Labour changed when Corbyn announced his leadership bid
(From the Friday, December 4, 2020, edition of the Jewish Telegraph)
THE Jewish Telegraph has been dominated by the Labour Party’s antisemitism crisis over the last few years. Throughout the saga, the community has had a number of allies within the party, one of whom — and arguably the biggest and most vocal — is Rosie Duffield. ADAM CAILLER (virtually) sat down with the 49-year-old MP for Canterbury to get her take on how it all developed, whether or not she is hopeful under the leadership of Sir Keir Starmer, and what the support she received from the Jewish community has meant to her.
ROSIE Duffield’s political career has been intertwined with the Labour Party’s inability to deal with its antisemitism crisis.
Norwich-born Rosie was chairman of the Canterbury Labour Party in 2015, helping to organise the area’s General Election campaign.
The candidate at the time was the Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s current chairman Hugh Lanning, who was refused entry into Israel because of his support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
Mr Lanning lost that 2015 election to Conservative Julian Brazier. who had been the MP for the area since 1987.
It was during that campaign that Rosie first met Jeremy Corbyn.
“I didn’t know a lot about him at all,” she recalled. “He’d come to support our candidate a few months before in Canterbury, because they’re close friends, and I didn’t know him and I’d never met him.
“I don’t even think I’d heard of him at the time.
“He was just rallying the troops for us, and that was really useful.
“But when he stood for leadership, Hugh said ‘come on, back Jeremy, he’ll only get a few votes anyway, but it will be nice because he supported us during the campaign.
“I thought, Oh, you know, why not? I’m sure he’s a nice guy.
“But, I noticed a whole different kind of member, a whole different kind of person, would be applying or joining, who had left under Tony Blair, but now they felt that they could join again, when Jeremy won.
“I was quite naïve — I didn’t really know what necessarily attracted them to him as a leader.
“The kind of people that were joining were doing so in time to vote for Jeremy — there was a pattern of that going on.”
Rosie recalls that the membership before Mr Corbyn took over was one that “just wanted a Labour Government” which focused on justice for people on benefits etc.
But very quickly, she noticed a change in the membership, turning into one with people who “were always wanting to protest”.
She said: “They were always looking to introduce motions, and I thought it was kind of a bit mad.
“We noticed this pattern, among all the constituency Labour parties, that they were introducing the same motion almost on the same night, and it seemed to be very organised.
“The make-up of the local meetings and who was coming along and who was active, just just looked and felt a bit different.
“The majority of members were still my friends and still okay, but there were just these few really loud, really angry people who were intent on organising us all to have a much more far left agenda. I just thought that this can’t be a coincidence.”
During the height of Mr Corbyn’s “popularity”, Rosie stood as an MP, although she did not expect to win.
However, she managed to overturn a majority of more than 10,000 — one of the largest majorities at the time.
“It was impossible for me, there was no way I was ever going to win that election, so it’s a bit of a shock,” she said.
To some, she could arguably have been seen as a Corbyn candidate, but Rosie is adamant that this couldn’t be further from the truth.
During her time as branch chairman, she decided that she was “never” going to say who she voted for during the 2015 leadership race, nor the one the following year.
The party had become, in her eyes, “factional” and she was not intent on contributing to that.
“Nobody knew my personal view on Jeremy,” she recalled. “I barely mentioned him in the 2017 campaign, but I was aware that he was making young people really enthused and interested in politics.
“And I though that was a good thing.
“The manifesto was really good because it stood apart from the Tory manifesto, and it made us look quite, not too left wing, but much more different to what we’d had before the coalition.
“I don’t think I was elected because of Jeremy, but I think in 2017, it did help that actually people wanted change, and he did inspire a lot of people back then.”
During the 2015–2017 period, the antisemitism crisis was beginning to get into full flow.
Former London mayor Ken Livingstone had already uttered his famous Hitler and Zionism comments, the Shami Chakrabarti report/whitewash had been published, and the Home Affairs Select Committee accused Labour of “incompetence” in dealing with the issue.
The mother-of-two said: “At the first election, I hadn’t really begun to join the dots yet, but after that I was getting more and more uncomfortable with Jeremy’s leadership — I didn’t vote for him in the second leadership contest (in 2016), because I didn’t really like the way we were going.
“I felt it was just too left wing, and I had started to notice that these kinds of people were causing difficulties locally and, again, it was a very small handful.
“I felt their take on the whole two-state solution was not the same as mine, and not even the party line.
“And you started getting name calling, such as being called a Zionist shill and all those kinds of horrible terms.
“I really felt that this could not be coincidence, and they made me quite uncomfortable.”
Rosie, a former teaching assistant and political satire writer, made her feelings known when she stood with the Jewish community at the 2018 Enough is Enough rally in Parliament Square.
She was one of a handful of Labour MPs who attended, alongside John Mann, Chuka Umunna, Wes Streeting, Stella Creasy, Liz Kendall and John Woodcock.
Calling it the “right thing to do”, Rosie said: “It didn’t even cross my brain not to go, and there was a Jewish community who did not make a habit of going on protest marches.
“So many people I knew from the Jewish Labour Movement were there, as was my colleague at the time, Luciana Berger.
“I didn’t have to think about it, I just did the right thing.”
But Rosie recalls a more sinister moment, caused by a member of Mr Corbyn’s senior staff.
For as she and her Labour colleagues returned to Parliament, the senior staff member was standing at the gates making a list of the Labour MPs who attended the rally.
“I wondered why he was doing that, and then we went into the Parliamentary Labour Party meeting that night and a lot of people were very angry,” she said.
