Jamie Susskind, author of ‘Future Politics: Living Together in a World Transformed by Tech’, left the Labour Party in 2018 after ten years of activism due to antisemitism. He tells us what happened, why he is on the cusp of going back and what politicians need to think about now to prepare for the tech of the future.
Changed My Mind is produced by openDemocracy in conjunction with The Depolarization Project as part of our commitment to educate citizens, challenge power and encourage democratic debate. Hosted by Ali Goldsworthy, Laura Osborne and Alex Chesterfield.
Axel Bruns – Are filter bubbles real?
Jamie Susskind – Future Politics
Jamie [00:00:00] There wasn’t an incident that triggered me to go, but there was a feeling and the feeling was shame. I looked in the mirror and I felt ashamed because I knew that I was staying in the Labour Party for the wrong reasons. The whole thing made me feel a lot more Jewish. Let me put it that way. I had never, as a Jewish Brit, been made to feel by others that my Jewishness was something that was important to them. And now that I did feel that way, I felt a sort of anger and pride in my identity that made me want to assert it for myself.
Laura [00:00:39] Welcome to Changed My Mind, the podcast where we ask leaders what they’ve changed their mind on and why. I’m Laura Osborne, communications director and Depolarization Project Associate. You’ve just heard from our guest today, Jamie Susskind, who changed his mind on the Labour Party, but might be on the cusp of changing it back. And who would actually have chosen dogs as his subject, if we had let him know that was possible upfront. But before we get to that, I’d like to invite you to sign up for our email newsletter at depolarizationproject.com. We promote this show with Open Democracy to their eight million regular monthly visitors. You can find the back catalogue to our shows and more information on this episode. opendemocracy.net/depolarization project. I’m joined for today’s episode by my co-hosts, CEO of the Depolarization Project, Ali Goldsworthy. Hello, Ali.
Ali [00:01:28] Hi, Laura.
Laura [00:01:29] And behavioural insight expert Alex Chesterfield. Hi, Alex.
Alex [00:01:33] Hi, Laura. Hi, Ali.
Laura [00:01:35] So we read Jamie’s book Future Politics before the interview. And it fills an important gap by both attempting to bring political philosophy upstate and also by linking it to tech and the decisions that lay ahead of us all. Ali, what struck you most about our conversation?
Ali [00:01:48] Well, what really had an affect me was about Jamie’s membership of the Labour Party and how that sat right at the core of his identity, how he really struggled to reconcile the anti-Semitism he found in Labour and when he had to choose, which became more important to him, his Jewishness or his politics. I also do think, like you, that he was really honest about his initial dislike of dogs, not a popular stance with me, at least.
Laura [00:02:17] And what about you, Alex? What did you think our listeners should look out for?
Alex [00:02:21] I was amused by the dogs. I’m not a massive dog person but he did win me over the dogs. So on a more serious note, I think you gave some really interesting points of view on perception and how this can be altered and how filter bubbles do and don’t operate online. And it isn’t as straightforward as people used to think. He made the point about our inability to consume all the information that we’re presented with and how this may be exploited far more in the future than we can ever conceive of now. So it’s just really refreshing, I think, to hear someone challenging and making a very evidence based challenge of the assumption is often made that actually all online or the Internet is bad.
Laura [00:03:11] Jamie, welcome to Changed My Mind.
Jamie [00:03:13] Thank you for having me.
Laura [00:03:14] You are very welcome.
Laura [00:03:16] So we’re going to kick off by talking a little bit about your book Future Politics, which sits very much at the nexus of tech, politics and law and questions our readiness for the world we’re creating. So what made you write it?
Jamie [00:03:28] I think the idea first came to me when I was still an undergraduate. I did a degree in politics. And one of the things that struck me as strange even then was that I could do such a degree without even referring to or mentioning, let alone studying developing technologies and emerging technologies, things like the Internet. And this was the time when social media was coming to the fore as well. All the textbooks were silent on what seemed to me to be one of the big political issues of our time. And so I just had this concern, really, that a lot of our old ideas and our old thinking might be inadequate to the age that we’re moving into.
Ali [00:04:08] The reviews have been pretty stonking. Quite a lot of people saying it’s a must read for policymakers. I guess I wanted to think about that from a political point of view. How easy do you think it is for politicians to move with the times and with very dynamic environments, which is one of the challenges of tech?
Jamie [00:04:25] Not that easy at all, to be honest. I mean, it’s partly a generational thing. A lot of our politicians came of age in a time where this just wasn’t the top item on the menu. That said, a lot of the most foremost politicians in our country, at least in Britain, who are thinking about this issue, are not necessarily younger politicians. Many of them are more senior. But there’s an additional problem, which is that although those of us who kind of live and breathe this stuff really do believe that we are embarking on a transformation that could be as big for humanity as the agricultural revolution or the invention of writing, tech issues still come fairly low down the list of people’s priorities. Along with other things of minor importance like climate change, which are difficult to quantify in terms of getting votes out of them, and they are difficult to politicise on a kind of election cycle basis, if what you’re really thinking about is the next life cycle. For all those reasons, you know, there are plenty of politicians who are kind of interested in paying lip service to this sort of stuff. But real deep understanding and study of it is fairly rare. And there are certainly no politicians around who went into politics to deal with these kinds of issues.
