LONDON — When Prime Minister Theresa May fired the starting gun last month for Britain’s general election, it triggered an immediate exodus of moderate Labour MPs. With the party’s poll ratings plunging, defeat near-certain and the unsavory prospect of fighting for their seats under the leadership of the deeply unpopular Jeremy Corbyn, many of Labour’s leading centrist voices simply opted to throw in the towel.
But not MP Louise Ellman. Ignore her gentle, soft-spoken manner; the veteran Jewish Labour politician is made of sterner stuff.
She has had to be. With Corbyn’s election as Labour leader in 2015, there was a surge in new membership within Ellman’s constituency in the northwest city of Liverpool. As in many other local parties, many of the newcomers were simply youthful enthusiasts, energized by Corbyn’s outsider status and populist message.
A small minority, however, were hard-left activists who found Ellman — a vocal supporter of Israel and prominent member of the Jewish Labour Movement — an irresistible target. As one local council member suggested last year, the assault came from “a tiny but vocal group” who seemed “hell-bent on attacking our MP in an orchestrated, horrible, personal way.”
Another non-Jewish member described the atmosphere as “terrifying.” Ellman herself said that there was “an almost obsessive focus” on her views on Israel. Anti-Semitic remarks were alleged to have been made on at least three occasions, while leaked emails later suggested that members of the pro-Corbyn Momentum group were plotting to oust Ellman.
‘[They were] hell-bent on attacking Ellman in an orchestrated, horrible, personal way’
The revelations triggered complaints to the Labour party and an investigation by its National Executive Committee. In response, Ellman’s local committee is being reorganized and disciplinary action against certain members is being considered.
But, though she may have had more reason than most not to stand for re-election, Ellman will defend the Labour seat that she has represented since 1997 when Britain votes on June 8.
“In politics, you have to fight and never give up,” she declares. “I want to have social and economic justice for the whole community and that, with my opposition to racism and anti-Semitism, is what fires me.”
The prospect of continuing to represent Liverpool — “a wonderful city” — is not one from which she is willing to walk away.
Buoyed by the support she has received both locally and nationally — she stresses the backing she has received from many non-Jewish Labour members and MPs — Ellman is also clear that she will not be silenced on the issues she cares about. Even as she came under fire from the hard left, Ellman, a vice-chair of Labour Friends of Israel, continued to speak out in parliament in defense of the Jewish state.
“It’s not in my character to be intimidated,” she says. “These are issues I feel strongly about… and I am going to keep fighting in my corner. What I am saying is very reasonable, very mainstream.”
‘It’s not in my character to be intimidated’
Nonetheless, after a series of rows about allegations of anti-Semitism within the party and accusations of inaction by the leadership — like when last month it opted not to expel the former London mayor, Ken Livingstone, who had repeatedly suggested that Hitler supported Zionism — Jewish support for Labour has plummeted. Last year, a poll for the Jewish Chronicle suggested that a mere 8.5% of Jews would vote for the party.
“I am very distressed at the collapse in the links between the Jewish community and the Labour party and I hope that those links can be restored in the future,” says Ellman.
She appeals to Jewish voters who have traditionally backed the party to think twice before deserting it.
“It is up to individuals what they do, but no problem was ever solved by walking away from it. So, I ask individual Jewish people to think of their role as citizens, to think about what kind of society they want to live in and where they are represented by a Labour MP to remember that,” says Ellman.
Ellman also believes that, despite foot-dragging by the leadership, there is now “more of an understanding that there is an issue of anti-Semitism in the Labour party.”
She points, too, to the fact that senior figures in the party, such as deputy leader Tom Watson, “continue to speak out very strongly against what’s happening.”
There has been, Ellman argues, a “real change in how people understand modern anti-Semitism.”
She recognizes that while members of the Labour party have always recoiled from the problem in its “traditional form” — she cites opposition to Britain’s pre-war fascist leader, Oswald Mosley, and his modern-day adherents in the far-right British National party — some have greater difficulty recognizing left-wing anti-Semitism.
The phenomenon is not a new one, she argues, but has become “more prominent and often shows in discussions about Israel and the way it is treated in a way no other country is.”
It is not, though, simply how Israel is discussed which is problematic, but the manner in which parts of the left focus on it to the exclusion of many other issues and conflicts which Ellman finds disturbing.
“It is deeply problematic because Israel is singled out of all the disputes around the world,” she says, “and it is then discussed in ways that don’t recognize the existential problem that Israel faces, and it then emerges that Israel is uniquely evil — and that is a completely distorted reality.”
Ellman is concerned that British newspapers and broadcasters feed the problem.
‘The media bears some responsibility. The Israel-Palestine issue is a complex situation… That’s not always brought out in journalism’
“The media bears some responsibility,” she argues. “The Israel-Palestine issue is a complex situation with a lot of history involved, different perceptions, and different fears by the parties involved. That’s not always brought out in journalism.”
While she does not minimize the scale of Labour’s problems, Ellman argues that the Conservatives also have within their ranks people who make “unpleasant statements” about the conflict. She points to the fact that Sir Alan Duncan, now a senior minister in Theresa May’s Foreign Office, once suggested that anyone who supported settlements was not fit to hold public office.
“Now that’s pretty strong talk,” Ellman says. The center-left Liberal Democrats have also faced controversies around allegedly anti-Semitic statements by senior figures, including Jenny Tonge, who was finally expelled from the party last year, and David Ward, the former MP for Bradford East who claimed during the 2014 war that he would “probably” fire a rocket at Israel if he lived in Gaza.
Last week, Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron was forced to block Ward’s bid to regain his seat in June’s general election, saying that his past comments about Jews had been “deeply offensive, wrong and anti-Semitic.” The party was also forced to suspend its candidate in Luton South for a series of allegedly anti-Semitic social media posts, including one comparing Zionists to Nazis.
It is Corbyn, however, who has made Labour utterly toxic to many Jews, with the incoming head of the Jewish Leadership Council warning recently that a Labour victory would see the election of “the first ever prime minister who is positively hostile … to the Jewish community.”
Ellman joined the majority of Labour MPs last summer in passing a motion of no-confidence in the Labour leader.
‘I don’t think he is credible’
“I don’t think he is credible,” she said at the time. “I don’t think he can reach out to enough people. I don’t think he can move from making statements of principles to working out policies to secure results.”
She side-steps questions about whether that is still her view.
“We are now fighting a general election against a government which is inflicting great damage across the whole community, across the health service to social care, education, that is likely to come to some agreement about a post-Brexit Europe with the loss of many jobs. So we are united against that,” she says.
Ellman’s air of steely determination and serene confidence perhaps owes something to the fact that, having been active in the party during its dark days in the 1980s, she feels “a sense of déjà vu” about Labour’s current condition. Two years after Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, Ellman became leader of Lancashire county council. She held the post for the following 16 years as the Tories won a further three general elections and the hard left rose to ascendancy within the Labour party, before being finally driven out.
“It was a very difficult time,” she recalls. “People were very upset… but the Labour party survived and came back.”
Ellman draws comfort and strength from this history.
“The answer isn’t to leave but to fight, however difficult it is, and the Labour party will come back,” she says. “The Labour party has strong roots in the community. It will not go away.”