LONDON — Walking with Joan Ryan through the corridors of the House of Commons, it is easy to get the impression that the north London lawmaker had just joined the Labour Party rather than having left it only two weeks ago.
Every few steps, another Labour MP stops Ryan and gives her a hug. The Labour MPs are on their way to the weekly meeting of the PLP (Parliamentary Labour Party), which will soon descend into a series of angry exchanges between irate MPs and the party’s secretary-general, Jennie Formby.
“I bet you’re glad to not to be going to the PLP,” says one Labour MP who admits he’s jealous of Ryan, now a member of the new Independent Group in parliament. “We’re wading through so much shit there,” says another MP. “Just piles and piles of shit.”
Formby has been tasked by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn with dealing with the deluge of anti-Semitism complaints against party members — a crisis that many of the party’s lawmakers believe neither Corbyn nor Formby are seriously dealing with.
“My last PLP meeting was like a car crash,” says Ryan. “There was total despair the party can be saved.”
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Ryan, 63, is one of nine Labour MPs to have left the party in the last three weeks, citing two main reasons: the failure of the party under Corbyn to come up with a clear policy on the impending departure from the European Union; and the party becoming, according to them, “institutionally anti-Semitic.”
As a member and activist of the party for 38 years — almost her entire adult life — leaving was a painful decision, one she has been considering for many months. Ryan wasn’t in the first group of seven MPs to leave last month, but she says: “When I saw [Jewish MP] Luciana Berger get up and say she was leaving because the party had become institutionally anti-Semitic, I knew I had to as well. For two days it was very difficult to decide, but then it became easy but also very sad. The party is a vehicle to building a better world. Not an end to itself.”
The series of revelations regarding Corbyn’s remarks in the past, his associations with anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers, and the deluge of anti-Semitism online from those identifying as his supporters has inflamed the debate since he was first elected party leader in September 2015.
As his allies gradually took over the party apparatus, the criticism has intensified at what many see as a lack of willingness to seriously investigate and suspend members accused of anti-Semitic statements.
On Wednesday, members of the Jewish Labour Movement, which has been affiliated with the party for 99 years, are holding an emergency general meeting, simultaneously in London and Manchester, to decide whether the time has come to officially disaffiliate from the party. Thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish members have already left Labour over the deluge of anti-Semitic abuse that Jewish lawmakers like Berger have been experiencing.
Not a victim
Ryan has also been the target of similar abuse since becoming head of the Labour Friends of Israel in August 2015. “I don’t feel a victim,” she says. “I’ve publicized the abuse I’ve received to show the level to which public discourse has descended. But unlike Luciana I’m not Jewish. I’ve made the choice to be in this position.”
On top of the hate mail and abusive misogynist tweets she receives daily, Ryan has been the target of online conspiracy theories for being “in the pay” of the Israeli government.
Ryan says she never thought of resigning the voluntary chairmanship, and indeed remains the LFI’s chair even after her resignation from the party. “We’re the only left-of-center group working in Parliament to promote the two-state solution,” she says. “We don’t sell the Israeli government’s line. I’ve been on the same platform as [Benjamin] Netanyahu and called for a freeze of settlement building, and I don’t think that unilateral moves like the U.S. moving its embassy to Jerusalem was helpful.”
A former senior civil servant who worked with Ryan when she was a junior minister back when Labour was in power under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown says: “I’ve been astonished by Ryan’s tenacity, how she’s held on as LFI chair in the current atmosphere within Labour.”
In September 2018, Corbyn supporters — who joined the party in recent years in their hundreds of thousands — brought a motion of no-confidence against Ryan in her own Constituency Labour Party (CLP). It accused her of acting like an “independent MP in all but name,” and of having “smeared [Corbyn’s] character” with “false allegations of anti-Semitism.”
A change in the party’s bylaws carried out under the previous leader, Ed Miliband, allowed for instant online membership. Ryan and many other Labour MPs have blamed these changes for allowing a massive influx of extremists who changed the party’s character overnight. Corbyn and a tiny handful of like-minded lawmakers always hewed to the far left, but for decades they had been on the margins.
“He just wasn’t important, very marginalized with his true believer approach,” says Ryan, describing Corbyn’s backbencher years. “But maybe we just took our eye off the ball. The far left have always talked about the project — and it’s taking over the party, not the government. They hate Labour because they see it as reformist — making capitalism acceptable — and for them it’s all about fighting capitalism. They see Jews as capitalists controlling politics; it’s a simplistic, student politics approach.”
Corbyn’s supporters are divided between those who claim that all the allegations of anti-Semitism are “smears” and those who are prepared to admit it exists within the party but only in very small numbers. “If it’s tiny numbers, why hasn’t it been sorted?” demands Ryan. “It hasn’t because this is part and parcel of how the hard left, which is now the leadership circle, operates.”
‘We put the country first’
Having left the party, none of this should be Ryan’s problem anymore. But as she and other recently departed members acknowledge, you don’t just leave your political home overnight and stop having feelings for it.
Another difficulty for career politicians in leaving is that a new centrist party has few prospects of surviving in Parliament in the next election due to Great Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system, which heavily favours the two largest parties. So far, the Independent Group has 11 MPs, eight who left Labour and three former Conservatives who left their party in protest of its increasing nativist, staunchly pro-Brexit policy.
“We’ve just started and we’ve already reached 15 percent in the polls,” says Ryan. “In countries with different electoral systems, that could make us a potential party of government.” She is fully aware that by leaving their parties, she and her colleagues could be effectively ending their parliamentary careers.
“By leaving, we may not have changed the political landscape — but we changed the political weather. We put the country first. I can’t go around telling my constituents to vote Labour when it means Corbyn would be prime minister when I don’t think he should be prime minister.”
Despite claiming when he became leader to be against Brexit, Corbyn failed to turn up the next year for the campaign against leaving the EU. To many Labour members, this makes him as complicit as many in the ruling Conservative Party who are intent on taking Britain out of Europe.
“Corbyn put his ideology first. He always saw the EU as a capitalist club and wants to change our alliances to be more in line with [Vladimir] Putin than with our European allies,” says Ryan. “The two main parties don’t care about people anymore. When you turn away from the people, you get radicalism and populism.”
Before she became a full-time politician, Ryan supplemented her teacher’s salary in the early 1980s by working as an oral historian at the Imperial War Museum in London. While most of her colleagues recorded the testimonies of soldiers from the world wars, Ryan was one of the first to focus on interviewing what were then called “concentration camp survivors.”
It was still a period where the Holocaust was barely spoken about in Britain. Ryan says the long hours she spent interviewing survivors who had since made their lives in Britain, many of them telling their personal stories for the first time, formed her as a politician.
“My lesson from that work as a politician is that you always have a wider responsibility, because you never know what effect you can have and what bad things you prevent by putting decent values first.”