Alex [00:05:39] Who is thinking about this at the moment, Jamie? You mentioned a moment ago there were some political leaders. Who would you say is up there in terms of thinking about it or starting to tackle this?
Jamie [00:05:48] The main hubs in the world of people who are thinking sensibly about the regulation of technology are the European Union, European Commission and perhaps being uncharitable I think one of the reasons the Commission is a good place to think about technology is because it is kind of unaccountable and remote. And that’s not a popular thing to say. But the truth is, they do take a longer term view of many policy issues and are able to sit back. Now, I don’t agree with a lot of the policy ideas that are coming out of Brussels these days, and I think the GDPR creates as many difficulties as it solves. But that is definitely somewhere where people are very forward thinking about tech, even if we can disagree with what they’re up to. People like Governor Newsom in California are obviously out ahead of the pack in the States. Dianne Feinstein as well, the senator from California, is someone who’s thinking carefully about these things. There are some very smart people in the French government. I don’t know how influential they are, but they’re thinking about it as well. And here in parliament, you know, there are I wouldn’t necessarily say that we have anyone in the cabinet for whom this is the biggest political issue that they care about. But there are definitely MPs and lords in parliament who are taking this stuff seriously. But frankly, I think a lot of the most interesting stuff is not coming from elected officials just now. It’s coming out of academia. It’s coming out of the private sector. It’s coming from places where it really shouldn’t have to come, actually, because we’re entitled to a little bit of leadership, I think, on this from our leaders.
Alex [00:07:13] Seems like a missed opportunity.
Jamie [00:07:14] Absolutely. And, you know, it’s one of those issues where things just creep up. We’re not used to, as humans to thinking in exponential terms. But a lot of technology is improving at an accelerating rate, whereas kind of time in history just proceed in a line with so much other stuff on our plate, I fear it’s going to be years before we settled down properly to think about many of these issues. But by then, it may be too late.
Laura [00:07:37] And a lot of those big questions that you ask in the book, Jamie, they’re very philosophical in nature, aren’t they? You know, they are big questions about defining the kind of future that we want and how tech can then provide it. How do you think leaders can find the space to get their heads around that type of big societal philosophical decision making?
Jamie [00:08:00] Well, I mean, not every politician is going to be a philosopher, but the reason I wrote this book is because I think there are loads of books out there where the first 11 chapters are kind of telling stories about tech, often horror stories. And then there’s a sort of final chapter called something like solutions, where.
Ali [00:08:22] Oh Jamie, you’re so right.
Jamie [00:08:22] Where, you know, a few cursory ideas are given, many of which were already in place in different countries in the world. One of the reasons I think those books are not necessarily getting at the heart of the issue. You can’t decide what kind of regulatory intervention you want from the state until you’ve decided what it is exactly that you want out of technologies. What exactly is so offensive about them when they go wrong and what can be changed about them to make them go right. And that means you need to not just come up with off the shelf policy answers. You need a coherent framework of what the good life is about. And I recognise that, you know, translating the poetry of political philosophy into the prose of regulation is a very difficult thing to do. But you can’t do without philosophy. You can’t just avoid the big issues and patch up your society like an old jacket that’s falling apart. You need a design. You need to think about it. So that was why I was attracted to a philosophical approach. I wouldn’t want listeners to think that this is a sort of airy fairy book about the highfalutin ideas. I take the very simple ideas that we used to think and speak about politics, freedom, democracy, justice, power. And I try to understand, you know, where does tech fit into these? And certainly, at least in my own mind, by the time I’d finished the book, things seemed a little clearer to me.
[00:09:53] Absolutely. And Jamie, I think you’ve done a very good job of that. I was quite struck by how accessible it was, actually. And as you said, that you talk all the way through about the decisions that are possible to make. But you also talk about some very big practical questions. If the world of work is going to change and change beyond our ability to imagine. Are some of those issues just too hard for us to comprehend, do you think? Is that why we struggle so much and why leaders struggle so much to get their heads around them?
Jamie [00:10:22] I don’t think they are. I just think we don’t focus on them. We focus on other stuff. I mean, understandably, a lot of people, you know, when they think about politics, which they maybe don’t do that often, what they think about is the potholes in the road, the rubbish discipline at their local school, the litter in the park, the crime on the street corner. There’s a lot of immediate political concerns that people understandably pay attention to ahead of quite difficult and challenging questions about what we might do when work runs out in 30 or 40 years. That said, you know, there’s a division of labour in society. Not everyone needs to think about all of these issues all the time. But if no one’s thinking about them any of the time, at least in the places where laws are made, that’s a problem. And there needs to be some debate about what best to do.
Alex [00:11:09] So I actually just want to bring try bring the conversation around it a bit to polarization. You talk about in the book Jamie about an increase in how others will filter our perceptions and the relationship between tech and the exertion of power. So I would be curious to what extent you think that will exacerbate the polarization we already see in many political systems around the world?
