The billionaire ex-porn baron, the antisemitic trope and the MP

The publication of the report on antisemitism in the Labour Party saw Jeremy Corbyn suspended for his response. But it has also led to calls for further punishments – including for Croydon North’s Steve Reed, as KEN TOWL, very carefully, tries to explain

Steve Reed OBE: Labour MP subject to a formal complaint over antisemitism

This is how it starts. A billionaire pornographer moves into the mainstream media and then into property development. It is November 2019. His proposed development in Tower Hamlets is subject to scrutiny from the local council, and scrutiny can be expensive.

In fact, if he doesn’t get approval by January 15, 2020, he will be subject to a charge of £45million to compensate the local community.

He was only an ex-pornographer, but Richard Desmond knew which levers to pull. He turned up at a Conservative Party fundraising dinner, he paid to sit next to housing minister Robert Jenrick and he may, or may not, have mentioned any of his £1billion plans for the old Westferry printworks to the man who has the final word in planning permission for property development.

Desmond certainly did text Jenrick a couple of times, referring to the “doe” [sic] that he did not want to pay to the Tower Hamlet “Marxists”. And on the day before that January 15 deadline, Jenrick came to the rescue and rubber-stamped the planning application.

Possibly coincidentally, the Electoral Commission records a donation to the Conservative Party of £12,000 made on January 29 this year. The donor? Richard Desmond.

These events may or may not be connected, and this may, or may not, be the way we get things done in this great country of ours.

Richard Desmond (right), who made his fortune in pornography, is a generous donor to Boris Johnson’s Tory party

This would have been merely a story of apparent everyday corruption of middling importance had it not been for a stalwart member of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.

In July, this year Steve Reed OBE, the MP for Croydon North and Labour’s shadow on local government, tweeted at Jenrick and Priti Patel (the Home Secretary had been lobbying for a relaxation of lottery rules; Desmond has a large financial interest in the health lottery) asking: “Is billionaire former porn baron Desmond the puppet master for the entire Tory cabinet?”

Given the context of the property deal, this might have appeared to be a perfectly justified piece of hyperbole.

However, given the context of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission’s then continuing investigation into antisemitism in the Labour Party, the pushback was instant and forceful. Richard Desmond is Jewish, and the reference to Jews as “puppet masters” is a well-established antisemitic trope, reminiscent of Hitlerian propaganda that used conspiracy theories of Jewish bankers running the economy behind the scenes to cause, as the Nazis would have it, the financial woes of the German people.

Reed, who did not know that Desmond is Jewish, was mortified. “I want to apologise unreservedly for the language in the tweet I posted on Saturday. It was inappropriate and as soon as I realised my error I deleted it.”

Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, accepted that no offence had been meant.

Perhaps Reed should have alluded to lever-pulling?

The tweet that has got Steve Reed OBE into a lot of trouble

The moral of this tale, so far then, appears to be to think before you tweet and choose your metaphors carefully.

All of the above is old news. Or at least would be, but for a couple of developments.

One of these is the EHRC’s report last week on the Labour Party, and former party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s response to it, which has led to his suspension from the party. Readers will make of this what they will, I imagine, according to the views they already hold on Jeremy Corbyn.

The other is an email sent on October 29, the day after the EHRC report was published, from the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, the organisation that had originally referred the Labour Party to the EHRC in 2018. They called for an investigation into Corbyn and also asking for new investigations (with a view to potential expulsion from Labour) of 32 party members, including 14 MPs. Among the likes of Corbyn front-benchers Diane Abbott and Barry Gardiner, we find on the list, just after deputy leader Angela Rayner, the name of Steve Reed.

CAA provides half a page of analysis on its accusations against Reed (compared to the 12 pages devoted to Jeremy Corbyn). The CAA presents this first as the “incidents”, which turns out to be a single incident, the sending of the “puppet master” tweet. Their analysis says that “it qualifies as antisemitic discourse” being “an antisemitic trope with a long history, having been deployed during the Nazi era”.

The analysis makes no mention of the tweet being deleted, nor of Reed’s apology.

What can we learn from this?

I am not sure. The whole sorry story has been tainted by subjectivity, by pre-conceived views of the protagonists, be they Desmond, Jenrick, Reed, Starmer, Corbyn or, for that matter, the CAA.

Let’s look at each of them individually.

If Richard Desmond used dishonest, behind-the-scenes methods to make a killing out of the construction business, I can accuse him of pulling levers because that is not a trope.

Steve Reed, however, cannot accuse him of being a puppet master because that is a trope.

