Labour’s Jewish solicitor says next leader needs to ‘mend fences’

Gerald Shamash claims to have never faced antisemitism himself, but admits allegations could have been handled better

Gerald Shamash joined the Labour Party in 1969 when Harold Wilson was prime minister. More than 50 years on, the deeply riven party is reeling from a crushing electoral defeat and is in the middle of a lengthy leadership campaign.

Shamash leads the electoral and parliamentary team at Edwards Duthie Shamash, a London law firm, and has been the Labour Party’s solicitor since 1990.

Perhaps wisely, he declines to reveal who he is backing in the current leadership battle.

Having just had lunch with a group of pollsters, he says the view is that the winner will be Sir Keir Starmer, QC, the former director of public prosecutions and shadow Brexit secretary.

Predicting a tough five years in opposition, Shamash attributes Labour’s defeat last month to a “convoluted” approach to Brexit, in contrast to the Conservatives’ simple pledge to “get Brexit done”, combined with an overloaded manifesto that was not perceived as credible and “undoubted apathy to the leader”.

Having failed to deal with allegations of antisemitism, the party awaits the outcome of an investigation by the equalities watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Shamash is not representing the party in the investigation, but is acting for some involved. As solicitor to the national constitutional committee — the party’s main disciplinary body — he measures his words, but says that “it’s a really difficult time” and that he accepts “the whole thing could have been handled better”.

Jewish, but not religious, Shamash says that after half a century in the party he has “never personally” come across antisemitism. He does not expect the commission’s report to be published until after the new leader is appointed and stresses:

“Whoever wins will seriously have to mend those fences. It’s horrible to think that the Labour Party is not a natural repository for the Jewish community.”

Student politics and involvement with the anti-apartheid movement led him to join Labour. He ran unsuccessfully for election to Westminster council in 1974 and stood for parliament in the safe Tory seat of Shoreham in 1979 before the arrival of his three children, who were adopted from South America, diverted his attention from politics, although he later served as a councillor in Barnet for eight years.

A traditional generalist solicitor, Shamash started with property work for the party in 1983 before a first big injunction case the same year, when he helped to stop a delivery of election leaflets for the Islington North MP, Michael O’Halloran, who had defected. The leaflets contained allegedly defamatory remarks about Labour’s new candidate for the seat, Jeremy Corbyn.

Shamash’s first big election law case was the trial of the Newark MP, Fiona Jones, who was convicted in 1999 of election fraud. He recalls the “unreal” scene of the Sheriff of Nottingham coming into court for the verdict, complete with large purple tricorn hat. Jones appealed successfully, but she lost her seat in 2001, which, says Shamash, sent her into a “downward spiral”. Six years later she was found dead surrounded by whisky bottles.

Shamash says that the parliamentary expenses scandal after which three Labour MPs were jailed was also a sad time for the party. He recalls that as Elliot Morley, the then agriculture minister and MP for Scunthorpe was jailed in 2011, “I turned and there was this man with tears pouring down his face. He’d given a lifetime of public service and was such a good guy. What a waste and what a stupid thing he did.”

During election campaigns, Shamash moves in-house at Labour headquarters.

“It’s incredibly fast moving, it’s like being in a kind of war — you are reacting immediately to what’s going on. It’s quite exciting.”

He is there on election night too. In 2017 he went home at 5am only to be called at 7am and sent to Kensington, where after a second recount the Labour candidate, Emma Dent Coad, won by 20 votes.

Shamash describes the 2015 election night — with polling having suggested a hung parliament with Ed Miliband as prime minister — as “pretty grim” when the exit poll showed a 12-seat majority for David Cameron.

A happier memory is the “exciting” lead up to the 1997 election. Shamash was summoned for a meeting at 7am with Lord Irvine of Lairg, who was to become Lord Chancellor, in Tony Blair’s office. “I’m sitting there with Derry Irvine, in walks Tony Blair followed by Gordon Brown. I’m sat there thinking, is this really happening to me?”

Politics aside, Shamash has other well-known clients and has been involved with the fallout of press phone-hacking revelations. But his firm, which covers 22 areas of work since its merger last June with Edwards Duthie, remains committed to legal aid. Steele & Shamash, the firm he set up in 1981, did 70 per cent legal aid work, while the merged firm does 50 per cent.

With the cuts to legal aid rates and increased bureaucracy, it is “tough”, he says. The merger has helped to keep the legal aid work viable and provided more “management heft in the back office” needed to run the firm efficiently. He accepts that the legal aid cuts began under Blair’s government and recalls the “machismo race among the junior legal aid ministers to fit within the Gordon Brown financial envelope”.

Shamash, whose parents came to England from Baghdad, was born in Manchester. He studied human and physical sciences before meeting his wife, the solicitor and international adoption specialist Naomi Angell, and it was her father who suggested he take up law.

At 72, retirement is not yet on the cards. With energy and palpable excitement, he says of his job:

“I love it. Every day there’s something different – phone hacking, sex abuse, defamation. As long as I continue to enjoy it I’ll get up in the morning and do it.”

Article from: The Times