Jamie [00:11:32] It’s a great question. It’s one I spend a lot of time worrying about. When people say that technology has a kind of power or gives a kind of power. I think what they’re really saying is three things. They’re saying first of all, the technologies that we use and interact with contain rules that we have to abide by when we interact with those technologies. So the self-driving car that won’t drive over the speed limit, for instance, or it won’t park in a spot that’s not a parking space. The technology itself won’t allow you to do things just like you can’t post a tweet if it’s more than two hundred and eighty characters. The second way that technology is a kind of power is what I call scrutiny. Technology gathers data about us. And that’s useful for those who do the gathering for two reasons. First of all, because it tells them information about us which they can then use to sell us things or try and adjust our behaviour in certain ways. And also, though, because when we know the data is being gathered about us, we change our behaviour. Just being watched is a form of discipline in itself. And the third form of power, I think is most relevant to the question you just asked is what I call perception control. This is the idea that all of us have a very finite ability to perceive the entirety of the world around us. And we require others to present us with digestible chunks of information, news and the like, about what’s happening out there. But of course, the amount of information that we’re presented with on our news feeds and on our social media platforms is only ever going to be very small compared to the entirety of what’s out there. And those who choose it, those who curate it, increasingly, they are technology companies. They decide what we know, what we don’t know. What we see and what we don’t see. What we care about. What’s important and what doesn’t matter at all. And when you put all this together and you look at how platforms actually operate, there has been a big problem in the last 10 years with the way that they’ve been engineered, which is that essentially a lot of platforms, be they search engines or social media platforms, they use the data that is gathered about individuals, which gives a sense of their prejudices and their privileges and their desires and their insecurities, uses that data to present them with information that they are most likely to find agreeable or attractive or useful. But what that means is that the news that you see on your news feed may well be different from the one the news that I see depending on our pre-existing preferences. And so there is a risk, if that is how systems are engineered, that we are increasingly filtered and siloed into lots and lots of different little bubbles, I think is the word that is usually used. Now, the reason I say that that’s not inevitable is because that is just how the systems are engineered just now. I would hope that it would be possible to design systems and I think about this a lot, which don’t make us more divided, but in fact make us more united. That instead of presenting the stuff that’s most addictive and most compulsive, present us with stuff that is useful, at least sometimes. So the answer, I think, is a bit of a politician’s answer, because I think technology can be used to polarize, even if that’s not its direct purpose, but it can also be used to bring us together.
Ali [00:14:57] So, Jamie, I wanted to just follow up on that because, I mean, I share some of your views — less so about filter bubbles and their influence. But I do think you might be familiar with some work here at Stanford that’s been done that shows that those who are most polarized are those who are not online. And it always gives me pause for thought that study, because I do wonder if the likes of Facebook are a convenient baddie. And also, I mean, partly that’s their business model, to drive engagement. And it’s much, much more than that. And we’ll be talking about this quite a lot in our own book. But the role of activist platforms and campaigning platforms in driving polarization as well is very significant. And I just wondered how that fitted into the argument that you’ve just made, that if it’s broader and also if those who are offline are the most polarized, how much of an issue is the likes of Facebook?
Jamie [00:15:52] Well, it’s really important that you bring up that literature, because it’s absolutely true that in the last few years there has been an academic swing back towards or away from, I think, the comfortable consensus of a few years ago in the work of guys like Pariser and Cass Sunstein that we all just being separated into filter bubbles. There has been some work which suggests that actually that effect might be overstated. In particular, I’ve seen research which says that it may well be that when you use Twitter, for instance, you are put into a filter bubble. But if you also use Facebook and you also use Reddit and you also use Pinterest, then overall.
Ali [00:16:28] Exactly.
Jamie [00:16:31] Exactly. And so it would it would make sense that the people who were offline didn’t have access to any of that stuff might well be significantly more entrenched in their views than others. That said, there is also significant research, particularly at the extremes, by guys like folks like Yochai Benkler and the Berkman Klein Centre, which shows that if you incline already towards slightly extreme political views or you have fixed and firm political views, it can be very easy to become more entrenched and more radical in those views, depending on how you spend your time. The kind of view that I reach is I think that these systems can exacerbate our worst tendencies. It may well be that if those people who were offline and were highly polarised then decide when they discovered Reddit, they may even become even more extreme than they already are. A really important point that I’m trying to think about in my next book is that when you think about regulating technologies, you can’t just think about regulating individual platforms because we interact with technologies at a kind of holistic level. So we go through our lives and every day we might interact with 50 technologies. And what we’re interested in in terms of the future of humanity is the combined and cumulative effect of those. So that’s why I think a lot of the regulatory discussions that I see. You know, like what should we do about Google? What should we do about Facebook? But I think you have to try and look at a broader canvas and say that actually the questions are bigger. What should be able to be done with people’s data and what shouldn’t be? How should algorithms in whatever manifestation they come if they are going to affect us in significant areas of their lives? How should they be supervised? These are questions at a higher level of generality than I think the first generation of scholarship on this stuff has been looking at.
