So yeah we’re going to talk about that whole Labour Anti-Semitism thing

Tom Rivlin
Aug 3, 2018 · 22 min read
how I feel about this

I just want it on record that I would rather be talking about literally anything else right now. AND YET HERE I AM, spending thousands of words on the topic.

I can’t over-emphasise how stressful this topic is for me to think about it. It stabs a spear right into the heart of several of my core worldviews. It’s a horrible contradiction. It’s thoroughly unpleasant to think about. And yet, due to me being both a Jew and a member of the Labour Party in Twenty Eighteen, I have been asked by several friends to talk about my feelings on the matter. Just enough have bugged me about it that I feel compelled to write down my thoughts (despite wanting to do literally anything else). To those friends of mine: I hope you’re happy. I consider this to be the end of the matter, not an invitation to a long discussion. Don’t @ me.

That said, I don’t just want to satiate my friends’ curiosities. I hope that this will end up being worth it because I hope some people can be convinced about a few things. So please approach this with an open mind, regardless of your own views on the subject, and please take the time to read it all. Yes, all 5,400 words. I’m sorry (I’m not sorry).


A little bit of background

still screaming

Here goes.

I should start by saying a bit about me. I’m a British Jew. I was born in Israel to an Israeli mum and an English (Jewish) dad. I moved to London when I was a baby (I can’t really speak Hebrew) and have lived here ever since — 25 years in total. I went to a Jewish primary school and then a secular state school. I have lots of family in Israel whom I love very much, and I visit them regularly.

I’ve been an atheist since my teens, and, as a scientist, I have no belief whatsoever in anything supernatural. To me, as is the case for millions of Jews worldwide, being ‘Jewish’ has more to do with a cultural identity and an ethnicity. I had a bar mitzvah, I went to synagogue as a child. I know the prayers, the rituals, the festivals, the songs, the jokes, etc. I’m ethnically Jewish: I come from a mixed Ashkenazi and Mizrahi background, and I feel that point is important to emphasise because some (idiots) believe that ‘Jewish’ is just a religion with no ethnic component, to which I respond that the Gestapo didn’t go around asking whether people believed in God before rounding them up for deportation.

It’s important to note that for many years I never felt a particularly strong ‘Jewish’ identity. I spent more time with the atheist society as an undergrad than the Jewish one. To me, being ‘Jewish’ was part of my background but not a core part of my identity. Like so many assimilated Jews across the world, I never had trouble fitting in, and I never worried about that part of my life outside of family events. (To be frank, that has been changed recently by these circumstances. I feel a lot more Jewish now than I have in a while because I’ve kind of been forced to.)

On the politics side, I didn’t really take an interest in politics until recently. The first general election I could vote in was in 2015 (my last year of undergrad), so I decided then to start learning about politics so I could be an informed voter. I had friends of all political stripes around this time, and yet for me the choice was always very clear: Labour was the party that best fit the vote I wanted to cast.

When Labour lost on that fateful night in May 2015, I was pretty upset… more upset than I thought I’d be. The next day I decided to join the party. I figured if I wanted Labour to win I would have to do more than just vote for them. I’d have to actively campaign. I realised that I actually gave a crap about society, and those less fortunate than me, and a Labour government was the only way to help them. I had friends in the party who showed me the ropes, helped me take the plunge into campaigning, canvassing, door-knocking, etc., and to my surprise I found I enjoyed it. I’ve campaigned in the 2016 Mayoral election, the EU referendum, the 2017 general election, the 2018 local elections, and I’ve done ‘off-season’ canvassing with local councillors.

During this time, I’ve also learned a huge amount about politics, all of which I’ve found fascinating. I’ve learned about how our political system works (and how it doesn’t). I’ve honed my own views to the point where I know where I stand on most issues. I have a sort-of consistent ideology I’d describe as something of a social democrat, or democratic socialist, or something fairly lefty whilst not wanting to burn the system down and start over or whatever.


