The other virus that kills
Is Keir Starmer's sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey a gross over-reaction or a firm display of leadership and a signal that the Labour party is intolerant of anti-Semitism? Andrew Whitehead explains.
The thing about viruses is that you can't see them.
COVID kills but is invisible to the naked eye. The computer viruses that worm their way into your laptop have elaborate names but no corporeal existence. And then there are the viruses which seep into society, unseen and intangible, and corrode it from within - that identify a group as "the other", different, lesser, based on race or religion or colour or caste.
Anti-Semitism is one of the most persistent and pernicious of these vectors of hate. It lay behind one of the most grotesque episodes of an unhappy century - the Holocaust, the industrial-scale genocide complete with concentration camps and gas chambers, pursued by Hitler's Germany eighty years or so ago. At least six million people perished, most of them Jews.
This is not a column about the past but the present. Anti-Semitism, along with other forms of racism and intolerance, is still among us. And unlike (we hope) COVID, there will never be a vaccination that protects us from hate.
What brings this to mind is the sacking in the past week of Rebecca Long-Bailey. Not a name that's well-known, at least outside the British Labour Party. She's an MP and - until a few days ago - the party's spokesperson on education. She stood for the party leadership earlier this year as the left-wing candidate and was a respectable runner-up to the more middle-of-the-road winner, Keir Starmer.
She is not anti-Semitic (though a few on the left-wing of the Labour Party are). She is a sincere and committed opponent of racism and inequality. She is part of a new style of Labour politicians - young, lively, unstuffy.
So I had better explain what happened, and why.
Britain's Labour Party has lost four successive general elections and has been out of power for a decade. During that time in the wilderness, it swung sharply to the left (before swinging back towards the centre). And it developed a problem with anti-Semitism.
This was not, by-and-large, Labour members saying hugely offensive things about Jews - but often expressing a criticism of Zionism (the ideology underlying the explicitly Jewish state of Israel) in such a manner that it appeared to scapegoat all Jews or repeating ages-old conspiracy theories about supposed Jewish control of finance or the media. Many Jewish members of the party felt unwelcome. Jewish religious organisations complained that while the party leadership condemned anti-Semitism, it didn't do much to root it out.
The most egregious example came two years ago when the party's then-leader - Jeremy Corbyn, a left-winger - offered support to a campaign to prevent the removal of a wall painting. The painting featured a crude and stereotypical portrayal of Jewish financiers. Mr Corbyn later accepted that the mural was 'deeply disturbing and anti-Semitic' and said he hadn't initially looked at it attentively.
A government watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, is undertaking a formal investigation into allegations of anti-Semitism within Labour - a terrible indictment of a party which stands for inclusivity. Its previous inquiry into a political party was of a tiny extreme right outfit.
When Keir Starmer was elected Labour's leader three months ago, he declared that his top priority was to root out anti-Semitism in the party and to regain the confidence of Britain's Jews. It's not a particularly large community - about 300,000 people in a population of 66 million - but the persistence of a streak of anti-Semitism is seen as indicating Labour's unfitness to govern.
Enter Rebecca Long-Bailey - and her constituent, Maxine Peake, a prominent actor and outspoken leftist. Last week, Peake gave a newspaper interview in which she expressed her support for Labour and a campaigning socialist movement. Long-Bailey tweeted approvingly of it.
Buried away in the interview was a remark Peake made about the Black Lives Matter movement. She suggested that the American cops who put George Floyd in that fatal neck hold had learnt the technique from the Israeli security services. That's not true and Peake has since withdrawn the comment and apologised for it.
There is a distinction between anti-Semitism and criticising the actions of the Israeli state, which has been so oppressive to Palestinians. But an aspect of anti-Semitism is a tendency to suggest that, one way or another, Jews are the root cause of all the world's ills.
Keir Starmer took the view that Long-Bailey, by her tweet, had given credence to an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. She made clear that her tweet wasn't an endorsement of all that Peake had said in the interview. But when she didn't promptly take down the tweet, Starmer sacked her.
Labour left-wingers say this was a gross over-reaction to a comment that was unwise but not worse than that. The broader view is that Keir Starmer demonstrated firm leadership and made clear that Labour's intolerance of anti-Semitism is not simply a pious wish but a guiding principle. And that's as it should be.