Ali [00:18:25] I think we totally agree that. And also systems thinking is hard, right? It’s really taxing and exhausting doing it that way, which is why people don’t.
Jamie [00:18:35] And boring.
[00:18:35] Yeah, we’re slightly jumping around here. But I was going to take you back to your day job actually, and away from your book, though. I’d love to hear more about the second one. Towards the end. So you’re lawyer by trade and for our American listeners, you’re a barrister, is that correct?
Jamie [00:18:49] Yeah. I mean, I can I can give an explanation of the ludicrous division that we have here.
Ali [00:18:53] I was going to say for the lazy one, which I tend to do when I’m in the States, which is you’re one of the people who wears a wig and appears in court.
Jamie [00:19:04] Indeed, and I appear in court. In that order, that is the significance of my job. I mean, many, many years in law school finally to wear the wig to look like a fool doing it. We speak in court. That’s what we do. So we tend to be more specialised in particular areas of litigation. And we give advice and we stand up and argue and cross-examine and debate in court.
Ali [00:19:31] True story. I have a friend who’s a very senior political scientist who will probably be the best of his generation. And, you know, he wasn’t excited about anything that I did or contacts or anything. But the fact that one of my friends was a senior barrister who wears a wig is possibly the most excited I’ve ever seen him. But I do want to ask you about the legal trade and do you think that that is polarizing, particularly around barristers or senior judges? And if you do think it’s being polarized by the current environment, where might that end up and what could potentially be done, in your view, to try and unwind it?
Jamie [00:20:03] I think I can give quite an easy answer to this in the UK, which is that we have nowhere near the closeness to politics and political issues here in the legal profession than they do in the States. And, you know, as barristers, for instance, there’s a very strict rule that we are not allowed to turn down clients on the basis that we disagree with their political views, which means that over the course of your career as a barrister, you will end up all the time representing people who you maybe don’t like or don’t agree with. And your duty is to give them the same fearless advocacy that you would give anyone else. So actually, I find even though we have a highly adversarial justice system, within each case, the two sides will be battling it out vigorously, looked at as a whole. There isn’t a particularly clear political bent to the legal profession. There’s been some developments in the last year which have concerned a lot of us in the law, which is that actually the government and I’m sure news of this reached the States. But the government did a couple of things which ended up being taken to the Supreme Court and where the Supreme Court took the extraordinary step in our political system of saying that the basically the prime minister had acted unlawfully. And I know in the States they’re very used to having a Supreme Court that will strike down pieces of legislation. That’s not even possible in the UK. Our Supreme Court can’t overturn an Act of Parliament. But in the last few years, there has been a little bit of a politicisation of the Brexit issue. But a cynic would say that that’s because the government has deliberately done unlawful things, or done things which it knew were going to be challenged in the courts so as to pit itself against a perceived elite out of touch Europhile judges. That’s a wee bit in the rear view mirror now. And I hope it stays there because I know a lot of us were really uncomfortable about how judges were sort of becoming political figures in a way that was quite familiar in the States, but really is alien to the English tradition.
Alex [00:22:02] I think it’s drumroll time now, I think is our main question, the heart of the interview. So we ask all our guests about time they changed their mind on the substantive policy issue or anything else that’s significant in their personal lives. So what have you changed your mind on and why?
Jamie [00:22:20] It’s funny, I didn’t realise I was able to do about something in my personal life because I was going to originally talk about my view on dogs because I had recently.
Ali [00:22:29] We could do two.
Laura [00:22:31] Let’s keep time for the end.
Jamie [00:22:33] Absolutely. So, I mean, it’s not immediately in the spirit of depolarization and reconciliation. But I had a big rupture in my life in 2018 when I left the UK Labour Party after 10 years and not just 10 years of membership, but 10 years of pretty active activism. You know, my university club and my local parties, assisting national politicians. And when I was young and idealistic and I really saw a future for myself in the Labour Party, I left in 2018 after a period of real soul searching, not because I didn’t consider myself to have labour values anymore, but because I felt that the party had become — I use the phrase carefully — but I thought it had become institutionally hostile to Jewish people. And this is a view, I think, that the vast majority of British Jews now hold it. I think a lot of people outside the Jewish community hold as well. And there is a pending report from a statutory body here in the UK, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, into whether Labour was institutionally anti-Semitic. We can talk about all of that, obviously, because I think the party is now moving in a much better direction. I also want to explain what I mean by institutionally anti-Semitic, because it’s important to emphasise that that doesn’t mean that everyone within the party is anti-Semitic and in fact, that’s what’s interesting about it, that an institution can become hostile, even if it’s only a minority of people within it who are themselves the bad eggs. But that was a big rupture for me because the Labour Party had been sort of political and ideological and social home for me for so long. The first and only party had ever been a member of and leaving it felt like a big tear between two parts of my identity.
Laura [00:24:24] Tell us a little bit more about that, Jamie, in terms of how you think that happens to an institution. What steps did you observe in that transition from, as you say, a few bad eggs to an institutional anti-Semitic problem?
