As a Labour MP, Ruth Smeeth was an outspoken critic of her own leader. Her new job is likely to be equally combustible… as a flag bearer in the battle for free speech. She talks to MATT WITHERS about cancel culture, JK Rowling and the continuing problems of anti-Semitism in her party.
You would have to be pretty fearless to take on, as Ruth Smeeth has just done, the job of running a body dedicated to free expression at a time when the slightest slip of the tongue can see the Twitter mob demanding you’re cancelled.
But then Smeeth is not unafraid to raise her head above the parapet. She was a Jewish Labour MP who attacked her own leader, Jeremy Corbyn, for his actions and inactions on anti-Semitism, and faced an onslaught from his supporters in response, at one point receiving 20,000 pieces of abuse in just 12 hours.
Now chief executive of Index on Censorship after losing her Stoke-on-Trent North seat last year – a victim of Boris Johnson’s assault on the ‘red wall’– the 41-year-old might be forgiven, I venture, for considering her loss a blessed relief.
‘No, no, because… the thing that I held on to all the way through was that my constituents needed a Labour MP fighting for them,’ she says from her home in Stoke.
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‘That isn’t to say that there weren’t moments that I thought ‘Oh my God, I might stop getting death threats’. That was definitely a reassuring part of losing. There is a silver lining to everything.’
Smeeth was one of Corbyn’s most vocal critics. She resigned as a parliamentary private secretary in June 2016 after the referendum, in which she campaigned for Remain, as her constituents voted by 72.1% to Leave. That same month, in one of the most high-profile incidents of the anti-Semitism scandal that has dogged Labour for years, she left the press conference launching the much-criticised Chakrabarti report into the issue, in tears after an activist accused her of working ‘hand in hand’ with the media.
Smeeth – who backed Owen Smith’s ill-fated Labour leadership challenge – asked Corbyn to do three things at various points of his time in charge of the party: retweet some of the abuse people like she and fellow female Jewish MPs Luciana Berger, Margaret Hodge and Louise Ellman were receiving, with a comment that it was not in his name; to make a private visit to Auschwitz or Yad Vashem, and talk about the impact of the Holocaust on his return; and to give a speech to his supporters about the differences between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism and where the red lines between them were. He declined all three requests.
‘His silence gave permission, empowered people to think that, a), it was acceptable to do this in his name and b), it was sanctioned almost,’ she says.
The only explanation for him not to take up her advice to nip it in the bud, I say, is that he didn’t want to.
‘I think that’s true,’ she says. ‘There’s one positive with Jeremy and that’s that he is seemingly very, very loyal to his friends that he’s been around with for a long time, in spite of the platforms that they’ve shared or the positions that they’ve taken.
‘And then you have to question what his views are on all of those things too.
‘If you’re going to sit in a room with me when I am begging – begging – him to act and still do nothing, then I don’t understand, unless he wanted this to happen, why he wouldn’t have made this go away. It was in his gift.’
Still, she is now ‘genuinely surprised’ at Keir Starmer swiftly sacking Rebecca Long-Bailey after the shadow education secretary approvingly tweeted an interview with Maxine Peake in which the actress implicated Israel, without evidence, in the killing of George Floyd.
‘I think that was the ultimate moment of relief for me, that this was going to be real. I don’t really understand what Becky thought she was doing with the tweet that she has now subsequently deleted.
‘I don’t know why she’s going to that hill to die on, really. It did give me hope – and not because I dislike Becky, I mean, we’re on the different wings of the party [Smeeth is still a member], but I don’t know why she chose this issue to be sacked over.’
She is unsurprised by the response of Corbynistas who reacted to the sacking by tweeting pictures of themselves cutting up their Labour membership cards. ‘These people were never about winning elections. They were never about making change in the country. They were about winning the Labour Party,’ she says.
‘Keir hasn’t changed the policy mandate. Keir hasn’t been radical. What Keir’s done is said: ‘I don’t want racism of any kind in the Labour Party and we’re going to be a credible opposition’.’
In June, Smeeth took on the role of chief executive of Index on Censorship, an organisation which campaigns for freedom of speech. This seems a little bit frying-pan-to-fire at a time of so-called ‘cancel culture’, the phenomenon by which public figures deemed in any way to have offended see their output boycotted and their livelihoods threatened – but, as Smeeth unfashionably says, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
‘We absolutely should think about our language and the impact that it has and where hurt can be caused,’ she says.
‘But what we don’t want is a chilling effect where people don’t feel that they can debate or they can engage because, for me, that means that there’s no political education, or education full-stop.
