Sunday with Niall Paterson Interview with Andy McDonald Shadow Transport Secretary

Sunday 25 March 2018


NIALL PATERSON: Labour launched their local election campaign this week but once again the news from Mr Corbyn’s side of the chamber has been dominated by the loss of another member of his frontbench team and more allegations of anti-Semitism.   Joining me now from Middlesbrough is the Shadow Transport Secretary, Andrew McDonald.   Mr McDonald, good to see you, a very good morning.

ANDY McDONALD: Good morning.

NP: Shall we start with perhaps what is the biggest live issue for the Labour party at the moment, in my reckoning it’s not the departure of Owen Smith – anti-Semitism.   That report by Shami Chakrabarti, who was of course awarded peerage for her efforts, do you think it was somewhat hasty in its conclusions?

ANDY McDONALD: No, I don’t.  I think we’ve had a very frank and thorough look at the issues of anti-Semitism and we’re reaffirmed our absolute abhorrence of that issue in all of its manifestations and I think we’re dealing with the issues in the correct way and I know that this issue is continually in the headlines and I think we’ve got to take it head-on.

NP: But that mural, which Jeremy Corbyn appeared to support, I won’t go into the details myself, you can take a look at it but it takes the form of one of the more obvious and heartfelt stereotypes of the Jewish people.   How could anyone look at it, even briefly, and not realise just how anti-Semitic it was?

ANDY McDONALD: Well look, Jeremy has made it abundantly clear that, you know, it is an anti-Semitic portrait or mural or whatever it is and it’s quite right that it should be removed and he didn’t look at it properly at the time and he’s expressed regret about that but I’d just say that Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t got an anti-Semitic bone in his body.   His entire history is about campaigning for human rights, to oppose discrimination in whatever form it takes and if you just look back at the EDMs, the Early Day Motions, over his time in parliament, he has been at the forefront of condemning anti-terrorism, speaking out against attacks against Jewish communities across Europe, in Istanbul, in Paris and everywhere else so I think this is to misinterpret the intentions of a really good and decent man who has actually stood for these issues all of his life.

NP: But it is only now that he identified it as anti-Semitic, he didn’t do it a couple of years ago when the artwork was first presented to him and actually in his comment, under what both of us and Jeremy Corbyn concedes is a hugely offensive “artwork”, in inverted commas, who mentions the Rockefeller Centre, Rockefeller himself of course, very closely linked to Rothschild, I mean the anti-Semites favourite target.   I’m sorry, but for anyone who has spent any amount of time around the Israel/Palestine issue, who has studied and condemned the Holocaust as Jeremy Corbyn has done, it is almost impossible to believe that Jeremy Corbyn did not see it for what it is.

ANDY McDONALD: No, look, Jeremy is an honest and decent man and he has acknowledged that he didn’t look at it properly and he does recognise that it abhorrent, it is anti-Semitic and it’s right that it should no longer exist but he was speaking in the context of freedom of expression and murals in another context and I think there has been that cross-referencing and that’s why we’re having this discussion today but be in no doubt whatsoever that Jeremy is absolutely and utterly focused on driving out anti-Semitism wherever it will appear and any other forms of discrimination.   It’s absolutely beyond doubt, that’s what the man is about.  

NP: You mentioned his support for freedom of expression, I mean it wasn’t desperately obvious when that Dutch newspaper published that cartoon of Mohammed.   The point is pretty simple isn’t it, I mean he says that he actually did look at it, just that he didn’t look closely enough.   I mean should someone who didn’t immediately recognise, within seconds, within moments in fact, who didn’t immediately recognise that this was anti-Semitic, should they be leader of a political party, let alone Her Majesty’s Opposition?

ANDY McDONALD: Niall, I think if everybody went through their life and said I’m never going to make an error or misjudge something, visually or otherwise, then there would be very few people in politics or anywhere else for that matter.   He’s accepted that he didn’t look at it properly, it is anti-Semitic and it should be removed.   He couldn’t be clearer about it but for us to say that nobody could ever get such a thing wrong or make an error in that way is just quite frankly fanciful.   We all do, you and I do on a daily basis and we say sorry, I did get that wrong and I absolutely abhor this representation, it’s ugly and vile and it’s not to be tolerated.

NP: On an hourly basis in my case but thankfully I’m not Leader of the Opposition.   If that’s the case, why has he not apologised?  He’s made an expression of regret, a mealy mouthed one at that, why has he not just come out and said ‘Do you know what, I’m really sorry about this?’

ANDY McDONALD:  He has made that expression of regret, that’s very, very important.

NP: Not an apology though, Mr McDonald, you know that.

ANDY McDONALD: Well look, he’s made his position crystal clear, it was an error, he did see that in a glance and he’s made that comment but it’s a horrible image and it’s right that it be removed and he does regret not having taken that action in the first instance but as I say, none of us get things 100% right all of the time and this is perfectly a proper response and the right response at this juncture to put it beyond any doubt that this is just totally and utterly unacceptable as imagery and it should always be decried and deemed as unacceptable in the way that Jeremy has so described.

NP: As you say, everyone makes mistakes but the fact is this incident doesn’t take place in a vacuum, there have been in some people’s eyes a pattern of behaviour on the part of Mr Corbyn.   There remains this morning, well as of the last time I looked, around about seven o’clock this morning, a tweet of support from Jeremy Corbyn’s account for Sheikh Raed Salah who used the blood libel outside the Al-Aksa Mosque, who referred tangentially to Jews as germs and monkeys. Now, even if he is no anti-Semite, he does little to stop others from characterising himself as such, in fact sometimes he seems to encourage it.   I mean why on earth would he do that?

