John Mann MP never hesitates to speak out on antisemitism. Lee Harpin wants to know why.
I’M SITTING in the office of the MP who is the most effective opponent of antisemitism in the House of Commons, and I’m feeling a little awkward. My first question to John Mann, was, I thought, pretty innocuous. What inspired his effective and vocal campaign against antisemitism, which included his memorable heckling of Ken Livingstone as a “Nazi apologist”, after the veteran former London mayor said Hitler supported Zionism.
Mann, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group against Antisemitism, was so angry that Livingstone ended up hiding in a disabled loo.
I’m interested to know what motivates this non-Jewish Labour politician to speak out so strongly. His constituency of Bassetlaw, Nottinghamshire has few, if any Jews living within its boundaries. What triggered his concern? But he doesn’t give me eye contact and answers brusquely: “It’s the wrong question to ask.
“I am an elected politician, a nationally elected politician. And if nationally elected politicians aren’t prepared to tackle an issue like antisemitism then no-one else will.
“It is what we are elected to do and it should be an expectation. That perhaps shows why there is a problem — that you were even asking that question.”
After that it’s hard to get the conversation back to what really interests me, the man behind the politician and campaigner. I’d gleaned a clue from a speech he gave in 2009, when he was honoured by the American Jewish Committee. “When the Jewish people walk tall some don’t like it,” he said then.
Today, though, I ask, isn’t the problem even more acute? Last week the Community Security Trust reported that attacks were at record levels.
“Jewish people are the canary in the cage for society,” says Mann. “That’s a fact. Suspicion is a key concept. And what underlies suspicion is distrust, which then leads onto conspiracy.
“You know how it goes: ‘These people can’t be trusted. The money clippers, the media manipulators, the conspirators.’ In constituencies like mine there is benign antisemitism.
“You ask people, as I have done, to give their impression of who are the Jews. And often the replies comes back that a Jew is someone who is successful, a business owner. ‘They are very good employers,’ comes the further response.
“But then follow the inevitable comments about money — ‘they’re a bit tight’ , ‘a bit stingy’.
“It’s that relationship between Jews and money, it’s very deep rooted in society.”
He warms up a little, speaking of the “maturity of politics” he has experienced among Jews.
“It’s not found within the Jewish community as such. But within any Jewish family there is more likely to be coherent and intelligent discussion of politics than probably among other families in the country.
“I think Jewish teenagers are more politically aware than their counterparts across Britain.”
Maybe he sees a reflection in his own family, as his wife, Joanna is deputy leader of Bassetlaw Council. They have three children. I don’t feel though that questions about the Mann family’s dinner time discussions would be welcomed, although I’m pretty sure that Brexit must be on the menu.
Last June, Mann surprised many when he announced that he’d voted to leave the EU — insisting Labour voters “fundamentally disagree” with the official Remain stance of the party.
“I do not think there is a direct correlation between Brexit and an increase in antisemitism,” he says now.
“But I think some of the reasons people voted for Brexit has contributed to it. I would say the key word here is alienation. Alienation from the establishment has freed up racists to feel more confident in being racist, which will probably lead to more antisemitism.
“But this has been there since the financial crash of 2008. It has not just emerged because of Brexit. It was already there. In Germany for instance, where there is a comparable rise in racism, there is no Brexit
When Jewish people walk tall some don’t like it
movement. And in Switzerland and Norway there is also a comparable rise in racism — but these countries are not even in the EU.”
Mann accepts there are now “shocking incidents” occurring in the UK, and elsewhere in Europe. “People who have often lived without any hassle in this country are now getting abuse from morons.
“It’s the kind of abuse that we thought we had stamped out in the 1970s — and has tended to be against people of colour because they are more easily recognisable.
“But if you are Jewish and wearing a kippah, in some parts of the country you will now get abuse.”
How to deal with the rising tide of antisemitism? “It’s like the fairground,” reasons Mann. “If the mole sticks his head up out of the ground you knock it back down again.
“As parliamentarians we should be doing that instinctively — and so should the Jewish community. If Donald Trump comes here then the Jewish voice should be heard — because he is employing antisemites.”
Last December I heard Mann deliver a typically fiery speech to a gathering of around 200 Jewish Labour Movement supporters during a Chanukah party event held at
the Party’s central London HQ. He attacked his party’s leader Jeremy Corbyn over his failure to clamp down on antisemitism within the party.
Despite opinion polls showing Jewish support for Labour collapsing to as low as eight per cent, Mann remains optimistic that things will change. “The best thing that could happen to Labour would be that the large numbers of Jews who voted for the party in the past decided to rejoin.
“It is encouraging that there hasn’t already been this fall-off of Jewish membership because of Corbyn, Ken Livingstone, Jackie Walker and the others.
“Some have left, but more have joined. I would encourage those who want to join to get stuck in.”
Is this really realistic, I ask. “Things can change quickly,” he insists.
“Tony Blair brought back a lot of the Jewish voters who had previously switched to the Tories under Margaret Thatcher.
“If Labour had a leader who understood and could communicate with the Jewish community properly, that would transform the situation overnight.
“Jeremy Corbyn still has to learn these skills, shall we say.”
We agree that you cannot ignore the continued failure of Labour’s leadership to stamp out antisemitism from within its ranks. “You can see the absurdity of the influence of the far-left at places like the Oxford University Labour Club,” he says.
“Students are being picked on because they are Jewish and seen as vulnerable by a small group.”
As for Ken Livingstone, currently suspended, Mann does not mince his words. “He should simply resign,” says Mr Mann. “Resign to his allotment.”
We’ve talked for an hour and I resign myself to never really breaking through Mann’s facade.
I switch my tape recorder off but then he asks me to turn it on again.
“Here’s something new for you,” he says, with a hint of irony in his voice.
“Everyone knows the Battle of Cable Street, but nobody knows the Battle of Holbeck Moor.
“One week before Cable Street, Oswald Mosley tried to march through the Jewish quarter of Leeds.
“He assembled the Blackshirts on Holbeck Moor — but he never got off.
“The anti fascist protesters, including the Jewish community, battled him and, unlike Cable Street where he marched, he never got going.
“My grandfather was the butch- er whose shop was the nearest to Holbeck Moor and my family lived on the street opposite.
It was the Labour movement, the trade unions — there were big Jewish trade unions — it was a very big Jewish working class community. Mosley and fascists got a beating — and my family were part of the protests.
“There is a tradition in my family — there’s history and tradition there. It gets passed down through generations.”
At last I have an answer to my first “wrong question.” I open my mouth to ask more. But our time is up, and he’s on to his next appointment.
British Jewish teens are very aware of politics
Mann meets Ken, and doesn’t mince his words