Ten days out from Owen Jones declaring an “all out war” on antisemitism… How is it going, so far? Mixed, I’d say.
On the credit side, it is heartening that Jones and other Corbyn cheerleaders are at least no longer pretending that this is all a smear campaign or ignoring the issue altogether. Even Aaron Bastani has admitted that he’s realised the truth of this over the last week (which highlights two things; 1. listen to people more, and 2. you can’t be a credible expert in a particular political culture when you only joined five minutes ago).
Owen Jones also wrote a decent Twitter thread and a reasonable enough article for Huck; although his constant need to talk about “weaponising” feels, shall we say, unhelpful.
Now to the debit side. During the march against antisemitism, where the Jewish Board of Deputies took the unprecedented action of protesting against an opposition party, what was Owen’s response? The only reference he made to it was to point out that Ian Paisley Jr was present. Surely the only purpose of doing this was to undermine the demonstration, and if we’re going to be consistent, such a criteria would similarly invalidate pretty much every event Owen has ever supported as well.
Earlier that day, he’d also shared an article by Jewish Voice for Labour, a group set up last year which opposed Tony Greenstein’s expulsion from the party. He subsequently deleted the tweet as he claimed he’d got confused with a different organisation (Jewish Voice). It’s possible, but I’d note that 1. his original tweet said he wanted to provide some “balance” on the subject (balance?! What balance is there to provide on an anti-racist march?) and 2. whether accidental or not, the upshot was to give JVL a lot of publicity.
How’s it been going since then? Well… badly. He went on the BBC yesterday and decided to mudsling; instead of this war on antisemitism, Owen decided to wave a bit of paper around and turn fire on the Tories. An approach which, interestingly, he himself referred to as being “beside the point” in his Huck article.
And in response to a challenge today, he listed out the times when he has written against antisemitism. He’s correct. He has written those things. But here’s the problem.
In March 2016, Owen wrote this piece. Less than two months later, Jackie Walker was suspended from the Labour Party for making comments about Jews financing the slave trade. And Owen’s response was this:
David Paxton has written excellently on this whole episode here.
And so we arrive at the problem. Whilst it is a positive thing that Jones and the like are acknowledging that antisemitism is a genuine issue for the Labour Party, it seems that this antisemitism is never possible to pin down. Owen seems to treat it as some sort of noxious cloud hovering in the air, rather than being present in people’s thoughts, beliefs and actions.
It’s not enough to simply say antisemitism is bad and hope it goes away. We can’t just open a window and wait for the smell to pass. Education, as Jones proposes, is a reasonable step, but we also need to be able to identify the problem as and when it occurs. For example, Owen was happy to disagree with Christine Shawcroft on her union comments, but did not breathe a word about her resignation except to support a supposed action by Jeremy Corbyn. Why no comment here? If this is “war”, why silence?
What does Owen think about Ken? Or Chris Williamson promoting Scott Nelson? Will Owen stand 100% with those MPs being harassed – Luciana Berger, Thangam Debonnaire, David Lammy? Will he condemn alt-left sites claiming this is all an anti-Corbyn plot? Until he does these things, I suspect the benefit of the doubt will continue to elude him.
The current steps are welcome, but not enough. It’s not enough to wait for someone to be suspended or see which way the leadership wind is blowing before definitively saying that person was wrong. It’s not enough to try and throw up chaff about Tory racism, or to distract conversation back to the Iraq war. Owen shows that he does understand some of the common antisemitic tropes, and that’s a genuine positive. But if he’s serious about “drumming antisemites out of the party”, he needs to be able to identify them. Even when, as with Jackie Walker, they are his friends. Especially when they are his friends.
Otherwise this looks a bit like trying to get through the media cycle, and possibly covering yourself for the future, being able to say “look, I’ve written about this many times!”. A useful starting point might be for Owen to write about why he was so wrong about Jackie Walker, and how he might approach these things differently in future. Or, could Owen identify any fault with Corbyn’s past actions?
So far we have a declared “all out war” which is filled with caveats, exemptions, useful silences and distractions. Perhaps it is no surprise that someone who consistently opposes interventions to support oppressed groups would turn out to be quite bad at this particular war.