What Labour means to me

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Let me just say that on many levels I find the whole Corbyn project really, really exciting. I agree with the criticism of the previous Labour leaderships that they weren’t radical enough. I want Labour to tackle tax avoidance, to build up the country’s infrastructure and industry, to invest in public services, to fix the housing crisis, to fund scientific research, to end the hostile environment for migrants, to fix the welfare system… this is all good stuff! Corbyn didn’t win in 2015 as much as his opponents lost. No one else standing was offering anything as radical and exciting as Corbyn was, and so they had no way to stop the momentum (har har) he was building up with these ideas. In many, many ways, it’s a good thing that Corbyn is in charge of the Labour party, I’ll happily campaign for his party, and I would be upset if someone from the other faction of the party replaced him. In short, I want the Corbyn project to succeed.

But let me also say that, with some reservations, I’d also campaign for a party led by Blair or Brown or Kendall or Umunna or Lammy or McDonnell or Thornberry or Long-Bailey or Eagle or Eagle or Miliband or Miliband. I’d campaign for a party led by any current Labour MP (ok with a couple of exceptions… I won’t name names). I believe in the party far, far more than I believe in any individual, and I think anyone who says they’ll only campaign for a Corbyn-led party is kind of missing the most crucial point: there’s only two political parties in the UK (realistically) and one of them is the Tory Party and they are absolute bastards. Being a candidate of the one opposing party makes you by definition worth fighting to elect because then you will be helping to keep the Tories out of power. Whilst it would be nice to have a more radical party with more radical proposals, if that’s not on the table for whatever reason then it’s still worth fighting for the less radical party to kick the Tories out.

In short, I love the Labour Party, and believe in it passionately. I’ve invested a lot of time and energy into the party, made lots of good friends through it, and consider it a huge part of my life. I wouldn’t be saying anything here that I didn’t think was in the party’s best interests.

For the record, in both 2015 and 2016 I voted against Corbyn in the leadership contests. This wasn’t because I disliked his politics. The reason I did so was because I believed that he was unelectable. Obviously the 2017 GE proved me wrong, which I was delighted by. I underestimated how many people would reluctantly vote for Corbyn (who has always had strong net disapproval ratings) to stop the Tories and their Brexit plans, or out of natural affinity for Labour. I also underestimated how many people would be willing to take the gamble he was proposing by radically altering the status quo, and how well his messages would cut through, and how excited the public could be about his excellent ideas. I believed the relentless campaigns by the Daily Mail and the Sun would be so vicious that he would be unable to break through and get his message across. I overestimated their influence on the electorate. To some extent, I actually think what’s happening now is related to the fears I had in 2017, which I’ll get back to.


This didn’t come from nowhere

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Well I’m 1400 words in and no mention of the actual issue at hand. Let’s get on to the actual anti-Semitism stuff that’s been driving me crazy recently.

Before I start I just want to make one thing clear: I’m not going to explain why certain incidents are anti-Semitic. Frankly I shouldn’t have to. The overwhelming majority of British Jews see these incidents as anti-Semitic, and the existence of JVL or whatever shouldn’t negate that (There’s a Latinos for Trump group for Christ’s sake). That should be the end of that discussion. Of course, it’s certainly possible for there to be discussion and debate within the Jewish community over what counts as racism against us (and there is lots of that), but that’s a discussion for us to have internally, and not one for other people to wade in and express their opinions on. That’s how anti-racist movements are meant to work. Moving on.

The first thing to note is that this is not a new phenomenon by any means. Jews were worried about Corbyn back in 2015, because by that time he’d already amassed a large number of concerning incidents that are still plaguing him to this day. Jewish people knew this. We called him out on it. No one listened. In 2015, my mum screamed at me and literally burst into tears when I mentioned I was even thinking of voting for Corbyn. She and I had and still have different opinions on what exactly constitutes racism against us, but I found it hard to disagree with her assessment of Corbyn’s laundry list of problems.

The simple fact is that in his long career as a backbench nobody, Corbyn has associated himself with some horrible people. He was paid by the state broadcasters of Iran and Russia to appear on their propaganda shows. I don’t think I need to explain why Press TV and RT are abhorrent organisations no one should ever associate with. Yes, they hate America as much as you. Guess what? That doesn’t automatically make them good guys.

And then there’s Hamas. Now I’ll get onto the Israel stuff in a bit, but I just want to establish a quick moral baseline right now: Hamas are not nice people. Whatever you may think about Israel, can we at least agree that Hamas are an intrinsically anti-Semitic organisation and that they’re bad guys who do bad things? If we’re not on the same page that Hamas = bad, then you might as well stop reading now.

