With the government badly mishandling the Covid-19 pandemic, dismissing valid safety concerns raised by many scientists and teaching unions, and doing very little for disadvantaged pupils struggling to learn at home, I felt my role as shadow education secretary was a critically important one at a time of crisis.
This situation had also brought the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers back into the spotlight. I was determined to use my position to address the structural forms of economic and educational inequality that were holding so many of our children back.
All this changed last Thursday. Over my morning coffee, I saw the Independent had tweeted an interview with my constituent and stalwart Labour party supporter Maxine Peake. I did a quick read and as I admire Peake, I retweeted it straight away.
I was then contacted by the Labour leader’s office and my heart sank when I learned that many people were concerned about a passage in the article: talking about the Black Lives Matter protests, Peake had written: “Systemic racism is a global issue,” but followed this with an inaccurate reference (which she has since apologised for) to US police learning tactics such as those that killed George Floyd from training seminars with Israeli secret services.
I explained to the leader’s office that I would never have intended to retweet or endorse anything that could cause hurt to anyone. I know how painful the issue of antisemitism has been for the Jewish community and I have been part of the efforts to eradicate it from our party.
So we discussed how to clarify this. The wording of my clarification, outlining that I did not endorse all aspects of the article, was drafted and agreed by the leader’s office. After some discussion regarding whether to delete the original tweet and tweet the clarification separately, or to quote the original tweet, I was advised to add it to my original tweet so the context would be clear. That is exactly what I did.
Shortly afterwards I was informed that the clarification I had agreed with the leader’s office was insufficient, and was asked to delete it and the original retweet it was attached to.
I expressed that I wanted to issue a clarification that acknowledged the concerns about the interview I had originally tweeted, and explained why I was taking both posts down – as a way to help people learn the importance of being careful and forensic about such sensitive issues, not least to avoid setting one minority group against another.
Complete silence from me over what had just happened would have been an abdication of the Labour party’s responsibility to advance dialogue and understanding on this issue; silence is what allows antisemitic conspiracy theories to fester and spread. I asked to issue a press statement and to discuss it with Keir, so we could sort this out. But when he did call me, he had made his decision. It was a mess, and an avoidable one. Of course I take responsibility for my own actions.
Would I have retweeted the article knowing some of its contents would cause hurt? No of course not. It may be the case that concerns have been raised by activists in the United States regarding Israeli police training US forces – but I have not seen evidence that the police officers responsible for George Floyd’s killing needed to import their particular brutality from anywhere else. So I am very sad about what happened on Thursday.
As I return to life on the backbenches, I already know what my priority will be. A few weeks ago, I spoke to MPs about the need to eradicate child poverty. I told them to always remember who put them in parliament and why, because ultimately we are 650 individual people elected by our communities to protect and improve their lives. We are the voice of the voiceless.
My job has always been to be that voice for my constituents in Salford and Eccles, whether from the frontbench or the backbench. I know that as we come out of this crisis, there can be no return to the status quo – where in the world’s fifth-largest economy, the UN reported last year that one-fifth of our population is in poverty and 40% of children are predicted to be living in poverty by 2021.
After a decade of deep cuts to public services, I will be arguing for a national jobs plan to create good, secure, unionised jobs and new industries in every region and nation, with schools, colleges and universities properly resourced so that every person can gain the skills they need to truly realise their potential.
I will continue calling for us to address the structural problems in education that hold so many back, such as the pressure placed on teachers, the low retention rate among teachers, the form of exams and assessments, and the pernicious way achievement at a school level is measured.
And I will join the calls to urgently tackle the climate crisis, for redistributive state intervention in the economy, a basic minimum real living wage with real living hours to match, to rebuild our state safety net and to look at basic income guarantees.
I know Labour can lead the way. That’s why I will be in parliament and in the community doing the job I was always elected to do: a voice for the voiceless, because the welfare of the people is the highest law.
• Rebecca Long-Bailey is the Labour MP for Salford and Eccles