What an ISIS Sex Slave Joke Tells Us About the Weird State of Politics
In the battle between warring Labour factions, some jokes are OK, while others are definitely not.
I don't know if you've noticed, but we lost a political colossus this week: a modern-day titan on a par with Vince Cable or Napoleon. True, not many outside of the Westminster bubble will have heard of Lewisham East CLP chair Ian McKenzie, but in the past week he has come to be a symbol of the strange debate over politeness in British politics.
There's no hiding the fact that, in recent years, McKenzie had started to seem like a bit of a throwback – a died-in-the-wool Blairite in the age of Corbynista insurgency. On this score, McKenzie's Twitter bio said it all: "Labour has only won five working majorities, EVER: 1945, 1966, 1997, 2001 & 2005. Why? Attlee, Wilson, Blair, Blair, Blair. Of those, only once beat the Tories." No, your eyes do not deceive you: in just 134 short characters, McKenzie managed to disprove the whole basis on which the Corbyn movement has been built. If only more people had listened to him while they still could...
But, in the end, it was his animosity to his party's left which proved McKenzie's undoing. Last weekend, his CLP picked their candidate for the upcoming by-election. This was triggered by Heidi Alexander – who, in 2017, picked up a majority of 21,213 – standing down to become London's Deputy Mayor. Corbyn – along with Owen Jones and his band of dastardly Momentum thugs – had spotted an opportunity. With such a huge majority, surely even a decidedly non-Sensible Labour candidate could pick up a by-election win. Here, then, was a chance to give a candidate from the left a coronation.
Momentum had thrown their weight behind Sakina Sheikh, a local councillor in the borough. Opposing her were Claudia Webbe, another left-wing candidate backed by Unite, and Janet Daby – the Lewisham Deputy Mayor, who was being backed by Progress (although, confusingly, she also voted for Jeremy Corbyn during both leadership elections in which he stood; as far as I can tell, she was being backed by the Labour right because she openly opposes the leadership's stance on Brexit).
The hustings meeting reportedly turned into a farce. Sheikh was revealed to have previously represented a group called Take Back the City, which stood against Labour in the 2016 London mayoral elections. Sheikh was initially disqualified, before eventually being reinstated, but the damage was done. She lost to Daby by 135 votes to 288.
After the meeting, Owen Jones dug up a tweet of McKenzie’s from 2016 saying he had claimed that: "[Shadow Foreign Secretary] Emily Thornberry is too old for ISIS. They won't make a sex slave of her. They'll behead her and put her in a mass grave." On Tuesday, McKenzie was suspended from the Labour party. The eulogies, as we have already seen, came thick and – deservingly – fast.
According to Baroness Taylor of Bolton, McKenzie did more than almost anyone "to return Labour MPs and Labour governments". This statement was echoed by Exeter MP Ben Bradshaw. But McKenzie wasn't just about politics; he was also "a really fine man", as Philip Collins of The Times wrote. "A truly decent guy," said LBC presenter Iain Dale, who had known him since they attended university together.
McKenzie replied to his suspension with a statement, insisting that the context – condemning the idea that you could ever negotiate with ISIS – made it somehow OK. "Emily Thornberry is at an age at which she would be selected by ISIS to be killed," he decided to reaffirm. "I said so. I stated a fact that is disputed by no one. I did not advocate, nor joke about, Emily Thornberry’s killing, but the very opposite. My tweet was a deadly serious condemnation."
So basically, McKenzie's position is: "It's true, she is too old for ISIS." Oh, OK then. I now see how it is completely fine to discuss whether or not the shadow foreign secretary would be sold into sexual slavery in the hypothetical situation that she was captured by a Wahabi militia. Forgive my mistake.
But there remains, I think, a real question here: just what is these people's deal? On the one hand, I do kind of understand: McKenzie is some of these people's friend. It's only natural they'd try to defend him. But do they really have no sense of the context here? Only last week we saw the political centre (/right) tie themselves in knots trying to claim that it's racist for Corbyn supporters to call middle-aged white men "gammon". But now we have the spectacle of commentators – who are, at least, fellow-travellers with the anti-gammonists – insisting that speculating about Thornberry's rape and/or murder is no big deal. Too often, the media can seem to be trying to draw a line of politeness, which no one who wants to be taken seriously, politically, should ever be allowed to cross. But just how wonky do they want it to be?
The centre, or centre-left – or however you want to position old "New" Labour Blair / Brownism – is rapidly disintegrating. And really, the blame for this cannot simply be placed on Corbyn or Owen Jones or "misogynistic" trans women or Russian trolls, or whatever the hell else they're trying to cite at the moment. In the first instance, the blame lies with them. If they want to start being taken seriously again, they've got to start behaving like serious people, who can contribute – in good faith – to helping their party form the next government. Demurring from eulogising Ian McKenzie could have been the first step.