LONDON — Following its drubbing at the polls last Thursday, the British Labour party’s veneer of unity has cracked, and a brutal internal fight about the cause of its defeat is underway.
But this postmortem isn’t just about the past. It it is also key to setting the backdrop for the leadership contest early next year when party leader Jeremy Corbyn finally leaves the stage. And, most important of all, it will determine the fate of his legacy, the long-debated notion of “Corbynism without Corbyn.”
It comes amid reports that the depleted ranks of Labour MPs are considering toppling Corbyn and installing an interim leader unless he quits immediately.
The fault lines within the party are already clear, and they are intimately linked with the anti-Semitism crisis which has roiled Labour since Corbyn took the helm in September 2015.
In the moments after the exit poll was released at 10 p.m. on December 12, Corbyn’s key lieutenants began to peddle a simple message from the talking points with which they had been furnished, that the party’s devastating defeat had everything to do with Brexit and nothing to do with the leadership.
On social media, Owen Jones, a pro-Corbyn columnist for The Guardian newspaper, immediately declared: “Brexit just smashed us. Keeping together an electoral coalition of Remainers and Leavers as the country bitterly divided just became impossible.” His fellow hard-left activist-cum-media commentator, Ash Sarkar, similarly tweeted that the party “couldn’t overcome the Brexit culture war.”
Corbyn himself has been pushing the same argument. “Despite our best efforts, and our attempts to make clear this would be a turning point for the whole direction of our country, the election became mainly about Brexit,” he wrote on Sunday. “The polarization in the country over Brexit made it more difficult for a party with strong electoral support on both sides.”
And like his Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, Corbyn has also sought to blame the media.
Anyone who stands up for real change will be met by the full force of media opposition
“The media attacks on the Labour party for the last four-and-a-half years were more ferocious than ever – and of course that has an impact on the outcome of elections,” argued the Labour leader. “Anyone who stands up for real change will be met by the full force of media opposition.”
In neither of his two weekend articles did Corbyn make any mention of the Labour anti-Semitism crisis as contributing to its defeat or acknowledge that the party needed to rebuild support among Jewish voters.
Indeed, for Corbyn’s staunchest defenders, one of the media’s greatest faults was to suggest that Labour had a problem with anti-Semitism. As the controversial former London mayor, Ken Livingstone, told Sky News: “The media coverage suggested we were institutionally anti-Semitic. That was completely and utterly untrue.” The Labour leader, he claimed, was subject to “the most vile smear campaign” and only “one 20th of one percent” of members had “tweeted or said something anti-Semitic.” Livingstone himself left the party last year after repeatedly alleging that Hitler had supported Zionism.
But such charges against the press were dismissed by The Times newspaper in a December 16 editorial. “Labour supporters complain that Mr Corbyn endured ‘smears’ yet the media in general treated him with scrupulous fairness,” it argued. “His lack of technical knowledge and longstanding alliances with extremists, including outright anti-Semites, made him a huge net liability for the party,” the paper noted.
Brexit as scapegoat
Even a cursory glance at Britain’s new electoral map suggests that Brexit played a part. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s majority was constructed on the ruins of the Labour “red wall” — a string of pro-Brexit seats traditionally won by the party stretching from North Wales to the North Sea — captured by the Tories on Thursday.
But, believe party moderates, blaming Brexit offers a convenient excuse for Corbyn’s own failures and the hard-left direction the party has taken on his watch.
Labour candidate Anna Turley, who was defeated in the once rock-solid northeast England seat of Redcar, suggested the day after the election that “for every time Brexit was raised on the doorsteps, the leadership was raised four more — even by those sticking with us… There was visceral anger from lifelong Labour voters who felt they couldn’t vote for the party they had supported all their lives because of ‘that man at the top,’” she wrote.
There was visceral anger from lifelong Labour voters who felt they couldn’t vote for the party they had supported all their lives because of ‘that man at the top’
Labour MPs in the Midlands who survived the Thursday night massacre have endorsed Turley’s take. “Labour’s offering was not just unappealing to the electorate. Voters were repelled by it,” argued Pat McFadden, a former aide to Tony Blair on Sunday. “Time after time candidates were told on the doorstep, ‘I have always been Labour but I can’t vote for you because of Jeremy Corbyn.’”
