Jeremy Newmark answers my call to him in his usual strong, enthusiastic voice. His energy as an orator and as a campaigner is a defiant rejoinder to the anti-Semites who bedevil our politics with ever-increasing boldness.
Towards the end of our conversation, Newmark tells me that his message to those who have left Labour – or are thinking of leaving Labour – because of the scourge of anti-Semitism is to revive the spirit of Cable Street. “We stay, we stand and we fight”, Newmark growls. And I believe him.
As a Jewish Labour member myself, I have been eager to interview Newmark for some time. Although not Jewish myself, I joined the Movement last year when it was becoming increasingly apparent that the Labour Party had a growing problem with anti-Semitism. Call it solidarity or basic Socialist instinct if you will. Many other non-Jewish Labour members have done the same and the Movement’s ranks have now swelled to over 2,000.
I begin by asking Newmark what the highlights and lowlights of his time as JLM Chair have been. Newmark, who was elected to the position eighteen months ago tells me, “It’s been a paradoxical experience. I stood in order to help renew and rebuild JLM as a base and a safe space within the party for what was a growing number of, particularly, young Jewish Labour activists. Within a matter of weeks of coming into the office, I found myself at the nexus of dealing with a spate of issues, incidents and what became a far more ingrained problem of anti-Semitism across the Labour Party.”
So, not quite what Newmark would have hoped for, then. Certainly, it is difficult to imagine the chair of any other ethnic minority group within Labour having to fight a rearguard action against people who don’t even want them in the party. “It’s not what I saw myself doing”, he goes on. “This shouldn’t be an organisation defined by reaction and responses to anti-Semitism. As you saw at our conference, Sam, there’s a range of policy concerns, values and issues that our members want to speak out about, campaign around and express that intersection between Jewish values and Labour values. The frustration is that so much time and energy has been dominated by the negativity around anti-Semitism.”
But it’s not all bleak. “One of the absolute highlights,” says Newmark, “has been the growth in our membership, and particularly the number of young members under the age of 26, who now account for over 50% of our entire membership base. They have really rallied to the cause and formed the future leadership of our organisation and hopefully the Labour Party and the Jewish community. The Jewish News ran a list of thirty of the most influential Jews under the age of thirty recently, and over fifty percent of them were members playing an active role in JLM.”
Is Newmark’s glass half full or half empty about the situation, I wonder? “I guess it’s a bit of both. I think that on the issues around anti-Semitism, while a lot of work remains to be done, we’ve also made tremendous progress. We had the Labour Students Inquiry, the Chakrabarti Inquiry, we’ve got rule change proposals going to conference, we’ve trained over 1,000 party members and that number is increasing all of the time. So, we’re not just seeing change. We’re actually seeing that change become institutionalised in the party. I think it will take a while for the impact of that change to become clear, but I do get a sense that issues are being dealt with better and more effectively at a local level and at a national level. We’re making progress.”
While this is all encouraging, I have to ask Newmark how widely he feels anti-Semtism has infected the party. Certainly, in my experience of both Labour Party meetings and Twitter abuse, there’s an unsettling amount of it out there, and I do not recall it being anywhere near as abundant a few years ago. “Look, I think it operates at different levels,” Newmark says. “First, let’s be clear that anti-Semitism exists within all different political parties. A couple of years ago we were talking about one Tory minister kitting out a stag dos with Nazi uniforms and not being disciplined by the Tory party. So, there’s a base layer of anti-Semitism in any party.”
“But I think that what we’ve seen with Labour in the last eighteen months are two things”, he goes on. “One: the influx of new members, including a disproportionate number of people who have deeply problematic attitudes towards Jewish people. Secondly, we’re seeing some of those people and some more established members feel emboldened and say things that they would not have said within a Labour Party context in the past.”
What is to be done next? The big proposal being pushed by the JLM at the Labour Party Conference in two weeks’ time is to get the party to change its rules so that those found guilty of anti-Semitism are not merely suspended, but auto-excluded. I ask Newmark whether he’s confident this will be accepted by the party when it meets in Brighton. “No, I’m not confident”, Newmark laments. “We were given assurances from the leader himself last year that it would be adopted and recommended as an NEC constitutional amendment, but that didn’t happen, which is why it’s had to come back as a standalone text this year. Our preference would still be for this to come through as a constitutional amendment in 2017. It would send through a consistent message and would in many ways be a culmination of the (inquiries we’ve so far had into the matter).”
Newmark has to spend so much of his time tackling anti-Semitism that I’m keen to know what he thinks about the remainder of Labour Party politics. Newmark was, after all, a parliamentary candidate at the last general election, increasing Labour’s share of the vote by 4.1% in Finchley and Golders Green and nearly unseating the sitting Tory MP, Mike Freer. So, I ask Newmark for his broader views about the state of the Labour Party more generally. “The big disappointment in not winning the election was that our manifesto appealed to a cross-section of the public, but our inability to present a united front made it impossible for enough people to bite the bullet and vote Labour. But the leadership question has been settled”, Newmark affirms.
So, what’s next for the JLM? “Our attitude stems from the slogan of early Jewish Labour members and Jewish trade unionists. At Cable Street, in the face of racism and discrimination, we refused to run away. That’s the right attitude towards these things. I understand why people would want to leave the party. I get it. I’m sensitive to it. One of the roles that JLM has played is as a last chance saloon. We have people who have resigned their party membership but have kept their affiliate status by remaining a member of JLM. We have also been successful in recruiting people as JLM members who haven’t yet joined the party because they can’t under the current scenario, but who do have a solid Labour value compass.”
As we draw to a close, Newmark tells me, “It’s a difficult time. We have to work our way through it. And this is where he declares, “Our response has been to stay, to stand and to fight.” On that defiant note, we wrap up, my admiration for Newmark and the JLM as great as it has ever been. This is a hard time to be Labour and Jewish, but with hard times come opportunities to remind the nation what true Labour values look like. In Newmark and the JLM, those in the Labour Party with decent moral instincts have an undoubted rallying point, and rally to them we shall.