JN: For retweeting those expelled from the party. For all sorts of things that undermine your message of zero tolerance…

JmD: If there is an issue with any member, including Chris Williamson, that you have concerns about, a complaint will go in and that will be investigated independently. The thing I am pleased about now after two years of that not happening, and that’s not down to Jeremy, that’s down to others, we’ve now got a system in place, we’ve got a QC appointed, disciplinary hearings taking place and I think from what I’ve seen, appropriate decisions being made as well

JN: JLM have reported Chris Williamson to the chief whip and they’ve not heard anything…

JmD: It will be considered in the normal way.

JN: Will you follow that up personally. They have been ignored so far…

JmD: I can check where it is. When JLM have raised these issues in the past, that’s exactly what I’ve done.

LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW IN FULL on the Jewish Views podcast:

JN: You told Adam Langleben that you would call out conspiracy theories and left wing anti-Semitism whenever you see it. Unfortunately that hasn’t been followed through. I’ve got in front of me, a Facebook group called ‘Supporting Jeremy Corbyn and John JmDonell for the many’. A quick search shows multiple anti-Semitic references to Margaret Hodge…

JmD:  Jeremy has said time and time again you don’t speak in my name and I’ve said exactly the same. On Margaret Hodge, I opposed the disciplinary of her, I’ve made it absolutely clear Margaret did go over the top in terms of her anger and I did completely understand why. Therefore all of these allegations and attacks on her I’ve condemned. I’ve said time and time again these people don’t speak in our name.

JN: Do you think that message is getting through?

JmD: I hope so. But I’ll make it absolutely clear. When people pretend they are our supporters and do stuff like this, they are undermining our support, they are undermining our standing in the community overall and I sometimes suspect what motives there are there.

JN: Skwawkbox published a tweet about a month ago highlighting an article ‘The Jewish war against Corbyn risks bringing real anti-Semitism to Britain’. I didn’t see you call that out?

JmD: Sorry. I will do, I can’t monitor it all the time, but I have made a statement regularly that this is unacceptable. There’s only so much you can keep on top of this when you are holding down a full time job.

JN: You’ve suggested  Lord Sacks misunderstood the leader. I think a lot of people in the Jewish community will feel perhaps you’ve misunderstood where the Jewish community is coming from in this. Can you understand that the Jewish community would be concerned about having a prime minister who has repeatedly shared platforms and endorsed in various ways people who are not just pro-Palestinian but are anti-Semitic in their positions. They want our readers dead.

JmD: Lord Sacks was brutally honest and I thanked him for that. But he said anti-Semitism is blaming  Israel for everything that’s happening in the Middle East. Jeremy hasn’t done that and neither have I. Only a couple of years ago, I was demonstrating when the Saudi king came here. He also said there had been support for Hamas and Hizbollah. Jeremy has not expressed support for Hamas and Hezbollah, I certainly haven’t either.

JN: He said they were a force for social justice…

JmD: He’s tried to force them to get round the table, he’s condemned their violence, he’s never supported violence in his life and he’s tried to get them round the table to support peace. Those are the issues that Jonathan Sacks raised and a couple of others and I said I think you’ve got that wrong but come and see us. It’s an open door, and he said, well I won’t come and see you until Jeremy apologises. We’re all bigger than this now. We’ve all just got to get round a table because we’ve got to get into the real world of what’s happening on the ground now in the Jewish community. To start that process off by just coming, sitting down and talking must be the first step.

LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW IN FULL on the Jewish Views podcast:

JN: You owned in a very personal way some of the language you expressed in the past on the IRA and you apologised for that. So when we’re talking about sharing a platform with anti-Semites, we’re not talking about people who are just supportive of the Palestinian cause, do you think it might be time for an apology?

JmD: You have to look at why he was sharing platforms, it was not to endorse them, it was to try and engage with them.

JN: But there’s no record of him meeting anyone on the right of the Israeli side…

JmD: Now is the time to do that then, now is the time to have that discussion more broadly. If this enables us to have that then that’s great. It’s a real breakthrough for us all, but be very, very clear, he may have shared platforms but Jeremy has never endorsed violence, he’s never endorsed anti-Semtism at all.

JN: How would you explain Nick Griffin and David Duke cheering for your friend?

JmD: Because they are trying to exploit this issue. These people are trying to use every mechanism they possibly can to divide us and if we fall for that, they will divide us and we must never let that happen.

