There is “something special” about Britain’s Jewish community that “I take great inspiration from”, Wes Streeting suggests.
In an interview with Jewish News at the start of this week’s Labour Party conference in Liverpool, the shadow health secretary added: “I think it’s a combination of religious values extending back thousands of years, and frankly the historic injustices and evil that Jewish communities have faced, from the pogroms and persecutions, through to the unique crime of the Holocaust.
“The need to build resilience, self-reliance, and to care for each other.
“It means that in the Jewish community we see the creation of institutions that I think offer inspiration to the rest of society, on what a good society looks like.”
Our conversation with the Ilford North MP takes place just as the early horrors of the brutal attack on Israel by Hamas terrorists is beginning to filter through on news channels here.
Streeting wanted to make his position on the murderous assault absolutely clear, before we discuss anything else at all.
“The scenes that we can see unfolding on our television screens, and on our social media channels are harrowing,” he reasons.
“I literally cannot imagine what people are going thorough in Israel.
“Murder, kidnapping, parents having to explain to their children what is going on as they flee for their safety.
“There can be no excuse for this indiscriminate violence against Israeli citizens.
“When you see innocent people being murdered, stamped on, their bodies desecrated, this is not resistance, this is terrorism, and it needs to be unequivocally condemned as such.
“It’s important we stand with Israel, and Israel’s right to defend itself.
“I hope there is a future of peace for both Israelis and Palestinians, but that future seems a long way away now.”
"There should be no justification for the barbarity we are seeing."
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— Sky News (@SkyNews) October 8, 2023
The shadow minister’s comments, made again to Sky News presenter Trevor Phillips on his Sunday morning show, echo the strong defence of Israel that emerges from the leaders of Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat leaders in the hours that follow.
But speaking with the former National Union of Students leader, elected as a Labour councillor for the Chadwell ward on Redbridge London borough council in 2010, it becomes clear he that understands that deep connection between the community here and the Jewish state better than most politicians in Westminster.
Perhaps this stems from the time he has spent in the company of Jewish people?
Be it those who work for him in political career who are from the community, or due to his constant support for charitable causes such as Jewish Care and Norwood.
“What you see is a community that comes together,” Streeting says, praising the two big Jewish charities, whose fundraising events he regularly attends.
“A community that clubs together, raises money to provide vital care to people so that if they are disabled they have freedom and independence and dignity and quality of life.
“Or people of age who don’t just want to look back on life well lived, but live life to the fullest to the very end, we’ve got these wonderful, wonderful organisations that provide a quality of social care that is frankly missing to many other parts of society.
“I take great inspiration from that.”
Giving a hint as to what he would hope to achieve in his health role if Labour were elected as the next government, Streeting reveals he has been spending time visiting Jewish Care services and those of Norwood in his own constituency “looking at the quality of accommodation and services” along with the “vision for the future.”
He adds:”Take Sinclair House in my own constituency, which is now due to undergo a major redevelopment thanks to the generosity of supporters.
“That is a vision for a bold Jewish Care campus that will bring generations together.”
Asked if the Jewish Care model is something that could be replicated on a national level he adds:”I take great inspiration from Jewish Care and the way they provide services.
“My ambition, and it’s going to take time, my ambition in the longer term is to make sure that everyone in the country has access to these types of services.
“I think the Jewish community provides a great deal of inspiration for the rest of the country. The way in which the values of family. community, care, compassion are brought to life through modern public services.”
Streeting will deliver his main speech at the Labour conference on Wednesday, one day after leader Starmer gives his own speech, seen by many as the most crucial one he has made yet.
There is no doubt the momentum has shifted to Starmer’s party over the past year, with opinion polls showing Labour around 15 per cent ahead of the Tories ahead of an election expected a year from now.
Streeting, seen by many as a future Labour leader, is understandably proud of the role he has played in turning around the party’s fortune, including in the fight against antisemitism that dominated the narrative under Jeremy Corbyn.
The latest notable achievement came last Thursday, as Labour candidate Michael Shanks, who had previously quit the party under Corbyn because he could not look Jewish friends in the eye any longer, easily won a by-election in Scotland, with a 20 per cent swing from the SNP.
Shanks, says Streeting is “someone with integrity and conviction”, who had returned to the party again under Starmer’s leadership.
“I think his victory is a really important moment in the Labour Party’s journey back to government, both in terms of the change and transformation we’ve seen within the Labour Party,” he adds.
But Streeting quickly adds:”Even after a result like that, we are not remotely complacent about the next general election.
“We’re not taking a single voter for granted. We have had to earn voters trust the hard way following the Corbyn years. And we don’t take anyone for granted and we will never take anyone for granted.
“Of course that’s particularly true of the Jewish community where people felt so badly let down.
