By Rhys Thomas
Sisyphus is a character from Greek mythology who was punished for eternity, being made to roll a boulder up a mountain only for it to roll back down again when nearing the summit. Stephen Doughty’s choice of three key political battles this year – a second referendum on Brexit, wiping out anti-semitism in the Labour Party and backing Vaughan Gething for Welsh Labour leader – could hardly be described as taking the easy option.
We started with Brexit. He is an ardent proponent of the campaign for a ‘People’s Vote’, a second referendum on membership of the European Union.
“I’ve long-term been a sceptic of Brexit. I voted Remain and my constituency voted remain. Nothing has convinced me otherwise since the original referendum, and I think the facts have become clearer as we learn more about the lies that were told.”
Doughty’s criticisms come despite having actually voted to hold a referendum on European membership back in June 2015. Why did he not vote against a referendum then? “I voted for the referendum by pressure from the whips at the time that we needed to have one. I personally tried to put amendments through about extending the voting age to 16, making sure that EU citizens could vote. I think we should have always had a two-thirds majority built in to it, as we’ve had in some previous referendums.”
Labour frontbencher Barry Gardiner warned of civil disobedience if another referendum was held, but Doughty is not convinced. “We may end up with more trouble if people who felt that they were going to have a magical solution to their problems, which is what they were actually promised by the lies of Nigel Farage, then find out that not only is their own job put at risk, they’re actually poorer, there’s more austerity and there’s instability in the economy and society. That’s actually a bigger recipe for challenges and problems in our society, rather than going through with something extremely challenging.”
“The vast majority of people I have ever met who voted Leave did not vote that way because of the European Union or specific things about it. There were three reasons – firstly the concerns about migration and the way it’s handled, secondly concerns about feeling left behind and feeling disengaged from the economy and society, thirdly for some people it was simply a protest vote for people who wanted to give a bloody nose to the Cameron Government with austerity and everything else that was going on. We need to understand those complex reasons, and if we don’t have answers to those questions then we’ll get into some serious issues in the future, but I think there are answers to those questions and the answers will not be given by leaving.”
Labour’s annual conference started this week in Liverpool, Doughty and others have been pushing for a vote of delegates at conference, but the leadership have been resisting. “I’m hopeful that it will be on the agenda. I certainly hope there’ll be a vote on a People’s Vote. I believe over one-hundred constituency parties have put forward what’s called a ‘contemporary motion’. We have trade unions that have shifted position. There’s a huge shift going on in the Labour Party and an overwhelming number of members and voters favour a People’s Vote”.
Brexit has no doubt consumed party and country, but anti-Semitism is firmly Labour’s burden. The party’s summer has seen a whirlwind of anti-Semitism, allegations and denials. It finished with the grudging adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Association definition (with a Corbyn-approved caveat). Doughty was “deeply disappointed with the way it was handled. There is no place for anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism, discrimination of any sort within the Labour Party either today or historically – we’ve been a party that’s fought racism, anti-Semitism and inequality, and that has to be one of our basic principles. I’m deeply frustrated that some in the party felt unable to agree to what is a fairly straightforward IHRA definition that is used by everyone from the Welsh Government to the Police to our sister party, the Co-operative Party.”
His message for IHRA opponents inside the party is “I believe in a secure Israel and a secure Palestine. My focus has always been on the civilians living on both sides of that conflict who suffer the consequences. I’ve been perfectly free to speak out on those issues, I’ve never felt stymied by that and I don’t see why the definition would prevent you from speaking out. Unfortunately, there are individuals who have other viewpoints who are worried that this would restrict what they can say – in that case you should think if you should be saying those things in the first place.”