Jamie [00:24:37] So it’s something that I’ve I come across a lot in my own work as a barrister, actually, because I principally work as a discrimination lawyer. So I quite often end up working cases which involve a company which has gone wrong. There is actually a proper definition of what institutionally racist or institutional anti-Semitic means. But when I use the phrase, what I mean is that it’s a place where if you’re that way inclined, you can do racist things without fear of being held accountable and indeed without prejudice to your advancement within the party. So what it doesn’t require is for everyone in a party to be racist or anti-Semitic. But what it does require is for people in positions of authority to turn a blind eye and to give what is perceived to be as tacit encouragement and tacit approval. So the anti-Semitism in the Labour Party is complicated because it is not what people traditionally imagine anti-Semitism looks like. It’s not jackboots and racial inferiority. Most people in the Labour Party would describe themselves as massively anti-racist and, you know, actively opposed to that kind of politics. But anti-Semitism in the Labour Party arises out of a different set of prejudices held by a very, very small might not one a very, very small minority held by a minority within the Labour Party, which comes from an extreme hostility, extreme hostility to America and American foreign policy to Israel and Israeli foreign policy and domestic policy to the influence perceived, real or otherwise, of the media to the influence of the banks. And if you are at all of a conspiratorial mindset, there is a long and storeyed history of those links being drawn together between the great imperial powers, the banks, the media and at the centre of it is a stereotype of a Jewish person with a big nose who is pulling all the strings. And as I say, is often not quite as vulgar as that. Although, you know, the way there was an instance, for instance, where the leader of the Labour Party vocally defended a mural on a wall, which everyone accepted was anti-Semitic because it depicted Jewish bankers enslaving the other people of the world. So, I mean, at points it was obvious. It was also said that he laid a wreath at the grave of the Munich terrorists who had abducted the entire Israeli Olympic team, murdered them and castrated them all. And so to lay a wreath at the grave of the group that did that is was perceived by the Jewish community in Britain to be not a terribly sympathetic act. So, the way it manifests itself is not through kind of rallies and not through propaganda, but through turning up to your local meeting and finding that, again, the motion that has nothing to do with the problems in the local area is to do with Israel. It’s about Jewish MPs being told they have dual loyalty, that they are the MP for Tel Aviv, not the MP for Leeds or for Liverpool or wherever it was. It’s about conference motions and conference speeches which identify shadowy elites in terms that people who have studied that history would know were referring to Jews. It’s about symbolic acts of the leader, like the one I just described. It’s about massive, massive amounts of Internet trolling. And this was really where I received what was most real for me is just, you know, this is a round about the time my first book was coming out at post something and someone would just reply saying, well, what do you think about the Palestinians? And I’d say, well, I don’t know what you mean. I’m British. I live in Britain. And it’s that obsession with you as a Jew that you cannot be anything other than a Jew and that your politics and your worldview must be defined by it. And as I say, it’s a very small, very, very small minority, tiny minority, but vocal and active within the Labour Party. And the leadership just didn’t do anything about it. So complaints would go unmet, denials, and about around the time I left the Labour Party, you know, the Labour Party now acknowledges there was a problem. But it’s easy to forget that for years, Jewish people were desolate. They were told. And this is, again, in itself an anti-Semitic trope that what they really were was closet Tories who are trying to undermine the Labour Party with their complaints, whereas often these were people like myself who had served the Labour Party in good faith for many years and would never dream of voting for the Conservatives. And so one thing led to another. And then the question for me was, will do I stay and try and effect change from within? Or at what point does membership of an institution become complicity? And this is obviously a question that you are hearing a lot about these days in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement. Is it enough to be a passive, conscientious objector in the face of injustice or do you have to take active steps to try to remedy it? That was a long answer.
Ali [00:29:49] No, it was it was a very thoughtful answer. Which is why why I didn’t interrupt you. I just wondered if there was a straw that broke the camel’s back. What was it that actually triggered you to go?
Jamie [00:30:02] There wasn’t an incident that triggered me to go, but there was a feeling and the feeling was shame. I think I just. I looked in the mirror and I felt ashamed because I knew that I was staying in the Labour Party for the wrong reasons. I was staying there out of loyalty. I was staying there out of friendship. I was staying there partly out of a slightly deluded hope that things weren’t as bad as they appeared. I was staying there out of convenience because we all know what it’s like to become accustomed to an institution and feel at home there.
Ali [00:30:41] The way you’re talking, it sounds like it was a very meaningful part of your identity.
Alex [00:30:45] I was just going to say, it sounds like it was part of your sense of self.
