Faiza Shaheen Has Nothing to Apologise For

The purge continues.

by Ash Sarkar

31 May 2024

Faiza Shaheen, who has been barred from standing as the Labour candidate for Chingford and Woodford Green. Simon Dawson/Reuters

While enjoying a 27-point polling lead over the Conservatives, Keir Starmer’s Labour has decided to embrace chaos and division in its first full week of election campaigning. Diane Abbott’s future as a Labour candidate hangs in the balance. Lloyd Russell-Moyle has been barred from standing in Brighton Kemptown. And Faiza Shaheen – while out campaigning with her six week old infant – was told by email that she would no longer be the Labour PPC in her home constituency of Chingford and Woodford Green.

Meanwhile, in an act of political symbolism that would be considered too on-the-nose for even a bad novel, Labour have accepted their third Conservative defector in a month. Just don’t call them Red Tories.

So what happened? On Tuesday, with only a few hours notice, Shaheen was called into a meeting with three members of Labour’s national executive committee (two of whom have been allocated safe seats without having to go through the indignities of a democratic selection process). With her baby on her lap, she was grilled over her social media activity, including a tweet from 2014 (before she was a Labour member) congratulating someone for standing as a Green party councillor. The next day, while out canvassing, Shaheen was informed by email that she had been dropped as the Labour candidate.

Full disclosure (because it’s weird when journalists pretend not to know the people they’re writing about), I’ve been acquainted with Shaheen since 2017 and would consider her a friend. But, biased as I am, I think even her most vociferous opponents would be troubled by her visible distress on Wednesday evening’s Newsnight. Shaheen appeared shocked and tearful in her interview with the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire – and had this been Luciana Berger or Ruth Smeeth during the height of the Corbyn years, it’s difficult to imagine that political journalists would be so coldly analytical about it.

Derbyshire presented Shaheen with the Jewish Labour Movement’s complaint about this tweet and its attached video, an old Jon Stewart sketch about being hectored online about Israel and Palestine. The tweet made reference to the “Israel lobby”, and how “non-stop harassment” discourages people from speaking out online due to being “immediately assailed by scores of hysterical people who explain to you why you’re completely wrong”. In her interview, Shaheen apologised for ‘liking’ the tweet, and agreed that it made reference to an antisemitic trope.

This is, however, one area where I profoundly disagree with Shaheen. A racial trope is a disparaging repetitive image or narrative, used to demonise a whole community. Had the tweet referenced the so-called ‘Jewish lobby’, or invoked sinister stories about ‘Jewish financiers’, it would be entirely correct to say that it was an antisemitic trope. But it didn’t – it talked about there being an Israel lobby.

Perhaps there isn’t any such thing. Perhaps Israel is the only country on the planet without dedicated lobbyists. Perhaps organisations like We Believe in Israel, the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre, and both the Labour and Conservative Friends of Israel, simply don’t exist. Perhaps it’s simply untrue to say that people who are critical of Israel online, or supportive of Palestine, are bombarded by hostile replies from pro-Israel accounts.

Or perhaps, there’s a concerted effort by Israel’s advocates to warp and distort the definition of antisemitism to make it impossible to describe their activities. Was Shaheen wrong to apologise? I can understand why she did it. But nobody should have to apologise for liking a plain statement of fact.

Shaheen has indicated that she will be legally contesting Labour’s decision to bar her from standing in Chingford and Woodford Green, citing a “campaign of prejudice, bullying and spiteful behaviour”.

“I have come to the inescapable conclusion that Labour, far from being a broad church encompassing different views, has an ingrained culture of bullying, a palpable problem with black and brown people, and thinks nothing of dragging a person’s good name through the mud in pursuit of a factional agenda, with no thought of the impact on committed members’ mental health and wellbeing,” she said.

Starmer’s defenders would say that after 2019’s electoral performance, he simply can’t afford to take any risks with candidate selection: at the first hint of controversy, it’s only right that you’re out. But that doesn’t explain how Luke Akehurst – an NEC member and We Believe In Israel’s founding (and most recent) director – has been parachuted into the safe Labour seat of North Durham. His social media activity includes claiming that the UN is antisemitic, that Jewish people are “politically black”, and promoting the conspiracy-theory that Palestinian crisis actors have staged atrocities in Gaza.

Who can say why a white, pro-Israel rightwinger has been treated differently to a Muslim, pro-Palestine socialist? Not me. Certainly not I.

The article was adapted from our newsletter The Cortado. For more general election analysis straight into your inbox, click here.

Ash Sarkar is a contributing editor at Novara Media.

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