I’M NOT FOR TURNING
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