Jamie [00:30:48] I think what I realised at the time, though, was that I had this other part of my identity, my Jewish identity, which the whole thing made me feel a lot more Jewish. Let me put it that way. I had never, as a Jewish Brit, been made to feel by others that my Jewishness was something that was important to them. And now that I did feel that way, I felt a sort of anger and pride in my identity that made me want to assert it for myself. And I realised that many of the reasons I joined the Labour Party. And this is what I said in my resignation letter. What to do with my Judaism? Implicit or not, the belief in family, the belief in education, the urgent demand for social justice, the understanding of what it’s like to be the descendant of refugees, to be the descendant of the victims of genocide. To have that burning sense of fury, that that kind of thing can happen in the world. It made me realise that, you know, a lot of that was what drove me into politics and made me interested in it. But I couldn’t look at my parents in the eye. For the people who didn’t have that kind of loyalty to the Labour Party. Basically normal people who cheque into politics two or three times a month or less, they couldn’t understand what I was doing because they could see with much greater clarity than I where the wind was blowing. And one day I saw it.
Ali [00:32:16] Well, I’m really struck by, as you’ve talked about this, you’ve repeatedly said that it was a small group of people and only a minor section of the Labour Party. And I just wondered about that, that framing in your head, because, you know, it was the leader. Oh, he did allow it to go on. And he was elected and then re elected — this is Jeremy Corbyn — he was re elected despite the Jewish community becoming very vocal in its concerns about this and completely rightly so. And how widespread do you think it really was and how much is it easier for you to think that it was a fairly small group of people rather than that the institution permissively allowed it and people didn’t care? Or not enough people care. And that’s why Corbyn was re-elected.
Jamie [00:33:04] I think that’s a good challenge. And if I were to point fingers, I’d point them in a few different directions. I’d say this. I think a very, very small number of people in the Labour Party are actual conscious anti Semites. Then I think there is a larger doughnut around them of people who subconsciously hold anti-Semitic views. But even that doughnut, I think, is a very, very minority group. I genuinely do believe that. There is then a slightly larger group who recognises that there might have been a problem with anti-Semitism, but saw it as less of a problem than other forms of racism. And therefore, where keen not to pay attention to it. So they would basically say actually Jews are pretty well off in Britain, they’re whites and enjoy many of the privileges of whiteness. It’s not 1945 anymore. Islamophobia is much more prominent. Pipe down. There’s then a slightly larger doughnut outside that who recognise that anti-Semitism was something worth fighting against. That was important and that it was on the rise. But they kept quiet because for them, the overriding purpose of the political lives was to see a Labour government elected. To abolish all of the horrible Tory austerity of the last 10 years and get past it. If you’re putting it cynically, you’d say sort of, yes, there’s a problem. Yes, it’s a big deal. But we’re gonna throw you under the bus anyway, because the cause, the bigger picture is greater. And then there was an even bigger doughnut around that of people who thought that even that was an objectionable view, but did not have the courage or the wisdom or the time to say what they truly felt and preferred to whisper it to their Jewish friends in private while publicly signalling their assent to it. And then I think there was overlapping with all of those doughnuts there was a kind of group of people who felt that there probably was a problem, but that the Jews were exaggerating it. And that really they ought to just get a grip. And this was our real chance to have a proper left wing government in the UK, which, of course, many, many Jews would like to see in a different place. So I’m afraid when you look at it like that, you’re actually talking about a lot of people. There’s no getting away from that. And, you know, as as I consider now, moving back into the Labour Party is something I’m thinking about now. It’s difficult. It’s really difficult. But at the same time, I also look at myself and I think actually how many times in your life have you perceived some kind of injustice and thought about it and then got on with your day and not and not dealt with it, just something you’ve seen on the news or something that you’ve thought about and worried about. And I realise that this is one of the great lessons of identity politics, is that it always feels a lot worse to you, the minority, than it does to other people. And, you know, I watch the Black Lives Matter movement and I look at the phrase Black Lives Matter, and I see the black community are saying is that you don’t understand. You’ve not put yourself in the position of black Americans. And in a much, much smaller way, that was what I was feeling. But people are people and human beings are only human. And, you know, if I felt like the institution gave cover and protection to Jews, then I would feel much more emboldened from the inside of that institution, fighting against those who I have no time for.
Laura [00:36:31] So you said you are thinking of rejoining now, jamie, what does the party need to do to give you the confidence that that’s the right decision? I know Keir Starmer’s obviously being quite vocal already, particularly in comparison with previous leadership. But what do you think needs to change or be visibly demonstrated for you to feel like the party would be a welcome home for you again?