‘One of the issues for me – and I used to run [anti-racist organisation] Hope Not Hate – [is that] the left has suddenly – much to my confusion, over the last two decades – got themselves into a place where they are looking to the state to protect them.
‘That was never where the left were – the left were the ones that were challenging the state to push further. And the alt-right and the right are the ones going ‘it’s my freedom of speech’, you know, hiding behind our core right.
‘We’re in a strange place. The anti-fascist tradition is extraordinary but it is truly based on… freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, to be able to challenge, to educate and to move on.
‘I think we need to get to a place where people aren’t scared to have conversations, but that also means that we engage with each other.
‘You can’t shut someone down because you don’t like what they’ve said. Engage with them and show them that they’re wrong.
‘It is easy when the world has become 140 characters on Twitter to just say ‘you’re wrong’ and get offensive. It’s much, much harder to explain why. But we need to do more of the explaining why.’
Smeeth’s appointment comes at a time when much of the running on this issue comes from the right. Both the right wing pundits Toby Young and Darren Grimes have launched campaign groups to promote freedom of expression.
‘I’m not the left wing Toby Young,’ says Smeeth.
‘People have got the right to say things and the right to write things, but that doesn’t mean it’s not without consequences. And that’s the bit where I would probably disagree with Toby Young, that there are consequences to your actions.
‘And as long as you’re operating within a legal framework, if those consequences are, for example, you’re an anti-Semite therefore you’re not going to be allowed in the Labour Party, I’m not going to stop you being an anti-Semite but I don’t think you should be a member of the largest political party in the UK that strives to be the next government.
‘There are always boundaries – that are societal, that are cultural – on our speech. Of course you’ve got the right to say, but I’ve also got the right to tell you that you’re wrong.’
The biggest cause célèbre on free speech recently, of course, has been JK Rowling and her comments on transgender issues.
‘You can come down on either side of the gender debate and the gender identity debate but both sides should have the right to be able to express their views,’ says Smeeth.
‘And actually, when you look at what both sides are saying, they’re not that far away from each other.
‘It’s just that it’s become so polarised that they can’t have that conversation, which is becoming so damaging.’
She says her mother’s generation – which won battles over parental leave and workplace rights – ‘have been really bad at explaining to the next generation of equality activists about how difficult it was for women and what feminism really meant as a campaign, as opposed to it just being a normal – because there is definitely an age-divide in a lot of these conversations.
‘And some of the trans activists are also not explaining or articulating why they feel so vulnerable too.
‘It is nonsense that some people’s views are squashed – and, yeah, JK Rowling is probably the most powerful female author in the world… so her voice isn’t going to be silenced.
‘But that doesn’t mean she hasn’t got consequences of what’s happening right now to her because she’s chosen to engage in a political debate.’
Earlier this month Rowling was among 150 writers, academics and activists to sign an open letter denouncing what they say as ‘restriction of debate’. They warned of a current ‘vogue for public shaming and ostracism’ and ‘a blinding moral certainty’. It bodes a busy time ahead for the Index on Censorship, which described the document as an ‘important letter on open debate’.
The organisation was founded in 1972 largely as a platform for Soviet dissidents to publish their work in the West. That time, says Smeeth ‘was really straightforward when there was clearly one repressive regime’. Now there are many and repression is widely ignored.
‘It’s the circle of outrage, isn’t it?,’ says Smeeth of the fact that, say, the killing of a dissident Russian journalist now barely registers on the foreign pages.
‘Because there’s always the next thing to be angry about. And now do you sustain it?
‘So unless we start talking about the journalists who have been murdered but also who are under threat, and then we talk about their families and their communities and we make them human and we tell their stories – not just ‘they were murdered’, but what were they writing? What were they investigating that led to this? Who were they exposing? We need to make them real people, otherwise there’s the next thing to be angry about.’
But things are not made easier, she says, when, ironically, it is the leader of the nation that faced off against the Soviet Union who is now the globe’s leading derider of the free media.
‘If you’re being named and attacked by the president of the United States of America for reporting on politics, then what effect do you think that has on journalists?,’ she says.
‘Trump’s behaviour is just disgraceful when you hope that liberal democracy is a beacon for many people who are living under oppressive regimes and they aspire to it.
‘And yet you’ve got him and how he’s undermining it. The message that sends to the rest of the world is genuinely terrifying.’ These are dark days for being an advocate of free expression, but Smeeth seems to relish difficult challenges.