In 2009, Corbyn referred to people from Hamas as ‘friends’. In 2012, he referred to people from Hamas as ‘brothers’. Incidents like these were known about in 2015. I’m sorry but if I welcomed Nigel Farage, Steven Bannon, and Donald Trump to an event by calling them my ‘friends’ you’d be pretty welcome to house some suspicions about my opinions towards Muslims. Even if it was in the context of trying to build dialogue with people we don’t like (as some try to defend Corbyn by saying), it’s not unreasonable for that behaviour to grant some level of suspicion, especially in the context of his associations with Press TV.

These incidents (and others, like the time he defended a clearly anti-Semitic mural) aren’t isolated. Why are we seeing so many headlines recently about these things? Frankly I’m just confused about why we didn’t see more of them before. I assumed Corbyn would be buried by them in the general election, and he wouldn’t be able to survive it. That’s why I voted against him in 2015 and 2016, to avoid precisely what’s happening right now. None of these events are made up. Most of them aren’t being mis-reported (OK fine some of them are). These aren’t smears.

These. Aren’t. Smears.

These are things he’s said. In many cases these are things he’s apologised for since becoming leader (i.e. since people actually noticed). And he’s right to apologise for them because they’re disgraceful, frankly. Why would any Jewish person ever dream of putting this man in Number 10? What can I say to a Jewish person when I’m out canvassing? Why would we ever expect any Jewish person to just ignore these huge problems? I refused to campaign this year in Barnet (a target council) because I knew I wouldn’t be able to bring myself to face the Jews who live there. We lost seats there even though we gained votes across London.

I actually think Corbyn himself is a good man. He’s been on the right side of history on a number of issues, even when everyone else was against him. That counts for something. He has an unwavering dedication to justice, fairness, equality, and solidarity. He’s a committed anti-racist. I like him, on a personal level (I’ve been in the same room with him a couple of times). But he’s still an old white man, and with that comes the unavoidable biases of a life never having to personally experience discrimination for being the wrong race. It shouldn’t be unthinkable to anyone that even the most committed anti-racist has some discriminatory views if they’re a straight white dude.

Jewish people have thought of Corbyn the whole time as an anti-Semite. Now, some of you might think that’s unfair. Frankly, I do too. I don’t think he’s an anti-Semite (he obviously has lots of Jewish friends…). But, as Margaret Hodge, the MP who called him out last month, put it, it doesn’t matter whether deep down, in his heart of hearts, Corbyn holds a personal hatred towards Jews. What’s important are his words and actions. And many of them have been blatantly, unambiguously anti-Semitic. (As proven by the fact that he felt the need to apologise for them.)

If a Jewish person wants to call him an anti-Semite, then frankly I’m not going to stop them. If a Jewish newspaper wants to call him an existential threat to Jewish life in the UK, I don’t agree but I understand where that’s coming from. Jews are angry at him, and by extension at Labour. (As I write this, Corbyn is apparently planning a speech next week at the Jewish Museum in London. Illustrating how angry people are, some Jews have said if the museum hosts the event they’ll never go there again.)

And it’s a lot of Jews, and many of these Jews hate each other as much as they hate anyone else. It’s been noted that of the 68 rabbis who co-signed the letter condemning him, many of them don’t consider half the other co-signatories to be rabbis. The three Jewish newspapers which ran the same joint front page are rivals with totally different editorial voices. You’re in denial if you think this isn’t a representative sample of British Jewish opinion which is united against Labour.

Whilst you only hear about this issue intermittently, Jews are talking about it all the time (e.g. the Chakrabarti report was branded a whitewash in 2016, and people were furious). Family dinners have been rough for the last three years. I feel like I constantly have to explain myself to them when the latest Corbyn anti-Semitism story emerges.

I can understand how someone can come to the impression that it’s all a smear when they only see the tip of the iceberg but let me assure you Jews have been angry about him for three years, and we’re just relieved that other people are finally taking notice. And because of all of this I’ve always felt slightly ‘excluded’ from the ‘Corbyn project’ by virtue of being Jewish. Obviously there’s loads of high-profile Jewish Corbynites like Lansman, but it’s still hard to shake that feeling that the Corbyn project just ‘isn’t for me’. I’ve never felt comfortable singing ‘oh Jeremy Corbyn’ for instance.