Others were even more blunt: Phil Wilson, who lost Tony Blair’s former seat of Sedgefield, said that attributing the defeat to Brexit was “mendacious nonsense.” “The party’s leadership went down like a lead balloon on the doorstep,” he argued.
Dame Margaret Hodge, one of only five Jewish Labour MPs not sitting in the House of Commons, attributed the party’s defeat to the fact that “people didn’t trust us with the national security of the nation” and also blamed anti-Semitism. “Labour has become the nasty party. I am one of the victims of that with the anti-Semitism,” she argued.
That Labour’s leadership was an electoral deadweight had long been apparent: Corbyn entered the campaign as the most unpopular opposition leader in modern British history. While his ratings rose a little during the campaign, they were still below Johnson’s, a remarkable feat given that the prime minister leads a party which has been in government for nine years.
Polls conducted on election day itself indicate that it was Corbyn, not Brexit, that was the key reason voters rejected Labour. Of those who didn’t back the party, 43% said the main reason was its leadership, while 17% cited Brexit and 12% Labour’s economic policies. A similar pattern was repeated for those who defected from Labour to other parties.
Anti-Semitism in the party – which is closely tied to the issue of the leadership – appears to have been a major contributor to desertions from Labour. A survey conducted shortly before polling day found that, among those who backed Labour in the 2017 general election but now said that they were “less than certain” to vote for the party, 16% gave anti-Semitism as a reason. Twenty-eight percent said they would have been more likely to vote Labour if Corbyn had handled accusations of anti-Semitism better.
While the Labour vote dropped most in seats that had voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum, it actually declined sharply almost everywhere
Moreover, while the Labour vote dropped most in seats that had voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum, it actually declined sharply almost everywhere. That is why the party managed to gain just one seat — Putney, a wealthy, pro-EU southwest London constituency — from the Tories.
The notion that Brexit lay at the heart of Labour’s defeat is also undermined by the fact that during the campaign the party had managed to push the National Health Service — traditionally one of its electoral strong-suits — up the political agenda. By polling day, it was level-pegging with Brexit as top of voters’ concerns.
Acceptance is the first step toward change
Recognizing that Corbyn was not simply the passive victim of voters’ desire to leave the EU, but the primary author of the party’s electoral misfortune, moderates argue, is key to beginning to address issues such as anti-Semitism and Labour’s hard-left foreign policy agenda with its deep antipathy towards Israel.
If Brexit is simply to blame, then no reflection is required on why polls suggest only six percent of British Jews voted Labour, why nearly half said they would “seriously consider” emigrating if Corbyn became prime minister, and why Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis felt duty bound to stage an unprecedented intervention onto the electoral battlefield.
The anti-Semitism arose not by accident, but as the inevitable outgrowth of a strain of left conspiracist thinking
“The leadership clique dragged around their 1970s baggage and arcane ideological obsessions — the anti-Semitism arose not by accident, but as the inevitable outgrowth of a strain of left conspiracist thinking — that marked them out as cranks, unfit to run the country,” wrote Jonathan Freedland, a left-leaning Jewish columnist on the Guardian newspaper.
Likewise, McFadden has argued that Labour needs a new leader and “a new direction.”
“Labour’s culture has to change. Far too many good people have been driven out or have chosen to leave in despair at the appalling anti-Semitism and factionalism that have been given a permission slip by the cult of personality around the leader and the anti-western world view held by him and others at the top of the party,” he wrote.
The notion that the Tories’ pledge to “get Brexit done” was all that working-class voters in Labour’s traditional heartlands had on their minds on election day has also been challenged by those who wish to see wholesale change.
As Alan Johnson, a senior Cabinet member in the last Labour government, noted: “The working classes looked at Corbyn and saw somebody who was unpatriotic to the extent that the country’s enemies were his friends. They hated his pacifism, his simplistic division of the world between evil oppressors and their victims, his disdain of aspiration.”
“Corbyn has to go now,” he concluded. “The thought of him still leading the party on February 27, 2020, the 120th anniversary of its creation, will be anathema to Labour supporters who have been offended by the antisemitism that he allowed to take root.”