When discussing sensitive issues, particularly those involving the lives and wellbeing of others, people in power or with a public profile should be careful about the words they choose. This is particularly true when tackling such topics in public or in the media.
Clive Lewis does not exactly have a reputation for delicate language, something he underlined on Wednesday. Appearing on the BBC’s “Politics Live” programme, the Labour Member of Parliament for Norwich South was asked to comment on the government’s intentions to accommodate asylum seekers in disused holiday parks, as reported by the i newspaper.
Instead of tackling the issue with the compassion it deserves, Lewis decided to compare the plans with… concentration camps. He said:
“If you put a group of people concentrated into a camp – as you did in South Africa in the Boer War – it’s what you call a concentration camp.”
He went on:
“It’s a concentration of people…. Look what they’re talking about – putting people in camps en masse because of [the government’s] mess… Let’s just be really clear where we are – that is the technical term for it, a concentration of people in a camp.”
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Receiving immediate pushback from former Conservative Damian Green, Lewis started to try and claim he wasn’t making a direct comparison, but his comments were clear and the damage was done.
Whatever one thinks of the asylum issue or how our cruel, crumbling system should be fixed, such comments are clearly grotesque. I’m no expert in the Boer War, but I suspect the comparison between what happened there and moving people to a disused Pontins while their applications are processed does not stand up to much scrutiny.
Given that the years of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership were plagued by antisemitism at the heart of the Labour party, my guess is that Lewis thought he was being rather clever in referencing the Boer War instead of the Holocaust.
However, when most people hear the phrase “concentration camp” it is, quite obviously, the Holocaust that they think of. Using language that puts the attempts to find accommodation for asylum seekers in the same bracket as an attempt to systematically wipe out the world’s Jewish population, and others with them, is beyond the pale.
Well, you’d like to think so. The only response the Labour party had mustered at the time of writing was a spokesperson saying the comments were “clearly not appropriate”. Apparently, the incident will be dealt with by the Labour Whips Office. That’s beige and non-committal, even for Sir Keir Starmer.
In fairness to Sir Keir, he did take robust action against Rebecca Long-Bailey, sacking her as shadow education secretary after she retweeted a piece containing an antisemitic conspiracy theory. He also sent his predecessor as leader into the political wilderness after he responded to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report on Labour antisemitism by claiming that the extent of the problem had been “overstated”. Corbyn is allowed to be a Labour party member, but Sir Keir has said it is unlikely he will be allowed to sit as a Labour MP again.
So why such vapidity and weakness here? Loyalists to Sir Keir may argue it is because Lewis did not actually directly mention Jews and the Holocaust. And, as the quotes above show, he didn’t. (Presenter Jo Coburn jumping in to urge more careful language may well have saved him from getting into even hotter water.) But even the language Lewis actually used – and the images it obviously generates for much of the population – is not appropriate from someone associated with a party that keeps telling us it is ready for government.
The incident also shows that the spectre of antisemitism still lingers over the Labour party. I do not want to overstate the case here. To do so would only diminish the seriousness of antisemitism. As I say, Lewis, not known in Westminster for being the sharpest tool in the box, probably thought he’d walked the linguistic tightrope very carefully. But a Corbynista MP using language associated with the greatest trauma modern Jewry has ever endured, one that some still alive today survived and remember, sets off all sorts of alarm bells. It would be nothing but gaslighting to pretend that the comments were simply about British action in the Boer War and the failures of the current government.
Sir Keir Starmer and the mainstream Labour movement want us to forget about the antisemitism crisis. They like to claim that they’ve fixed the problem and rebuilt relations with the Jewish community. Letting Clive Lewis receive nothing but a slap on the wrists for his vile, dog whistle comments shows that there is still much more to be done.
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