It’s not just about him

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This issue isn’t just about Corbyn himself. Most of the ‘Labour anti-Semitism’ discussion is framed around kicking out anti-Semites from the party. Now to be fair, there’s been some dramatic improvement in this area recently. A lot of this is thanks to the work of the Jewish Labour Movement (if there’s one thing you should take away from this piece, it’s that if you’re in Labour, join the JLM whether you’re Jewish or not. That’s the best way to show solidarity). The JLM sponsored a constitutional amendment at the party conference last year which was aimed at tackling this problem. It passed overwhelmingly, and since then the party has been much better at kicking people out over a variety of anti-Semitic incidents.

There’s bound to be some cranks in a party of 500,000, especially when so many people got into politics recently, and have had little political education, and may never have met/spoken to many Jewish people. I’ve never met in person any of these anti-Semitic cranks (though I’ve seen loads online), which I attribute to living in London, where every Labour member knows loads of Jews.

But saying that there’s bound to be some cranks isn’t good enough. I know that Labour isn’t as bad as the Tories/wider society on antisemitism… but is that really good enough for you? We expect the Tories to be racist, we know society is racist. Labour should be anti-racist, and therefore one anti-Semite in the party is too many. Come on. This isn’t hard. We have an obligation to hold ourselves to a higher standard than others. Stop making excuses.

On that note, to the people who hold up racism within the Tory party as an example of a double standard by the MSM… it’s quite simple, really. The Tories are utter bastards. Almost none of them actually care about the rampant racism within their party, and so very few are willing to speak up or stick their neck out. In contrast, Labour MPs and members of all factions have been willing to stand up and do the right thing on this issue. Doing the right thing involves getting it out in the open, so it’s inevitable we’ll see more media stories about it (think how many of the stories have been of the flavour ‘Corbyn under fire from Labour MP’).

Yes, the MSM are biased against Corbyn. No shit. They were biased against Miliband, too. They’re biased against the left because they’re right wing. Obviously that’s bad but you shouldn’t be angry with the MSM (any more than usual), you should be glad that enough Labour members give a crap about racism that they won’t let this story go away without being resolved. Basically, if you want the Tory press to stop attacking Corbyn over this, stop giving them so much ammo.

There’s also some specific high-profile cases in the party that merit mentioning. Ken Livingstone is the main one. Livingstone is an anti-Semite and an arsehole. I’m very happy to make that statement unambiguously. The reason we had to suffer eight years of Boris Johnson in London is that Jews hated Ken. We’ve hated Ken for a long time, and voted against him in droves in the mayoral elections in ’08 and ’12. He had amassed a laundry list of offensive remarks and incidents against the Jewish community, all before he went off the deep end and became amusingly unable to stop saying Hitler in all interviews. But because he’s an old chum of Corbyn, he got a free pass on all of it, until earlier this year when he was allowed the dignity of resigning from the party himself without being unceremoniously kicked out like he deserved. This was followed by Corbyn expressing how sad he was to see Livingstone go, without acknowledging why he was being kicked out at all.

Then there’s Peter Willsman. What he said was anti-Semitic and offensive. There’s no denying that. That’s why several prominent Corbyn supporters publicly denounced him. It’s not a smear. It’s not a misrepresentation. Willsman said something anti-Semitic and was not reprimanded. He was allowed to give a ‘sorry if you were offended’ non-apology. I’m glad Momentum decided to un-endorse him, but I’m extremely dispirited by how many people refused to recognise why what he said was so offensive (and that he hasn’t been formally disciplined).

I’m outraged that high-profile Corbyn allies like these have been allowed to ‘get away with it’ by Corbyn, only facing reprimand when others intervene. I can’t have much faith in Corbyn to learn and move on when he refuses to show leadership with these people. What’s more, I find it pretty frustrating that two Labour MPs who confronted Corbyn and his team are themselves facing disciplinary action. I don’t care if they swore at people. They have a right to be angry because they believe they’re dealing with racists, and racists shouldn’t expect people to be civil towards them. This ‘civility porn’ is currently destroying America, as people debate exactly how much deference you should show to white supremacists (rather than, y’know, punching them). I’m very upset with Corbyn followers for invoking the same civility arguments here when they gladly encourage people to punch Nazis (which I endorse).

I’m also upset with lots of Corbyn supporters for continuously, repeatedly playing this down, or treating it all as smears, or denying what’s going on, or rallying around and coddling Corbyn when he gets criticised (Christ almighty, Chris Williamson needs to shut up). I understand the siege mentality everyone’s been under, but you can’t give in to that. We have to be able to critically reflect on the flaws in this movement, or we’ll never be able to actually achieve our aims in government. Labour supporters have to listen to the Jewish community when we talk about how hard the last three years have been for us. We have to be believed, in the same way any other minority group has the right to be listened to and believed when they talk about their struggles.


The I-word

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… Let’s get on to the IHRA row.

Look, I have mixed, complicated feelings about Israel. I’ve been many times and I have strong connections to it, so any discussion about it is always going to be personal. It’s not an abstract debate club talking point: it’s a lived experience for millions of people, including my close family.

With regards to the IHRA definition, I’ve read and re-read it and I’m sorry but there’s absolutely nothing in there which should stop you from criticising Israel. You can call it intrinsically racist, and say it was founded in a racist way. You can call it an apartheid state. You can criticise it in all sorts of ways, (many of which are totally fair, by the way) and not fall foul of the IHRA definition.

I’m not going to go into too much detail on it, but I’ll just note that at one point in the examples list it refers to “a state of Israel” and not “the state of Israel” and that “a” is doing a lot of work. I’ll also say that no matter how “Nazi-like” you may think the current regime is, with the Holocaust still in living memory, it’s supremely, extremely, uniquely offensive to call a Jew a Nazi. You may think that’s unfair. It may be. But it’s true. There’s plenty of other fascist regimes from history you can compare Bibi to if you want to. I won’t stop you. But the Nazis are off-limits. All the IHRA definition asks you to do is be a little smarter with your Israel criticism, for the very good cause of not being an anti-Semite. I think that’s a perfectly reasonable ask of people.

If you do fall foul of any of the points raised in the definition, you’re almost certainly being anti-Semitic. The definition isn’t perfect, and there’s plenty of legitimate criticisms to be made of it, but overall, it’s a good working document I don’t see any urgent need to overhaul it.

I’m not going to explain the deep, sacred reverence Jews have for the concept of Israel and Zion. The idea of our homeland is a crucial part of our faith and identity. The Israel parts of the IHRA definition try to distinguish between attacks on the modern state of Israel (perfectly legitimate in most forms), and attacks on the Jewish religious concept of Israel (far more likely to be problematic). In my opinion it does a pretty good job of that, and I think if you’re tinkering with it you’re missing the point (because you’re not consulting with Jews…).

And Corbyn still doesn’t get it. It’s been claimed that he still sees the IHRA definition row as a foreign policy issue and not a religious/ethnic sensitivity one. He doesn’t understand that this is an issue of immense importance to British Jews because it directly feeds back into our lives. This is about protecting ourselves from hatred, abuse and discrimination, something we should be able to depend on the Labour Party to help us with. Any amount of whataboutery here is supremely unhelpful.

He doesn’t know what he’s done wrong here, and the only reason there’s movement happening on it is because so many of his allies have had to call him out on his bullshit. That’s not good enough. If Corbyn can’t let this go because he’s so fixated on Israel, then he deserves to never have this issue go away for the rest of his political life.


Dear God, is this piece over yet?

screamscreamscreamscreamscreamscreamscreamscreamscreamscreamscream

Ultimately, all of this comes down to a lack of trust.

At this point, Jewish people see Corbyn the way Latinos see Trump. That’s not an exaggeration. That’s how bad it is. Jewish people don’t trust Corbyn or Labour right now, for reasons I hope I’ve helped you to understand. Every time it seems like there’s progress (or should I say momentum ahaha) in the right direction, something new comes up that puts us back at square one. It’s exasperating, and part of why the whole thing stresses me out so much. Trust is the real issue behind the IHRA definition. There is a case to be made for modifying it, but the idea of Corbyn’s Labour doing that repulses a lot of Jews because the trust isn’t there.

