Ruth Smeeth: Why I turned my back on Westminster return as an MP

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Ruth Smeeth: Why I turned my back on Westminster return as an MP

Keir Starmer making me a Labour peer was 'safest way back for me'.

Lee Harpin is the Jewish News's political editor

Ruth Smeeth in the Houses of Parliament in Westminster.
Ruth Smeeth in the Houses of Parliament in Westminster.

Jewish Labour stalwart Ruth Smeeth has revealed she turned her back on a return to Westminster as an MP over continued fears for her safety.

In her first interview since it was confirmed the 43-year-old would be entering the House of Lords as a Labour peer, the campaigner against antisemitism told Jewish News she had received “a huge amount of abuse and threats”.

The former MP for Stoke-on-Trent – who was famously escorted by 50 Labour colleagues past a baying mob of Jeremy Corbyn supporters at a 2018 hearing on antisemitism in the party – said she was “delighted” when Sir Keir Starmer included her name on his recent list of nominations for peerages.

But she revealed continued threats to her safety have led to her ruling out standing as a Labour candidate at the general election, saying of the move into the Lords: “This is the safest way back for me.”

Smeeth, a vice-chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, had previously spoken out on the antisemtic threats she had received, including a letter threatening to murder her at her former constituency office, from both far-left and far-right racists after she openly challenged ex-Labour leader Corbyn’s failure to tackle the crisis.

It has been a really difficult time. I’d hoped that after everything that went on it would go away … but it didn’t go away.

But even after leaving Westminster, to become chief executive with the freedom of expression campaign group Index on Censorship, Jewish News understands Smeeth has continued to receive threats, with the Community Security Trust (CST) monitoring her incoming social media to spot possible problems.

In recent months police are understood to have intervened over threats made to Smeeth after photographs of her out campaigning with Labour activists appeared on social media. Some of the messages were linked to extremist groups on the fringe of politics.

Asked if she wanted to elaborate on the impact of the threats on her life, Smeeth said only: “It has been a really difficult time. I’d hoped that after everything that went on it would go away … but it didn’t go away.

“I have been still getting a huge amount of abuse and threats. For everyone concerned, I am delighted that Keir Starmer wanted me to return to parliament, and this is the safest way back for me to do that.

“All you have to do is look at the responses to the announcement that I was going to be made a peer to see why I am going into the House of Lords.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer arrives with Ruth Smeeth, JLM’s National vice chairs, to deliver his keynote speech during the party’s online conference in September

Unlike MPs, members of the Lords do not hold weekly constituency surgeries, or engage in as much on-the-ground campaigning, meaning Smeeth’ s safety will not be jeopardised in the same way.

“What I want to do is be really positive,” she now says of her peerage. “There are always consequences to your actions. But I wouldn’t have done anything differently at any point.

“I think because of the work that I, and the other women at the time did, the party is now clear for other people to come behind us, and not have the same experiences that we had, and that we are having.”

There are always consequences to your actions. But I wouldn’t have done anything differently at any point.

Alongside former Labour MP Luciana Berger, and party veterans Dame Margaret Hodge and Dame Louise Ellman, Smeeth became infamous as a Jewish female politician who both spoke out over the impact of antisemitism, but who also received racist, and often misogynistic abuse.

She went to give evidence at an expulsion hearing against the  activist Marc Wadsworth, who had accused her of conspiring with the media, in an intervention designed to interrupt the launch of the Chakrabarti report into antisemitism.

Wadsworth was later expelled for bringing the party into disrepute.

Smeeth will become the youngest female Labour peer. Her exact title as a Baroness is due to be finalised today. She is also planning to carry on with her job at Index for Censorship.

“Some of the day-to-day politics is taken out,” Smeeth says of her new role in the upper chamber.

“But it’s where you can negotiate, where you can look at legislation line by line and make it better. It is an incredibly important role.”

Smeeth is also quick to praise the work Labour leader Starmer has done to fight the scourge of antisemitism within the party since he became leader.

When Starmer made his debut party conference speech in September 2020, during lockdown, he picked Smeeth to introduce him.

(back row left to right) Campaigns Officer Adam Langleben, Ruth Smeeth, Chair Mike Katz, (front row left to right) Katy Colton, National Secretary Peter Mason and Margaret Hodge, during a press conference by the Jewish Labour Movement at the offices of Mishcon de Reya in London, following the publication of damming anti-Semitism report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

Sources close to the Labour leader confirmed to Jewish News that the treatment dished out to Smeeth as a result of her stance on opposing antisemitism has driven his “determination” to “root out antisemtism” ever since.

Smeeth, who went to a Jewish school in Bristol and after university worked for the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM), says Starmer has “exceeded every one of my expectations of him” since he became leader of the party.

“He could have just talked the talk on the issues around antisemitism in the Labour Party, but he hasn’t,” she adds. “He has embraced his mandate to fix the Labour Party, and not just legally, which would have been our core responsibility.”

To those in the community yet to be convinced they can vote for Labour, and who point to the continued role on the backbenches for MPs who had previously backed Corbyn, Smeeth adds: “The Labour Party had a huge amount to do to win back trust, and it may take more than one electoral cycle for some, I understand that.

“But look at what Keir has promised our community when he became leader, and how he had met this promise. All political parties are broad churches – broad synagogues. There is always someone you can point out who you fundamentally disagree with.

“However, the people in charge of the Labour Party, the people who will make every decision, nobody can tell me that we can’t trust Keir, Rachel Reeves, Wes Streeting Lisa Nandy, Peter Kyle… there are so many of our allies around the cabinet table, true allies of our community who are in charge now.For that we owe them our vote.”

Margaret Hodge with Ruth Smeeth (Credit: Marc Morris)

Starmer, says Smeeth, would be a “a calm, competent leader of our country, who will restore both our national finances and who will restore our reputation on the world stage, I have no doubt of that.”

Regarding Israel she also believes Labour can now be trusted to listen to the voice of the community. Starmer, Reeves, and shadow foreign secretary David Lammy had all given speeches at the recent Labour Friends of Israel reception at the party’s conference in

“On Israel, Labour policy has been quite clear, and hasn’t changed,” she adds. “We want a two-state solution, and we also want peace. Please God, peace.”

Unsurprisingly, Smeeth is less forthcoming in her praise of the current government, with its succession of leaders. “The government has let everyone down, including the Jewish community, over a long period of time,” she says

“Look at the number of people from minority communities, including ours, who died of Covid. If you look at the support in place in terms of health care, in our education system, with the economy, and in terms of inflation.

“I think regardless of faith, people have been let down.”

With Rishi Sunak now made prime minister, Smeeth says the community “needs to ask itself big questions”.

She reasons: “We need to ask which party do we think is going to be better for the country. I think we need a general election.”

Smeeth is also concerned by the rise of “dog-whistle politics” on the fringes of the Tory Party in recent days, pointing to the “globalist” slurs directed at Jewish minister Grant Shapps after he was briefly made home secretary.

On previous prime minister Liz Truss, Smeeth says she had a “very narrow view” of the community, judging by her much criticised statement which stressed Jewish links to business. “She didn’t understand the diversity in our community.”






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