Jamie [00:36:56] Well, to be honest, I don’t know if I don’t if it will be a welcome home. I genuinely don’t know the answer to that. A lot of my friends in the Labour Party and I still have many, many. When I’ve said to them, I’m thinking about coming back have said, that’s great, Jamie. And, you know, we’d love to have you back. And that’s all very nice. But I’m sure there will also be lots of people in the Labour Party who look at people like me and think, well. If they cleave to the view that this issue about the Jews was partly what contributed to Jeremy Corbyn losing the last election, I’m sure there will be many people in the Labour Party who don’t view that very favourably. And that’s an intimidating prospect. I don’t think that the test, though, is whether it is a welcome home, whether everything’s perfect, because I don’t think the Labour Party’s going to get there. What I want to know, though, is whether I can join an institution where I can legitimately tell myself that my membership of it isn’t in any sense a moral compromise because as a member, I’m able to contribute to improving it. I just didn’t feel that was possible under Jeremy Corbyn and his leadership, which perpetually denied and belittled and dismissed the concerns of Jewish people. I don’t think Keir Starmer’s leadership is going to do that. That said, it is obviously very early days. And I know that the Jewish community has been really encouraged by his initial stance on these matters. But we’ll be looking for a lot more. But frankly, I do trust him. I do actually believe that it is something he wants to deal with. And I hope and believe that the party will eventually fall into line. But I think to be able to do it probably needs some Jewish people around, particularly ones who had left to come back and not take any nonsense. It can’t just be swept under the carpet. So, I mean, from my perspective, there are still people very senior in the party and in the trade union movement who have said and done anti-Semitic things, which, if they are against any other racial group, would have been career ending. And it is time for them to go. It is time for the central party to crack down on local branches that have become rotten, that have hounded out their Jewish MPs and not just to leave them be now that they have a Gentile MP. There are many really problematic things in the Labour Party. There are still outstanding complaints against lots of Labour members who have said and done anti-Semitic things, some of them repeat offenders. And we still don’t have a robust process for independently dealing with them. So there’s a lot that can be done. And, you know, someone like me is going to be keen to help with that sort of thing. I suppose listeners listeing to this may ask, well, you know, it was so bad, why are you doing it? And the answer is that the Labour Party remains a great progressive force in British life. There’s no doubt about it. It has always been and I think will be for some time, the mouthpiece of the liberal left in the UK, which articulates a different way of doing things. And it’s something I believe in.
Ali [00:39:49] And Jamie, before we go on to talking about dogs, which I want to make sure we have time for, I wondered, have any of your friends who maybe didn’t behave in a great way previously or didn’t stand up and say things, have any of them apologised to you since? And how do you feel about that, would you like them to?
Jamie [00:40:11] Plenty people apologised at the time, and what they were doing was they were apologising for what was going on and what we were going through. When I left the Labour Party, hundreds of people, because I did it quite publicly on Twitter, you know, hundreds of people, from good friends to mere acquaintances messaged to say how sorry and sad they were and that they were standing in solidarity. My view was that the principled thing to do at that time was to leave the Labour Party. And I honour those MPs who ended their careers like Luciana Berger, on that principle. Have people written to me to apologise? No. And to be honest, I wouldn’t expect them to just because the perspective of most people in the Labour Party is that this is something that was done by other people. People tend only to apologise for the things that they have done wrong. If I was to think of all the times that something had happened that maybe affected a friend of mine, but I wasn’t as there for them as I should have done or should have been. I think I’d be doing a lot of apologising in life. For that reason I think I don’t hold it against anyone. That said, you know, there’s absolutely no doubt that there are people who I spent 10 years with fighting alongside knocking doors, alongside who I just didn’t hear a word from when I left the party. And, you know, I’ll reserve my my thoughts about that sort of person. For most of them, you remain friends. It’s very, very difficult. It was very, very, very difficult.
Laura [00:41:45] So at that juncture, on to dogs.
Ali [00:41:52] To lighten the mood,.
Laura [00:41:53] I feel like we need to bring you back up a bit Jamie. Tell us about dogs.
Jamie [00:41:59] I’ve talked everyone into a depression.
Laura [00:42:01] Not at all. But do tell us about dogs.
Jamie [00:42:04] Well, this is exciting news. So I didn’t have a dog growing up. And one of my best mates had a dog. And I hated it because it always jumped on me and tried to hump my leg and slobbered all over my clothes and it smelt horrible and I decided the dogs weren’t for me and I didn’t understand everyone’s obsession with dogs. And then I met the woman who is now my fiancee. It was a lockdown engagement and she had a miniature sausage dog whose name is Mr Pickle and Mr Pickle I have become best friends, and it’s completely revolutionised the way I see dogs. Now when I see them in the park. I went to meet every dog. I went to chat to the owner and pretend to be knowledgeable about canine matters. I have bought books about dogs, so I understand what’s going on because I’m clueless. What I hadn’t realised — and this is quite superficial point — I hadn’t realised that people love so much about dogs is how much they like humans. And, you know, you can have a terrible day and feel like you’re a terrible person. But the dog is just there, and he’s just so happy to see you and he just wants to lick your face and give you a cuddle. And who wouldn’t want that? So now I’m obsessed with him and we do everything together.
Ali [00:43:27] Just to bring up a theme from the previous discussion in a much more light-hearted way. Your friend, you had that dog that humped your leg when you were younger. Have you told him that you’ve changed your mind now and you’re sorry that you didn’t like dogs more?
Jamie [00:43:38] Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. He knows about my transformation into a dog lover. I think he feels kind of hurt by it. I really didn’t like his dog, actually, because I do also think there are dogs and then there are dogs and you know that dog…
Laura [00:43:56] I totally get that. So on that happy note, I’d like to ask you, Jamie, actually, before we wrap up, who would you like to hear about from a time they changed their mind on an issue? Who would that person be for you?
