Wednesday, 21 September 2016
Labour MP Ruth Smeeth: 'I've never seen anti-Semitism in Labour like this, it's normal now'
I don’t want to be known as ‘the Jewish MP’,” says Ruth Smeeth, East End accent still audible from a childhood in London. “I am an MP who happens to be Jewish. One of the things that makes me most angry about this whole thing is that I’ve ended up as the Jewish MP. Worse: a victim and a target. I should be the MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, a hard-working, lifelong member of the Labour Party.” She describes herself as “a Labour, socialist, Jewish, woman” in that order. “Actually, British first: British, Labour, socialist, Jewish, woman.”
Smeeth, 37, is the MP who walked out of the launch of the Chakrabarti report, an inquiry into anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, after being harassed by a member of Momentum, the activist group behind Jeremy Corbyn.
Since then she has been called a “yid c***” (among other racial slurs), a “CIA/ MI5/Mossad informant”, a “dyke”, and a “f***ing traitor”. In all she’s experienced more than 25,000 incidents of abuse, much of it racial. As a result two people are being investigated by counter-terrorism police — one of whom penned a 1,000-word essay on how he would kill her.
Given her previous work with Hope Against Hate, an anti-racism charity, “I initially assumed [the author] was from the far-Right. And then someone rang to inform me it was a Corbynista.”
Chakrabarti’s report (and the subsequent abuse it generated) is to be debated by Labour’s National Executive Committee today. It states: “A political home, like a domestic one, should be a place where you feel comfortable and safe even and especially when things are more difficult on the outside.”
And yet because of threats from her own party, Smeeth now has “security” — organised by the parliamentary authority and police. She can’t give exact details but says she won’t be going to Labour conference alone on Sunday.
“I am still going — I can’t let the intimidators win. Do I think it will be pleasant? No. Do I think there will be a lot of anger? Probably. But I’m sensible about what I’m doing, how I’ll be, and what I’ll do, and I won’t be by myself.”
We meet at her office in Stoke-on-Trent, decorated with photographs of former Labour Prime Ministers and historical campaign posters. Smeeth is tall with a big laugh.
She might wear a gold Star of David under the neckline of her dress, “but I don’t talk about Israel or Palestine. This [abuse] is not about anything I’ve said on Middle-East politics. I don’t participate.” She describes herself as “culturally Jewish” — her husband is Irish Catholic.
Her political concerns reflect her immediate constituency, one of the poorest in the country. If anything, the furore over her religion distracts from more pressing issues.
There were rare flashes of anti-Semitism under Ed Miliband, who is Jewish, “but not like this. I’ve never seen anti-Semitism in Labour on this scale. There were one or two incidents before and the reason why they were so shocking is that there were only one or two. Now the sheer volume of it has made it normal.”
She lists MPs who have received abuse generally, from Angela Eagle to Mary Creagh, who had a brick thrown through her Wakefield constituency office last week. “Neil Coyle had death threats when his wife was eight months pregnant. Ian Murray had threats shouted outside his office when he was in parliament but his staff were there. Stella Creasy has had tons, as has Jess Phillips.
“There are so many it’s becoming normal. And that’s difficult. I’ve just named half a dozen MPs without trying. It’s the opposite of what we promised after Jo Cox was murdered.”
Could she imagine this happening to Conservatives? “The Tories care more about power than ideology,” she says, “so they would squish it really quickly. They wouldn’t let it get in the way of them running the country.”
Smeeth has raised the issue of racism with Jeremy Corbyn “privately” on “numerous occasions” from December 2015. “Each time, the same answer: ‘I am anti-racist therefore it’s not a problem’.” She rolls her eyes. “It wasn’t even acknowledged. Until it was a rolling news story after Ken [Livingstone made comments about Hitler supporting Zionism], he ignored it, yes.”
Her verbal evidence was taken by Chakrabarti “and I am cited in the report. Not by name, but there are very few female Jewish MPs — Luciana Berger, Louise Ellman and me.” And because of this, she was invited to the inquiry launch. It took place on June 30, a fortnight after Jo Cox’s murder, a week after Brexit and “the same week we had passed a vote of no confidence in Jeremy and I had resigned”.
“The atmosphere was strange: at least half the room didn’t know why they were there, just that it was ‘a Jeremy event’. Leaflets were distributed attacking the report as “unfounded” and “unnecessary”. “I said to a friend: ‘This feels horrible’. It was moody. It shouldn’t have been.”
Mark Wadsworth, a Momentum activist, began handing out “press releases” calling for de-selection of certain Labour MPs (including Smeeth). “I asked for one. He refused. Someone said: ‘It’s a Jewish event, she’s a Jewish MP, give her a copy’. He went: ‘What’s her name?’ I said: ‘Darlin’, my name’s Ruth Smeeth’.”