“We’ve obviously had a really important year on that front. Whether it’s, you know, the return of Louise Ellman to the Labour Party just a year ago,now Luciana Burger has returned to the Labour Party and is going to her first conference as a party member since she was hounded out.”
Streeting admits he is only too aware that complaints about antisemitic conduct amongst Labour members still remain.
“We will never be complacent about antisemitism within the party or within wider society,” he stresses, pointing to the fact that when complaints now arrive “they are acted upon, investigated, and action taken. ”
The Cambridge University history graduate, he grew up in Tower Hamlets insists that thankfully, there are lots of people who are” racist and antisemitic, who cut up their own party membership cards and walked out.”
Under Starmer’s leadership the message is loud and clear, he says; “If you are antisemitic the Labour Party is not your home.
“If you subscribe to conspiracy theorist politics, the Labour Party is not a safe haven for you.
“If you don’t believe in a two state solution, a state for Israel and a state for the Palestinians, including Israel’s rights to defend itself, this is not the Labour Party for you. ”
Streeting jokes there are now “plenty of far left alternatives out there” with a new hard-left party “created every day to accommodate cranks and crackpots.”
He is also unafraid to mount outspoken attacks on the direction of travel of the Conservative Party under Rishi Sunak.
In the aftermath of a Tory Party conference in Manchester that most pundits suggested had failed to turn around the government’s fortunes, Streeting suggests:”Rishi Sunak has proven himself this week, to be awfully weak and pathetic.
“He has surrendered his political party to cranks, crackpots and conspiracy theorists on the right.
“The difference between what we went through with the cranks and crackpots and conspiracy theorists of the left is that we were an opposition party. These people are in government.
“This last week, we have seen government ministers, cabinet ministers from the platform of the Conservative Party conference peddle conspiracy theories, about 15 minutes cities, meat taxes, and other things.
“It’s almost like they’ve spent their days scrolling through Tik Tok trying to find the most bizarre conspiracy theories on the internet to peddle for their political ends.
“I just wonder what has happened to the party of Winston Churchill … Rishi Sunak has made Liz truss and Boris Johnson look like the good old days.”
Then came last week’s comments made by the London Tory mayoral candidate Susan Hall, who was quickly condemned, including by Streeting himself on social media, for suggesting Jewish Londoners were frightened of Sadiq Khan.
“I was absolutely furious because when I was fighting antisemitism in the Labour Party in the Corbyn years, it often felt like a lonely endeavour,” he said of his immediate criticism of Hall’s remarks.
‘There was a band of us that were really committed to standing up against antisemitism in the Labour Party.
“And Sadiq Khan was one that was part of that band.
“In fact, as Mayor of London he was one of the only people in a position of real power authority in the Labour Party that stood up and took a stand that there really weren’t many of them.
“You had Sadiq Khan, Tom Watson, Keir Starmer.
“Very few people in positions of authority were willing to speak out. ”
The mayor of London had also made a point of “standing up for London’s diversity, standing up for all communities and promoting interfaith dialogue and relationships”, Streeting added.
“It’s something that he really cares about, and I think there’s something wonderful about our country.
“A Muslim Mayor of London, celebrating Shabbat with Jewish friends and their neighbours and encouraging that kind of spirit in our city.
“I’m afraid it felt to me like Susan Hall was using antisemitism as a political football and also, frankly, playing for sort of a I think a very ugly current that suggests that because Sadiq Khan is a Muslim somehow he wouldn’t stand up for London’s Jewish communities.”
Streeting says it is “not for me to judge” whether or not the Conservative Party have let down their Jewish supporters in the community.
But it is true that councillors have been allowed back into the party for the sort of “Zionist” slurs that would see them expelled from Labour.
Some of the party’s MP even lept to the defence of “Corbynista mayor” Jamie Driscoll after he was denied the chance to apply to be Labour candidate for a bigger mayoral role, having admitted he had not even read the equalities watchdog report on antisemitism.
And in his speech at his own party’s conference, Sunak had backed the London mayoral candidate Hall, despite her divisive attack on mayor Khan.
Streeting observed” I do think that when it comes to tackling antisemitism no political party should be complacent.
“And yes, the double standards concern me.
“You know, the Conservative Party called out the Labour Party for not taking disciplinary action against racists.
“But how about they also get their own house in order… and the Green Party for that matter.
“That seems to become a harbour for Labour Party members who’ve been expelled. The fight against antisemitism has always been a matter of principle, no matter of party politics.
“I will always stand with friends and colleagues against antisemitism, whatever the colour of the rosette that they wear.”
But he says of the Tories:”One of the things I lament about the state of politics today is as the Labour Party has returned to the mainstream, the Conservative Party have abandoned it.
“I really wished for the sake of our country that both of our main political parties could be simultaneously credible and offer the country the quality of debate and the battle of ideas it deserves.
“I deeply fear for where the Conservative Party is going, and the kind of politics they’re espousing.”
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