Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, known as “Lady Phyll,” has resigned as a potential Labour candidate in the Lewisham East by-election after equating the treatment of Palestinians to “Nazi persecution” on Holocaust Memorial Day.
What Phyll Opoku-Gyimah said:
On May 8th former UK Labour Shadow Secretary for Health Heidi Alexander resigned from Parliament in order to accept a position as Deputy Mayor of London for Transport. The resignation triggered a by-election, and an opportunity for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to replace a previous critic (Alexander) with a more sympathetic MP. Although hugely popular among party members as a whole, Corbyn has surprisingly few supporters among the Parliamentary Labour Party, so the opportunity is a valuable one.
On Monday the process hit a bump when a year old Facebook post by the favorite, LGBT activist and union official Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, played straight in to the antisemitism narrative that has been dogging Corbyn’s leadership for months.
The Conservative blogger known as Guido Fawkes published the post by Opoku-Gyimah from January 2017 which compared the suffering of Palestinians to Jews during the Second World War.
Posting on Holocaust Memorial Day 2017, she said, “Today is the day when we remember all those affected by the Holocaust, Nazi Persecution and subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur – I’m adding Palestine to this list.”
Read in the context of 2017 Labour politics, the addition of Palestine to a list of Holocaust inflicted countries would have been mildly controversial at most. 2018 Labour politics is a completely different landscape, however. Since the start of the year, Jeremy Corbyn has been unable to shake off allegations of antisemitism and being soft on the antisemitism of other Labour activists. The party has been struggling to control the narrative for months.
Thrown under the bus
On Sunday Phyll Opoku-Gyimah announced she was standing down from the race, although her publicly stated reasons were not entirely believed.
In a statement posted on Twitter she said, “I want to let you know that an unexpected family situation has forced me to reflect long and hard on whether to put myself forward for consideration to be selected as the next Labour Party candidate in the Lewisham East by-election.
“The opportunity to represent was an honour I would have relished. The support I have received made me believe it could be done.
“It has not been an easy or happy decision for me to not put myself forward so I ask for my privacy at this time.”
The media have mostly assumed the real reason for the decision was the allegation of antisemitism, but even then the machinations are far from clear. While comparing the plight of Palestinians to Jews in the holocaust will have upset many, her statement did not deny the holocaust, deny the suffering of the Jewish people, or play on any negative Jewish stereotypes. Considering the relatively low-profile of this by-election, surely Opoku-Gyimah could have ridden this controversy out?
But there are other pro-Corbyn candidates who now stand to take over instead of Lady Phyll. Sakina Sheikh, a former student campaigner, is now the bookies’ favorite to win the party nomination. Sheikh has the endorsement of Momentum, Corbyn’s personal Labour party faction, and as Lewisham East is a safe Labour seat, whoever gets the nomination will almost certainly win the election.
Although Opoku-Gyimah was likely to be a safely pro-Corbyn MP, once she became damaged by the Facebook post she most likely fell victim to a simple calculation: if she stepped down not only would it help Labour shake the claim that it is soft on antisemitism, but Corbyn would possibly gain an even more loyal addition to the uncomfortably disloyal Parliamentary Labour Party.
Or put more starkly, Lady Phyll’s resignation could not hurt, and would likely help a little.