ANDY McDONALD: No, I think that’s grossly, grossly unfair, he does nothing of the sort and I think what we should do, I think we should publish the Early Day Motions that Jeremy has initiated since 1990 and onwards that I’ve been able to locate that show beyond any doubt where the man stands on such issues and I think this is, it’s really unfortunate that we’re having this debate.   We are trying obviously to deal with this particular issue head on but it’s interesting that nobody is drawing attention to his proud history of standing up against anti-Semitism for all of these decades and that is the measure of the man and we should look at this fairly.   In the interests of balance, Niall, I think those issues should be put before the public and let them make their own mind up because I know the man, I’ve worked with him closely for the last several years and he’s a man of good intent and decent standards and this has been his entire life and I think to traduce him in this way is totally and utterly wrong.

NP: As you are saying, you believe there isn’t anti-Semitic sentiment within the party, I mean is there anti-Israeli sentiment there?   Do you think Israel is an apartheid state?   That’s what your advisor Carl Hanson said in a tweet earlier.

ANDY McDONALD: Well, as a Member of Parliament I had the privilege with the Holocaust Educational Trust to go over to Auschwitz and just take in the enormity of that atrocity and that has absolutely shaped and formed my thinking and to see what an abomination that was.   At the same time I’ve also travelled to the West Bank and seen what life is like on a daily basis for …

NP: I’m asking about Carl Hanson, Mr McDonald.

ANDY McDONALD: Well I’m answering your question about the attitudes of the Israeli government towards the people in the land that they occupy and they treat them very, very differently.   We’ve just seen a young person who was shot dead by an Israeli soldier at point blank range and he received a sentence of nine months’ imprisonment. The same family who protested against that and a young teenage girl who slapped an Israeli soldier in anger received a sentence of nine months.   I’ve been to the military courts where young boys are treated by a military system of law as against a civil system of law, now there are two different systems depending on whether you are Palestinian or whether you are a settler so I’ve seen it at first hand and I think we have got to recognise that the Israeli government treat people entirely different depending on who they are in their own land and that’s the context of this discussion.   Because we quite rightly hold out and make the case in the most strenuous cases to oppose anti-Semitism, that cannot mean we are beyond criticising the Israeli government as it currently is for the actions it takes against people in Palestine, that’s the important point.

NP: Indeed.  Owen Smith, I wonder if we can just discuss his position within the party at the moment.   He expressed a desire, very, very publicly of course, but he expressed a desire for a second vote on Brexit.   That’s a view shared, according to the polls, by a majority of the Labour party membership, do you think it was right for him to be sacked?

ANDY McDONALD: Well look, I campaigned vociferously to remain in the European Union, that’s how I voted and I was hugely disappointed at the outcome but we’ve got the decision and we’ve got to work collectively within the Labour party to try to heal the nation.   I know lots of people have called for a second referendum, I seem to remember Nigel Farage saying we should have a second one if it was very narrow, he seems to have gone quiet on that over the subsequent months but we are in this position and I just ask people to think through, where would that get us if we were to go down the path of that second referendum at this stage?   It’s about bringing the nation together.   Look, I hold Owen in the highest possible regard, he knows that.  He’s a man of immense talent and he’s done a superb job as our Shadow Northern Ireland spokesperson but we do have to work collectively and this is the issue here.   It’s not just about this particular issue, I think Owen has made it clear he is not prepared to abide by that collective responsibility principle and that’s fine, that’s his prerogative but a Shadow Cabinet must operate as singularly as it possibly can.

NP: We have of course heard today from Kier Starmer, he’s seeking that binding vote in the Commons to ensure that there will be no cameras, no infrastructure, no customs checks on the Northern Ireland border.   In essence what he is imagining – and one presumes that Mr Smith had a role in that as well – that there would be no checks along that border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, is that correct?

ANDY McDONALD: I don't know what the conversation was between Kier and Owen about that but I entirely endorse what Kier has set out, that’s got to be the right response.   In fairness to Owen, he’s made it abundantly clear that we have got to preserve the Good Friday Agreement, this is precious and critical and Kier’s response in setting out the parameters for goods travelling freely and people similarly across the island of Ireland is exactly the right response.   We cannot do anything that will put up any hard infrastructure that would interfere with that principle and put at risk the precious commodity of peace that was so hard won over many, many decades so I think that’s exactly the right response from Kier.  

NP: But didn’t you in your role as Shadow Transport Secretary pillory Chris Grayling for proposing something similar?   Lack of checks to avoid traffic jams, you said the government said leaving the EU is about regaining control of our borders but the Transport Secretary’s plan would achieve the exact opposite.   They are not entirely parallel situations but there is something similar about them, is there not?

ANDY McDONALD: No, they are entirely and utterly different.   The island of Ireland has its own unique dynamics, it’s completely different and distinct and we’ve got to make special provision for the island of Ireland in a way that I’ve just discussed.   It’s a completely different issue if we’re leaving the European Union for goods and traffic to simply move without any border checks whatsoever.   I don't know where that happens anywhere else in the world, where you’ve got a trading bloc or one entity to another where goods would just simply pass through unchecked, that just doesn’t happen.  

NP: Mr McDonald, it looks like a lovely day where you are, so get out and enjoy it.   Thanks very much for joining us.

ANDY McDONALD: Thank you.