He wrote it down. Three journalists offered her their copies. She took the closest — from Kate McCann of The Daily Telegraph. McCann then tweeted that Labour MPs at a Labour event were getting abuse from Momentum.
“In the Q&A Jeremy said again that he didn’t believe in abuse of any form. And then Shami allowed Wadsworth to speak. He said, ‘Ruth Smeeth is working hand- in-hand’ with the Right-wing media to attack Jeremy’. So I shouted, ‘How dare you?’ The audience started shouting at me — at the launch of an inquiry into how we treat Jews in the Labour Party!
“Jeremy said nothing. So I walked out. If one of my councillors was being shouted at I would have stopped it. You get involved, especially if like Jeremy you are standing next to a sign which says: ‘Standing up and not standing by’ at an anti-Semitism event.”
While the incident looped on the news, Smeeth waited for a call “from Corbyn, from his office, from the front bench, from someone, anyone.” Silence.
So she issued a statement saying Labour was no longer “a safe space for British Jews”. Corbyn’s office manager called and said Jeremy would be in touch that evening. “But the phone call never came.”
In fact, he wasn’t in touch for 10 days, and only then called 45 minutes before giving evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee. When his office did finally arrange a meeting (at 9am one Wednesday in London). “I was there. Jeremy wasn’t. His team said, ‘Jeremy understood that the meeting hadn’t been confirmed’, so he didn’t turn up.’”
Mostly she puts Corbyn’s behaviour down to a shambolic lack of organisation rather than anything sinister. “I’ve spent a lot of time with Jeremy,” she says. “The disconnect between the Jeremy I know and the Jeremy who his supporters think he is — and what they are prepared to do in his name or for him because they think that is what he wants — is huge. My biggest issue is that he knows it’s happening and that it’s still happening.
“His words about unity are fine until his surrogates go out and say things like ‘people will get what’s coming to them’, or ‘de-selections are acceptable’. If he has surrogates attacking parts of Labour that have supported the party for decades and decades, then he’s got a problem and we’ve all got a problem.”
She says many of the surrogates are “clear and upfront” about who they are. Others remain anonymous. “It’s rarely your own constituents — they are disgusted and appalled by such behaviour” — she’s been sent flowers, pottery and letters of support — “they are also getting fed up with me being called The Jewish MP.”
What should Corbyn do? “If Jeremy highlighted three or four really offensive comments done in his name — because they have his twibbon — and said, ‘This is the sort of thing I believe is beyond the pale’, that would be good. Name and shame, make it clear they don’t speak for him.”
Many have concerns about the virulent militancy within Momentum, set up following Corbyn’s election as leader to harness the enthusiasm of his grassroots supporters. Smeeth says there are some “good people” but that she’s “wary of the long-term aspirations of some of their leadership”, including those “who have yet to vote Labour in a general election”.
The problem is that “they’ve been abysmal about racism. And this talk of de-selection is attacking colleagues instead of Tories. I’d like an alternative government. Momentum is a hindrance to that. It’s disgraceful.”
Are they a cult around Corbyn? “It’s something weird. There was a ‘Jeremy for leader’ phone bank here on the same day as a local by-election. They were calling Labour members rather than helping get the vote out. Their priority is not the Labour Party. It’s not fighting the Tories. Their priorities are skewed.”
Smeeth was born in Edinburgh, the daughter of an “east London Jewish girl and a rugged Scottish trade unionist”. An only child, her father left when she was three. “And when he left, he left.” She doesn’t believe he is still alive. “But my mum is my heroine.”
Her maternal family arrived in London having escaped Tsarist pogroms in the 1890s. One of her grandfathers set up aJewish trade union branch for carpentry.
“My grandmother was literate and wrote complaint letters for all the old dears on the council estate. It was a version of councillor surgeries. My favourite story was when Sainsbury’s changed the cap colour of semi-skimmed milk and all the old dears were very angry. My grandmother co-ordinated a joint letter to say ‘they’ve all brought the wrong milk and it’s cost them a fortune’.”
They then moved to Bristol, where her mother worked full-time as the deputy general secretary of the union Amicus. “I used to earn my pocket money as a kid delivering leaflets for the Labour Party. I door-knocked for the first time in the 1992 election. I’d have been 12.”
Today many of her constituents are not Corbyn fans. “They don’t think he can represent the country. They don’t like his past relationship with the IRA.”
She says they find it “offensive” when Jeremy — with his middle-class upbringing — says he doesn’t consider himself wealthy. “He earns £130,000 a year. My constituents are doing well if they earn 10 per cent of that,” she says. “Perhaps it’s easy to be an ideological purist if you can afford to live under the Tories. My constituents can’t.”