Many blame Jeremy Corbyn, including veteran Jewish Labour MP Margaret Hodge who called him a “racist and anti-Semite.” Doughty rejects that, but stressed his “zero tolerance” approach to anti-Semitism. “I don’t think Jeremy is an anti-Semite. I think he has said some very unhelpful things on the issue. He has made very clear he is against anti-Semitism in the party and he gave a very passionate speech to the Parliamentary Labour Party this week saying that. The issue is you’ve got to look at deeds not words and there are individuals who believe that they are acting in Jeremy’s name who have been anti-Semitic and have used anti-Semitic language, tropes and other imagery. There are definitely individuals in the Labour Party who think this is acceptable. Not just in around the issue of Israel/Palestine, but in terms of wider conspiracy mindset about Jews controlling the world economy or society. That is deeply disturbing.”
The Jewish community disagrees. A Jewish Chronicle poll stated that 86% of British Jews believe Jeremy Corbyn to be an anti-Semite. “It is clear that they feel very dismayed and often disgusted by what they have seen. Whatever comes out of this crisis, the first thing we have to do is regain the trust of the Jewish community, because the Labour Party has a strong Jewish tradition within it. A lot of damage has already been done because of the failure to quickly adopt the IHRA definition. Now that’s been done, I hope that draws a line under that issue, but the party is going to have to go much further,” citing the significant backlog of anti-Semitism claims against members that the party is failing to investigate.
Doughty dismissed suggestions of resigning the whip or forming a new breakaway party. “I’ve served as an activist, member, candidate and Member of Parliament under many different leaders and regimes. There have been controversies and crises of various sorts throughout the history of the Labour Party. I have never felt the need to resign and nor do I intend to do so. I would rather stand firm in the principles I believe in, and actually we have a duty to the Jewish members, Members of Parliament and councillors in the party to speak up in solidarity with them.”
Three of the Welsh parties are electing new leaders. I asked Doughty about his thoughts on the opposition. Firstly, Plaid Cymru. “We’ve got common ground when it comes to causes around social justice, equality, Brexit, the environment, the importance of the Welsh language, devolution – but obviously we disagree on a fundamental issue which is independence. I would be deeply concerned to see a Plaid leader who was willing to countenance a deal with the Tories or UKIP and I think that Plaid leadership candidates need to make clear where they stand on that.”
On the Welsh Conservatives and their new leader? “Who is Paul Davies? The Tories have a real job to explain how they differ in any way from their UK Government and you can either represent Wales or you represent a UK Government still delivering austerity and not giving Wales its fair share of funding.”
His harshest criticism was saved for UKIP, who have also elected a new leader in Gareth Bennett. “UKIP in Wales are a joke. How many leadership contests, internal fights? Gareth has unfortunately expressed some extremely unpleasant views, what I believe to be racist, transphobic, sexist views.”
Now it’s Welsh Labour’s turn to join the leadership merry-go-round. First Minister Carwyn Jones is stepping down in December, and the race looks like a straight shootout between Mark Drakeford, “who would be an excellent First Minister,” and Vaughan Gething – Doughty’s constituency equivalent in the Welsh Assembly and the man he is backing for leader. “We need to move to a new generation of leadership in the Assembly. If you’re going to reinvigorate and regenerate in office and win a next election, you need to have new ideas and fresh faces. Vaughan’s done a great job in the health service. Defending it in the face of vicious attacks from Conservatives at Westminster whilst retaining it as a public proper NHS in the tradition of Nye Bevan. He’s taken the most pro-European position which is very much in Wales’ interests. Both as an employment lawyer and former President of the TUC in Wales, he understands the realities of Wales’ industries of manufacturing, of high-tech and of working people across of country – and wouldn’t it be fantastic to have the first BME First Minister of Wales!”
This week’s Labour Conference is the next battle in what has been a lengthy war for Doughty and his allies. With battle lines drawn, he is firmly on the wrong side of the Party leadership but won’t be fazed by the daunting challenge facing him. Doughty is admirable in keeping his affable and engaging manner – and unlike the unfortunate Sisyphus, he’ll be hoping to keep this boulder at the top of the hill.