Following our award for Politician of the Year (undead), here comes another newly instituted gong.
It’s been an impressive year for self-destructive politicians. The prime minister himself set the standard, arranging his own funeral in the shape of the Brexit referendum. Almost as convincing was Zac Goldsmith losing two elections in the space of seven months, apparently punished by the electorate for running too right-wing a campaign.
But both Cameron and Goldsmith are now finished in politics. And our award is intended for someone who’s still with us – but only just – suffering from self-inflicted wounds that may yet prove fatal.
Which means that there can only really be one winner: Baroness Chakrabarti of Kennington.
How far she has fallen! And it’s all been in this calendar year.
When the not-yet-ennobled Shami Chakrabarti CBE retired as director of Liberty in January this year, she was a renowned, respected, even – in some quarters – revered public figure. Newspapers marked the occasion of her stepping-down by dusting off old tributes from the likes of David Aaronovitch and Jon Gaunt: ‘probably the most effective public affairs lobbyist of the past twenty years,’ said the one; ‘the most dangerous woman in Britain,’ said the other.
She used to describe herself as the ‘human logo’ of Liberty, and she had enjoyed a much higher profile than any of her predecessors. Committed, telegenic, articulate, if a little humourless, she was particularly beloved of the BBC, becoming a regular presence on Question Time and the go-to person for any news stories involving infringements of human rights – a common enough occurrence in the modern world of terrorist panics.
Peak-Shami came in 2012 when she was one of eight people invited to carry the Olympic flag at the climax of the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, alongside the secretary-general of the United Nations, the Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee and pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim.
And then in April this year, she threw it all away. She joined the Labour Party – despite the fact that her moral authority was rooted in her non-partisan status – at the same time that she was appointed to lead an enquiry into antisemitism in the party.
The report she produced in June cleared Labour of being ‘overrun’ by racism, but did admit there was an ‘occasionally toxic atmosphere’. Its findings were not universally welcomed: it was ‘a whitewash’, according to the Campaign Against Antisemitism, while Labour MP Ruth Smeeth left the press conference held to launch the report in tears, saying that ‘a Labour Party under [Jeremy Corbyn’s] stewardship cannot be a safe space for British Jews’.
Rumours circulated that Chakrabarti had been offered a peerage in return for her work on the enquiry, stories that she refused to deny. And in August she was indeed given a peerage, the only one bestowed by Corbyn this year. She is now in the shadow cabinet and is one of Corbyn’s few loyalists in the House of Lords.
Unsurprisingly, accepting a frontbench job has only done further damage to her reputation as an independent campaigner. Earlier this month, Peter Tatchell interrupted a Corbyn speech on human rights with a protest demanding sanctions against Russia for its actions in the Syrian civil war. Rather than being on the floor, shoulder-to-shoulder with Tatchell, Baroness Chakrabarti was up on the stage, whispering advice to Corbyn: ‘Just let them do this,’ was her suggestion for damage limitation.
And still the antisemitism claims won’t go away, despite her best endeavours. ‘I don’t believe Labour is much worse than any other party,’ she insisted in November, adding that allegations to the contrary were merely part of the campaign against her leader. (It was hard, however, to imagine the Shami of Liberty settling for ‘not much worse’ over doing far, far better. Has anti-racism suddenly become a relative value?)
Most damaging of all, though, was the shadow attorney general’s silence when the ‘snooper’s charter’ came up for debate in the House of Lords. This was precisely the kind of issue that had been meat and drink to her; the very reason why we might want – indeed, need – her to be in the legislature. But party loyalty, it appears, trumps principle, and she kept schtum.
It’s been a disastrous twelve months for one of the keepers of the nation’s conscience. A lifetime of campaigning and conviction casually discarded, seemingly traded in for a mess of ermine. It gives us no pleasure at all to name Baroness Chakrabarti of Kennington as our Politician of the Year (decomposing).
Other award-winners this year: