There’s nothing wrong with caution when you are in opposition
“Pairing” is less a convention than an essential tool for any Parliament. In normal times, it can ease family pressures, allow Ministers to travel, which is an essential part of government, and, most usefully, suspend the need for sick MPs to attend.
When the going gets tough, most of these bets are off. The only pairing arrangements permitted by Whips are those for which there are exceptionally good reasons and these become unbreakable. I know of no recent precedent for the contemptible behaviour of the Tory Chief Whip, Julian Smith, who incited members of his flock to break the unbreakable.
To his equal discredit, the Tory chairman, Brandon Lewis, obliged. To their corresponding credit, other MPs ignored the instruction. Given that the outcome was unaffected, this was scarcely the biggest Parliamentary event of the week. Its significance lay in the signal it transmitted – of a Government in such disarray it will stoop very low to sustain itself a little longer
The case for a General Election grows by the week and will not diminish over the summer which begs a question: while the Tories are signalling decay and desperation, is Labour portraying itself as a government in waiting? They have finally edged ahead in the polls under conditions which could scarcely be more propitious. Unlike many, I do not think they have played their Brexit hand particularly badly by trying to balance respect for the referendum outcome with evolving demands for future arrangements. Oppositions do not control events and there is no discredit in caution.
Remarkably, however, Labour found another means of sending out negative signals about itself while the Tories were falling apart over Brexit. Presented with an opportunity to neuter the charge of anti-Semitism by buying into the internationally recognised definition, the party’s National Executive managed to spread further confusion and disillusionment.
As I have written before, I do not believe for one moment that Jeremy Corbyn is anti-Semitic and have no doubt that some of Labour’s tormentors on the subject have their own agendas. But signals matter and it takes a special talent on this issue to repeatedly send the wrong ones. Understandably, Margaret Hodge, whose close relatives died in the Holocaust, vented her fury. Her generation saw Labour as the natural home for the persecuted and dispossessed, the party which facilitated the state of Israel’s creation in 1948 and benefited immensely from the talents which the Jewish diaspora contributed to it. I remember a Labour conference when Golda Meir – the only elected, socialist leader in the Middle East – joined Harold Wilson on the platform to tumultuous acclaim. That all now seems gone.
At the heart of the problem is the blurring of lines between the state of Israel and the Jewish faith. Yet there is nothing new in that distinction. I have a well-thumbed book of columns by the great Guardian journalist, James Cameron, than whom the state of Israel had no truer friend. He was there, quite literally, at the scene of its birth. In 1982, Cameron – accused of betrayal after condemning Israel’s invasion of Lebanon – wrote: “The really false friends of dignified Jewry now are the embittered gang whom Israel has chosen to lead it into the shadows.” In other words, 36 years ago, it was more possible for “the Left” to be deeply critical of Israel’s behaviour without being remotely accused of anti-Semitism.
In the intervening period that distinction has frayed, in part because unwary “Friends of Israel” have, unlike Cameron, made that status unconditional on the conduct of government while the Palestinian cause embraced too many who do not understand, or pretend not to understand, the distinction between the government of Israel and the right of that state to exist. Instead of dancing on the heads of definitional pins, Labour has to signal very clearly that it suffers from no such ambiguity and will not allow anti-Semitism or any other form or racism to hide behind it. Just as signals betray the weakness of a government, they also confirm the fitness or otherwise of those who seek to replace it.