LOUISE ELLMAN

I’M NOT FOR TURN­ING

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - BY LEE HARPIN PO­LIT­I­CAL EDI­TOR

THERE’S A framed axe in Louise Ellman’s West­min­ster Of­fice. It was a gift from fire­men in Lan­cashire to thank her for sup­port­ing their ef­forts to take part in an emer­gency op­er­a­tion in Ar­me­nia, when she was leader of the lo­cal coun­cil. It is one of her proud­est pos­ses­sions.

It’s quite a neat metaphor for the steely strength that lies be­hind her smile. We met just be­fore Labour’s sim­mer­ing an­tisemitism row ex­ploded when an­other Labour grandee, Dame Mar­garet Hodge ac­cused Jeremy Cor­byn of be­ing an an­ti­semite.

As the story es­ca­lated, I watched as Ellman, her­self re­cently ap­pointed a Dame, showed sol­i­dar­ity with her col­league. Just be­fore me met, she had recorded an in­ter­view with Sky News, brand­ing the de­ci­sion to start dis­ci­plinary pro­ceed­ings against Dame Mar­garet, “out­ra­geous.”

A few days later, I was at a Mo­men­tum meet­ing in Liver­pool, where Dame Louise — long-time vice-chair of the Labour Friends of Is­rael — was called a “foot sol­dier” for Is­rael’s gov­ern­ment. Last Sun­day, a news­pa­per re­ported she had earned the nick­name of “Hon­ourable Mem­ber for Tel Aviv” among some in Mr Cor­byn’s of­fice. There is a sug­ges­tion that the slur has even been used by the Labour leader him­self. Labour deny this.

But our con­ver­sa­tion — ar­ranged to mark her new sta­tus as a Dame — cov­ered much more than Labour’s cur­rent cri­sis. The 73-year-old has been a politi­cian for nearly five decades, in­clud­ing 16 years in charge of Lan­cashire County Coun­cil and 11 as an MP.

Brought up in Manch­ester, she rarely ex­pe­ri­enced prob­lems be­ing Jewish. Fri­day-night din­ners were a chance for lively po­lit­i­cal de­bates:

“I think, be­cause of this, you be­come very so­cially aware, very con­scious about what is go­ing on in the world. Maybe other peo­ple aren’t au­to­mat­i­cally dis­cussing all of these things.”

Un­til re­cently, she saw her fa­ther as an “arm­chair” so­cial­ist but re­cently found out he had given a lengthy in­ter­view to the Jewish Mu­seum in Manch­ester about his fa­ther’s Lithua­nian back­ground.

“I found out he used to go to Labour Party meet­ings as well — all that time I didn’t know,” she says.

Dame Louise went to Crump­sall Lane Pri­mary and Manch­ester High Sec­ondary School. “There were a few Jewish pupils at both, but I never had an­tisemitism,” she says.

As a teenager, she was in­ter­ested in so­cial­ist ideas.

“I thought that in­equal­ity was very wrong. I also hated racism. It was all a bit vague, but I felt these things from when I was young. I wanted to change so­ci­ety, but didn’t re­ally have any un­der­stand­ing how to do so.”

She be­came in­volved with Habonim as a teenager, along­side the fu­ture play­wright Mike Leigh. “We had won­der­ful dis­cus­sions about so­cial­ism and so­ci­ety. Ev­ery­thing cen­tred on the kib­butz.”

She met her hus­band, Ge­of­frey, at uni­ver­sity and the cou­ple spent a year in Is­rael in 1967-8. They were at an ul­pan in Beer­sheva, then left just af­ter the Six-Day War so that Ge­of­frey, a phar­ma­cist, could work at a hos­pi­tal in Tiberias.

She agrees that, un­til then, most on the left saw Zionism and Labour pol­i­tics as com­pletely com­pat­i­ble. But, af­ter 1967, things changed. “I re­mem­ber peo­ple I was friendly with on the left, all of who un­til then had been sup­port­ive of Is­rael. I re­mem­ber one of them say­ing to me: ‘I’ve lost re­spect for Is­rael now be­cause they at­tacked first.’

“I re­mem­ber think­ing, ‘what do you ex­pect if you know you are go­ing to be at­tacked?’ Maybe that’s when I started to think. ‘What’s all this about?’