Jamie [00:44:08] Well, that’s a good question. Gosh, it’s a bit of a cliche, but I think I quite like to hear from Obama because I’ve always thought that he’s someone who had all his intellectual ducks in a row. And when you read his books and stuff, it all just seemed so seamless, particularly the kind of parallels between his life and his thinking. I’d love to know a time where he just thought actually that was completely wrong. And I’m going to change my view on it.
Ali [00:44:31] So there is one, actually, you’re not the first person, but not many people say him about gay marriage. And he talks about the role of his daughters in persuading him to change his mind in that.
Jamie [00:44:41] I had no idea of that. That’s really interesting.
Ali [00:44:43] Yeah. And I suspect it’s not quite as you know, you tell stories in a certain way for books or for the public. I suspect it’s not quite that straightforward. But, yeah, we’ll put some links in the show notes that go from this where people can find out more about it.
Laura [00:44:54] Thank you so much for joining us this evening, Jamie. That was brilliant. And from a very sort of lofty heights and to some quite deep deaths and finishing with dogs. So you can’t really ask much more from a podcast episode. I feel like we’ve done the full range there. Thank you very much.
Jamie [00:45:11] I hope that was all right. I really appreciate all your great questions.
Laura [00:45:18] Before Ali, Alex and I digest the interview we’ve just done. We wanted to bring you a brief word from our partners, Open Democracy.
Mary [00:45:25] Hello. I’m Mary Fitzgerald, editor in chief of Open Democracy. We exist to bring you the latest reporting and analysis on social and political issues around the world. We’re here to educate citizens, challenge power and encourage democratic debate, just as this podcast does. To find out more about us or to make a contribution to our work, visit opendemocracy.net.
Laura [00:45:45] So now we’ve heard the full interview. Was there anything you wanted to reflect on? Ali?
Ali [00:45:50] Jamie talked powerfully about his experience of anti semitism in the Labour party. It’s worth saying that Jeremy Corbyn, the then leader of the Labour party issued a statement about the mural Jamie discussed saying “I sincerely regret that I did not look more closely at the image I was commenting on, the contents of which are deeply disturbing and anti-Semitic. I wholeheartedly support its removal.” On the issue of the wreath the Labour Party issued a statement at the time saying “Jeremy did not lay any wreath at the graves of those alleged to have been linked to the Black September organisation or the 1972 Munich killings. He of course condemns that terrible attack, as he does the 1985 bombing.” The new leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer, has made extensive efforts to reach out to the jewish community saying he ‘is in no doubt that it will take time to rebuild trust between the Jewish community and the Labour party. Jamie also set out his view really clearly from his position as one of those UK barristers that wear the wigs for our American listeners, again, that the differences between the politicisation of the judiciary in the US and in the UK. He also made the point that barristers have to take cases they vehemently disagree with and advocate from their point of view. And it’s probably something that we can learn about that. And how can we bring it across into polarization that maybe we haven’t considered enough before. What are the norms and the cultures in that industry that allow that to happen?
Laura [00:46:22] What about you, Alex? What did you take away from it?
Alex [00:46:25] I think Jamie was hopeful about the future, but really care that we have to make decisions or rather our leaders have to make decisions about the type of future that we want, particularly given the rates of progress in tech. And you need that, I think you need those kinds of decisions, that kind of framework in place. So I was also struck by his answer to Ali’s question of whether it really was a minority of people in the Labour Party that drove the institutionalised anti-Semitism that Jamie spoke so eloquently about, and the importance of layers of people who may not consider themselves anti-Semitic in allowing it to take root. What about you, though?
Laura [00:47:03] For me, because I studied politics and philosophy, I think when I read the book, it was a really timely reminder that we have a choice in the structure of the political systems that we live under, and also that tech is shaping our lives. And we can’t just sleepwalk into a future we don’t want or even worse, perhaps don’t even understand. And I think, as Jamie said, with climate change, it feels like we shouldn’t have to wait until things are crashing down around us to decide, you know, the kind of society that we want to have in the future. And that will shape human experience for the next 200 years or more.
Alex [00:47:38] That sleepwalking point, you said that much more eloquently than I did. I think we need to have those conversations and debates now rather than accidentally ending up, you know, 50, 100 years on the line without it.
Laura [00:47:52] Absolutely. Has Jamie inspired you to think about the time you’ve changed your mind on something and why? At the end of this series, we’ll be doing a special listeners’ edition of the show. Email [email protected] and tell us about what you’ve changed your mind on and the best response will get a copy of Jamie’s book Future Politics whizzed out in the post.
Ali [00:48:12] That’s all from us today. Thank you very much for listening to this episode of Changed My Mind. If you liked what you heard. Don’t forget we’ve a full back catalogue of fascinating interviews with leaders, you can find them all by searching Changed My Mind in your podcast app. We’ll be back next week with a new episode featuring Kajal Odedra, a managing director at change.org. Thank you to Open Democracy for their support of the show, to Caroline Crampton for editing, and to Kevin McCloud, whose ‘Dreams Become Real’ is our theme music.