This is a guest post from Ed Fordham
I still remember the day in 2009 when our canvass team came back from a night out on the doorsteps and asked me: “Who is Jenny Tonge? We have just been canvassing and had the most awful time over this person who apparently is a Liberal Democrat…”
I explained calmly and with a wry smile that Jenny was former MP and member of the House of Lords, and that she held strong views and was not afraid to voice them. “But this was real fear,” said one of the canvassers, “these residents were not going to vote Liberal Democrat because of the views she articulates.” It was not a one-off incident.
So how does someone go from being a passionate and thoughtful campaigner, through to being an MP, a member of the House of Lords and then become a poster figure of fear and hatred on a topic as controversial as Israel/Palestine?
I remember well, for example, Dr Jenny Tonge’s passionate plea at a Conference for measures to tackle air quality – especially in London and for cyclists. She cares deeply about issues and can voice those concerns with passion and force. But sadly, there my respect ends.
I also speak on issues about Israel and Palestine – I am fascinated by history, politics and religion, I love the Middle East and its mix of heat and dust. I consider myself a friend of Israel (which, for the record, is a very different thing to being a supporter of its Government!). But I also know that the cocktail of religion, politics and history is a dangerous one. This is a topic that requires knowledge, facts, understanding and balance – yes passion, but passion for shared agendas not deeper wounds and accusations.
Somehow, in the quest for a resolution to the Middle East dilemmas Jenny has become the illustration of what is wrong about the debate on the Middle East. Passionate and forceful, but with a loud tint of prejudice, anger, hatred and perhaps even an endorsed threat.
What happened at Middlesex University was not a one-off incident. It was the latest in a long line of provocations. But when I was on the hustings and people said things I found vile about Israelis, Palestinians, Jews and Muslims, I felt it right and correct to distance myself, to try and add value to the conversation and show some understanding of the depth of the problems. On this assessment Jenny failed herself and the Liberal Democrats. It was correct that she left.
I consider myself to be pretty close to the political conversation locally and nationally. But I have been really struck at the widespread relief from members at Jenny’s departure from the Lords Parliamentary Party. These are rank and file members who are not close to foibles and pitfalls of the Israel/Palestine debate.
Nick Clegg inherited this problem. Jenny was an issue under Charles Kennedy and Ming Campbell, so this is not a new issue. Nick has been consistent and clear – he is a friend of Israel, recognising its right to exist, he is a pursuer of peace in the Middle East and a critic of wild and unchecked screams on this topic. He was right to act on this occasion and with such clarity.
I could not myself have shared a platform with some of the people with whom Jenny did – and she knew beforehand how controversial and aggressive they can be. So next time someone associates Israelis as Nazis, or denies Al Qaeda, or links Mossad with 9/11 – I’ll be condemning them, as I have done before. It’s a shame Jenny didn’t when she had the chance, and this time it was her last chance. She had had plenty of chances before and passed them by.
Ed Fordham was the Liberal Democrats parliamentary candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn in 2010