Af­ter 1967, with Is­rael in charge of the West Bank; “sym­pa­thies re­ally started to switch.

“Is­rael was the oc­cu­pier. And I was un­com­fort­able with that. I still am. But I just don’t blame Is­rael for the prob­lem in find­ing a so­lu­tion to it.

“The is­sue was, and still is, how do you re­solve it? And I re­mem­ber the con­fer­ence of Arab States at the end of 1967. When Is­rael of­fered to hand most of it back they said ‘no ne­go­ti­a­tion, no recog­ni­tion and no peace’.

“I al­ways thought Is­rael hadn’t tried enough. But look­ing back now I’m not sure if I was right or not.”

Re­turn­ing to Eng­land, she was asked to stand as a coun­cil­lor in the new town of Skelmers­dale. At 24, she was a county coun­cil­lor. “I had a lot of very tra­di­tional Labour mem­bers telling me I should have stayed at home. An­other one sent me a note sug­gest­ing that I did not speak at all dur­ing my first term of of­fice.”

But she “dug in”, fight­ing for lo­cal ser­vices and, by 1974, she had be­come leader of the coun­cil’s small Labour group — just 11 seats out of 96. By 1981, though, she was in power, with a slim ma­jor­ity.

“I re­mem­ber so clearly think­ing, ‘this is a shock re­sult and we may never know it again’.”

She pi­o­neered part­ner­ships be­tween the coun­cil, busi­ness and the unions at a time when Mar­garet Thatcher and many in her own party were look­ing to slash the power of coun­cils.

“I dis­liked Thatcher with a vengeance,” she con­fesses. “I had to be per­suaded go­ing into part­ner­ship with the pri­vate sec­tor was the right thing to do.” Her ideas were taken up by Labour coun­cils in York­shire and the West Mid­lands – a stark con­trast to the chaos that reigned in Mil­i­tant Liver­pool. But it was Liver­pool where she be­came an MP, elected to the River­side con­stituency in 1997.

“It was at a time when the Mil­i­tant types were be­ing re­moved — peo­ple wanted some­body dif­fer­ent. I’ve been there ever since.

She smiles as we re­call the New Labour years. She reels off a list of achieve­ments — more fund­ing for pub­lic ser­vices, sup­port for young peo­ple, the min­i­mum wage, pen­sion cred­its, more in­vest­ment for busi­nesses.

Once in par­lia­ment, she re­con­nected with her early loy­alty to Is­rael. “I’d hear peo­ple say­ing things that I thought were aw­ful about Is­rael,” she says, ex­plain­ing her de­ci­sion to join both Labour Friends of Is­rael and the Jewish Labour Move­ment.

“It was Labour peo­ple — and I thought I can’t just sit here can I?

“But I found that once I stood up and said some­thing I was la­belled ‘that Jewish MP’ or ‘that Zion­ist’. “Once I re­alised I was la­belled, I thought right then, I’m go­ing to carry on.

“It’s not that Is­rael does ev­ery­thing right — no coun­try does. But there are peo­ple who think it’s 100 per cent Is­rael’s fault and I have to speak out against that.”

Now there are fears that Mo­men­tum will try to oust her. “It’s been a ter­rific con­stituency over the years,” she says. “The elec­torate have con­tin­ued to back me solidly. But now in my CLP there are some who want to bring back the old Mil­i­tant days.”

She was sur­prised and pleased when she was named in the Queen’s birth­day hon­ours list and is look­ing for­ward to the in­vesti­ture. “With ev­ery­thing that has been go­ing on, it’s nice to have some­thing to look for­ward to,” she says.

We’ve avoided the sub­ject of Jeremy Cor­byn thus far, but it must be men­tioned. “I’m very up­set with the an­tisemitism,” she says. “When it comes down to dis­agree­ments about pol­icy, well that’s all part and par­cel of po­lit­i­cal life.”

Would she ever quit the party? “I still feel there is no other route to chang­ing so­ci­ety in the way I want to see it changed,” she replies.

“I’m in­creas­ingly con­cerned about an­tisemitism — but I couldn’t even con­tem­plate join­ing the Con­ser­va­tives. No way.”

Be­come a Tory? No way. I hated Mar­garet Thatcher with a vengeance’ It was a shock re­sult and I thought we may never know it again’

Dame Louise Ellman

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