“I’d only been in Parliament for sort of six months or so, and was still finding my feet — I don’t think I was even really aware of how bad things were.
“But the minute there was a rally, I suddenly started to take it much more seriously.
“You know, if the Jewish community is feeling that we are antisemitic, then we are and that had to change.”
Throughout all of this, Rosie was hoping that, once Mr Corbyn saw the strength of feeling, he’d come on board and realise that the issue was serious, and that he just didn’t realise the scale of the problem.
Once the realisation set in, Rosie became “angry”.
She recalled: “I was really, really angry, because so many people were telling him — from the Jewish community, the Jewish Labour Movement teams and your own MPs.
“He was, to a certain extent, our boss, so he had a duty of care for those MPs, those women who were crying week after week in our PLP meetings with the never-ending examples of what they were going through and what had been sent to them, written about them — the abuse and the threats.
“What was he doing ignoring that?
“There was absolutely no excuse as our leader, and he could have done something about it straight away.”
Behind the scenes, the anger was shared with many members of the PLP.
Rosie reached out and worked closely with the Jewish Labour Movement, Jewish friends and colleagues.
She submitted complaints to her regional directors, talked to the General Secretary’s office and the leadership to keep the pressure on.
But, time and time again, she felt incredulous about the fact that the issues were just brushed off by Mr Corbyn and his staff.
However, she caused an uproar when, in July, 2019, she openly admitted that the party was “probably” antisemitic, during an interview on BBC’s Sunday Politics show.
She was asked whether she felt it was antisemitic in relation to comments made by then-JLM national chairman Mike Katz who said that it was “institutionally antisemitic”.
“I was asked directly and I thought, look, I’ve had all these years now of evidence, and we’ve seen over and over again that nothing’s been done,” she said.
“I know that there are people who’ve been complained about in my own CLP, and we took their remarks on social media, which were so blatant and so obvious.
“We complained for several years about these people and they were still in the party and I kept thinking, what do we need to do?
“And if it’s being ignored over and over again, I can’t deny any longer that we’ve got a problem.”
The abuse Rosie suffered personally made it difficult for her to go to her own local meetings.
She recalled, with horror, having “older men, who were usually red in the face” yelling at her.
They all, of course, denied there was an issue, and told her it was all “made up”.
She continued: “Everything was centred around Jeremy, the singular person, rather than the problem of the party.
“It was always about Jeremy — they were the ones that made that connection — it was ridiculous.
“There were people saying they felt racially abused, and then there are other people yelling that they were liars, and they were yelling in my face.
“I was seeing my colleague crying. And these people who have no connection with my colleagues and had never been to a PLP meeting where we’d been really distraught, were yelling at me that I was not supporting the leader — it was an unsustainable relationship.”
In the run up to the 2019 General Election, Rosie did question whether she should still run as a Labour MP or not.
She recalls feeling uncomfortable asking people to vote for Mr Corbyn.
However, to combat this, and the sleepless nights she had, she did not use any of the party material featuring Mr Corbyn or his quotes.
But this did not stop his name coming up, in a negative manner, on virtually every doorstep or phone call she had with potential voters.
“I didn’t use anything with a quote from Jeremy on it or a picture of Jeremy Corbyn — it got that bad.”
Rosie won, by a slim margin, which she knows could have been bigger if the party had a different leader.
“I’m not the Jeremy Corbyn candidate and making that clear was hard work,” she explained.
“The only thing practically I got to talk about during the whole election campaign was him.
“I didn’t really talk about our policies, what I believed in, hardly ever even got to talk about Brexit. I only had to talk about Jeremy Corbyn, which was overwhelming.
“I knew I could win in Canterbury, because I had a coalition of folks backing me from all parties.
“Election night itself was really horrible because just before I went to my count, I was hearing news that close friends lost their seats, such as James Frith (Bury North).
“We were just all in shock watching those results come in throughout the night.
“And it was an angry reaction — we were all very angry with Jeremy.”
Mr Corbyn’s reign as leader ended in a ball of flames, with him standing down (or declaring he was, but not actually doing so for a bit longer) a few days after the crushing defeat.
He was replaced earlier this year by Sir Keir Starmer, who immediately pledged to tackle the issue of antisemitism.
At first, Rosie admits that she wasn’t hopeful, as Sir Keir had sat alongside Mr Corbyn on the Opposition’s front benches.
“I didn’t know whether he was going to do anything much at all,” she confessed.
“But he has really, really surprised me, in a good way.
“He’s coming through, and he’s really making a difference and taking the Equalities and Human Rights Commission report seriously.
“I now totally believe that he can do the right thing.
“Traditionally, we had so many areas where the Jewish community supported us for generations, and we’ve so badly let them down that we need to win them round and we need to make people feel safe.
“And we need to listen to whether we’re doing it right and not just assume that we are — that’s the most important thing.
“Only then will I know that we’ve healed ourselves.”
Rosie has often been praised for her backing of the community, and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with it on numerous occasions.
But how does she feel knowing that all the anger, pain and grief she felt was, in some ways, worth it?
“I’m proud that I took the right path,” she said. “For me, principles come before anything else, and I would rather have stood against antisemitism than be the one pretending it wasn’t an issue.
“And I had to make that choice.
“I had a life before I was an MP. You have to look at yourself in the mirror, and I had to look at Jewish friends and colleagues in the eye.
“It really was just a question of right and wrong, and I’m really grateful for the support I’ve had from the Jewish community.
“It’s lovely, but that’s not why you do these things — you do it because it’s right.”