Robert Jenrick: has since admitted he was wrong to give planning approval to a Tory donor’s development

If you like Robert Jenrick, you may well be able to convince yourself that he did nothing wrong, that he simply did his job as a minister and approved a construction proposal on its merits. If you don’t, you may not be able to convince yourself of that. That Jenrick later expressed regret for having Desmond as a dining companion and for interceding in the planning process ought to inform your judgement: the planning permission has now been quashed with the minister conceding his decision was “unlawful”.

Steve Reed either knew that Richard Desmond was Jewish or he did not. If he did, then to use the puppet master metaphor was, in the context of these febrile times, at the very least in abysmally poor taste and at worst an example of the most egregious antisemitism, and would suggest he really doesn’t belong in a Labour Party that has a proud tradition of anti-racism. If he did not, then it was merely unfortunate. Do I believe Steve Reed because I like him or do I like Steve Reed because I believe him? I am not sure, but I believe him.

Sir Keir Starmer believes Reed. Does Sir Keir Starmer believe Reed because he likes him or does he like Reed because he believes him?

Jeremy Corbyn claimed that the EHRC report had “exaggerated” the extent of antisemitism in the party and he probably sincerely believes this. It was, however, at the very least, a stupid thing to say, undermining Sir Keir’s attempts to rebuild bridges with the Jewish community. Perhaps if he unreservedly apologises for criticising the EHRC report (and by implication the EHRC) then he will be, like Reed, forgiven by the leader of the party. Perhaps not. It is evident that Sir Keir likes Steve Reed more than he likes Jeremy Corbyn.

The CAA has laid evidence of alleged antisemitism against 14 MPs, more against some than others. The case against Jeremy Corbyn builds a picture of a leadership that, while not actually antisemitic, allowed antisemitism to fester. This may or may not be true. Again, you are more likely to believe it is true if you do not like Jeremy Corbyn, for what he would describe as “political” reasons, and more likely to believe it is not true if you like him.

Either way, you can see how a case could at least be made. As for the allegation against Steve Reed, doesn’t it just chip away at the credibility of the CAA’s case?

We put this to the CAA, and they said, “The various MPs and other office-holders and former candidates who form the subjects of our complaints vary in the extent to which they have indulged in or promoted antisemitic discourse in the Labour Party.

“Nevertheless, it is vital that Labour introduces an independent disciplinary process to investigate these cases properly, fairly, transparently and expeditiously, and we and others will then be in a position to judge whether the party is on the road to reform.”

We also approached Steve Reed. He failed to respond, although last week, after the EHRC report was published, he tweeted that Labour must fully accept and act on the recommendations and “seek the forgiveness of the Jewish community”.

It is hard to see anything transpiring from the allegation against Reed. An immediate and abject apology for what looks like an innocent mistake is not going to butter any political parsnips.

As for Jeremy Corbyn, on the other hand, this may be the beginning of a damaging and self-destructive time for the Labour Party.


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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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4 Responses to The billionaire ex-porn baron, the antisemitic trope and the MP

  1. Ian Stewart says:

    Yep. Don’t like Reed, tried to lead a vote to get him de-selected after his refusal to back JC. However, the guy is many things but anti-semite or racist isn’t included in the list.

  2. Anthony Mills says:

    There is a fundamental misunderstanding that Corbyn’s pro-Palestinian stance, as always and characteristically fighting for the underdog and against injustice, is necessarily anti-semitic. It may be anti-Israeli, or rather, anti Israeli persecution of the Palestinians, which persecution has attracted world-wide condemnation, but that is not the same as antisemitism. And, it is forgotten that Palestinians are also semites.

  3. One would struggle to see any reference to someone being a “puppet master” as making an antisemitic remark. It’s around 90 years since nazism raised its ugly head and I’m sure the secret supporters of many regimes, have earned such a term being applied to them, for example Putin’s activities in Syria.

    In a way, to twist it round now to seemingly apply to Jewish people to get crooked activity off the hook is the discriminatory behaviour, not Steve Reed’s off the cuff remark.

    When is the Philip / Jenrick party going to release the findings of their own ‘soft’ inquiry into Islamophobia a year on?

  4. Lewis White says:

    Excellent article, thanks Ken Towl.
    I was just reflecting on Jeremy Corbyn’s comments.

    Had he sincerely apologised for the failings in Labour, as exposed by the EHRC, to the UK Jewish community as a whole he would probably have been forgiven by the voters, traditional or potential, Jewish or non-Jewish. A statistical anlaysis is not helpful.

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