Do I think the Corbyn-Trump comparisons are fair? Absolutely not. The fact is he has apologised for a lot of stuff (something Trump would never do). I wish he would apologise for more things I think he should apologise for, but it’s something. Like I said I think Corbyn is a good man with a massive blind spot, but I do also think that it’s not unfair to make these criticisms — he’s brought them on himself.

This piece was initially planned as more of a balanced pros/cons thing, but I realised I had almost nothing to say in defence of Corbyn or Labour here. There are some points I’m willing to concede, however. For a start, Jews’ issues with Labour didn’t start in 2015. Even before then, under a Jewish party leader, its popularity among Jews was declining. Some of that was to do with Ken and other lower-profile anti-Semitic incidents in the party (the Corbyn Hamas incident was noted at the time), but yeah, some of that was to do with Miliband’s (very tame…) policies around Israel. The kind of Jews who Labour lost because of that issue… I’m not too fussed about them. Let’s just say Jews can also sometimes be unable to distinguish between the religious concept of Zion and the modern state of Israel.

It would also be bad of me to not point out that yes, lots of people hate Corbyn for very different, very bad reasons, and see this as an issue to attack him with. There are, of course, some people in the other wing of the party who are principled (yes, there are some principled people on the Labour right. This is actually a very important point), and who do care about this issue and see it as a legitimate grievance with someone they dislike. The see themselves as acting on behalf of a community they care about. However plenty of other people don’t actually give a crap about British Jews except where we’re useful as a way to attack Corbyn, and I do have colourful language for those… shitheads (I saw Boris got rightfully criticised for wading into the issue a week after meeting Steve Bannon).

And yes, there are some (some) Jews who are ‘Trump supporters’, who are arguing in bad faith because they have some pretty unpleasant views about Arabs, who are willing to abuse the IHRA definition and extend it beyond its intended remit and cry wolf over anti-Semitism. I’m not going to say any more about those people (who I dislike) because I think they’re as small a minority in the Jewish community as the JVL lot are.

Also, Corbyn’s surrounded by people who get it more than he does. I’m very relieved to see Lansman stepping up to deal with Willsman, for instance. There also seems to be a generational divide. Lots of young people seem to understand this issue better than the veterans, and that does give me some cause for optimism. So it’s not all bad.


Finally wrapping up…

sorry I couldn’t find a better way to convey my internal monologue over this issue. I’m just going to keep screaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa

Where do we go from here?

To be totally, completely honest, my hope is that Corbyn steps down soon. For one thing, he’s pushing 70. He’s had a long career in politics, and it’s been pretty tainted by association with some very dodgy people. For another thing, I’ve always been concerned by how much the new left movement in Labour seems to be a ‘cult of personality’ around him. Corbynism needs to prove it can outlast Corbyn (it can… it just needs to prove it). There’s lots of MPs from the younger generation who are just as left wing as Corbyn, but with none of the baggage of the past. They aren’t still bitter from losing every fight for the last 30 years, they aren’t friends with a bunch of tankies, but they still have the dynamism and radical ideas of Corbyn (he’ll certainly be able to hand-pick his successor). Names like Pidcock, Long-Bailey, and Rayner spring to mind as potentially excellent successors.

If he doesn’t step down I don’t see this issue going away without some radical change on his part. He needs to learn to pick his battles, not die on stupid, arbitrary hills, and be willing to take criticism from people inside and outside his circle. The work to rebuild trust with the Jewish community can’t start in earnest without Corbyn being willing to genuinely re-think a lot of core principles he’s lived by for his long political life. That will be difficult, but it’s also the least one should expect of any prominent left-winger.

I’ll always support Labour. I’ll never even think about voting for anyone else. Labour still represents the only voice for social justice in our society, and at a time where the far right is on the rise, Jews need Labour to help us defend ourselves from it. The Tories are still institutionally racist and they’re allying with the international far right. UKIP is back on the rise with renewed racist rhetoric, ready to start a culture war against the ‘elites’ (which so, so obviously means the Jews, come on).

Giving up on Labour is not an option. We need Labour to be better. There’s no way I’ll give up my membership over this. If anything, it’s an encouragement to stay and fight to re-shape the party and make it better. As I said before, if you want to help you can do so by joining the JLM. The louder their voice is, the more the party will have to listen and do right by them. I’m not going to lie, I think at this point changing/fixing the Labour Party will be very difficult, but we have to start somewhere.

Don’t @ me.

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