JN: They are obviously seeing some sort of common cause here?

There is no common cause. They are trying to exploit the issue and we must not fall for it. My big fear at the moment is the rise of the right in this country and there’s a rise of the right wing across Europe. These Tommy Robinson marches that have taken place have been on a scale that has shocked us all and they have perpetrated violence against people who have been opposing them as well. I think now is the time when we need to recognise the real threat there is out there

JN: I understand you played a key role in Jackie Walker being removed as vice chair of Momentum a couple of years ago. Can you tell me why you felt so strongly on that case?

JcD: I can’t comment on Jackie at the moment because she is part of the disciplinary process and I don’t want to prejudice that in any way

LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW IN FULL on the Jewish Views podcast:

JN: Are you comfortable remaining president of the Labour Representation Committee that says the Ken Livingstone case was a ‘witch hunt’?

JmD: I’m not going to disassociate myself from an organisation I founded because they disagree with me or I disagree with them on these particular issues because on most issues I agree with them and they have been a beneficial force in the Labour party and in other policy areas. I’ve made my position clear, I completely disagree if I’m honest.

JN: Joan Ryan is facing a vote of no confidence tomorrow in her local party and there are concermns it could be a step to deselection attempts. Will you speak out and say no MP should face deselection for speaking out on anti-Semitism?

JmD:  That cannot be grounds for deselection. These people are speaking out on anti-Semitism and they are doing it with the best of hearts. Of course they’ve got to be supported.

JN: One of the ways the Jewish community has suggested getting through these issues is appointing an independent ombudsman to oversee the disciplinary process.

JmD: I’m sure that idea will be considered seriously. A party is always loathe to put the decision making processes outside of their own ambit because we are a democratic organisation but it will be one of those issues that will come up

JN: To rebuild trust can you see a case for that, particularly after it took the intervention of LBC this week for police to start looking into some cases in the party?

JmD:  I could see that could be a role, I think I’ve tried to argue as well for example, that when there are these consultations, we’ve got to be much broader than just within the party itself, it’s got to involve the wider community and bring in the relevant experts. I read the stuff from Kenneth Stern and I thought it was really fascinating submissions to congress and I wouldn’t mind having a conversation with him, maybe can bring him over at some stage because I’d like to know how he’s handled this debate effectively within the US, because his presentations in congress were superb.

JN: You’ve said you’d like to see Jenny Manson, chair of Jewish Voice for Labour, elected as a Labour candidate but that will do further damage if she is elected…

JmD: I don’t think it would. We’ve got to get to a situation where we can create a climate where people can have disagreements but respect each other. I think Jenny Manson is a really good example where she can express disagreement with JLM but she will always do it in a measured way. And I thought this woman is actually a shining example of how you can go about disagreement but with respect and that’s why I’m quite impressed with her. The JVL is a way in which views can be expressed and we keep saying about the Labour party that it’s a broad church, left right and centre, but it’s a broad church on a whole range of views as well. JLM appreciate that.

LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW IN FULL on the Jewish Views podcast:

JN: Most of the mainstream Jewish community see themselves as Zionists. Are you a Zionist?

JmD: I wouldn’t describe myself as a Zionist but I believe in the right of Israel to exist, of course. But also I respect the concerns the Palestinians have got about the loss of their land and I’m hoping we can’t solve the Middle East crisis, that we can achieve peace and a settlement for everybody. It’s about looking at the 1967 borders again, that’s incredibly contentious. I’ve listened to the debate that’s gone on within Israel and a number of the voices now are saying we can’t go on like this.  Anything in this country that can contribute to that would be remarkable. But before we can even think of that we’ve got to think about how we operate and how we treat each other here.

JN: As a potential chancellor, would you give a guarantee that if you become chancellor you will continue the funding levels for Jewish security in this country and also the Lessons from Auschwitz project?

JmD: When we go into government we will review our expenditure. Of course we wouldn’t want to do anything in terms of reduction of HMD, in fact I want to make sure that’s extended and widened as broadly as we can.

JN: And synagogue security?

JmD: Yes, exactly and there’s a whole range of issues now that initially it wasn’t set up to do but we now have to address so it gives us a vehicle to do that and I think that would be very, very effective. In terms of our financial relationships with Israel and all the rest of it, we’ll review when we go in, it would be dependent on situations at that point.


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