Britain’s Labour Party paid a devastating price for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership in the December 12 general election.
Deserted by millions of its traditional working-class supporters in the pro-Brexit Midlands and north of England – and weighed down by allegations of extremism and anti-Semitism which dogged Corbyn throughout the six-week campaign – the party suffered a crushing defeat as voters decisively opted to keep Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Downing Street.
Johnson’s House of Commons majority of 78 seats is the biggest won by any party since Tony Blair secured a second term in 2001. It is also the Tories’ best showing since Margaret Thatcher was re-elected for the third time 32 years ago. And it is the Labour Party’s worst defeat since 1935.
The result guarantees Britain’s departure from the European Union at the end of next month and will bring an end to the political paralysis which has afflicted the country for nearly three years.
Despite many British Jews opposing the hardline pro-Brexit stance which underpinned the Conservative victory, there was widespread relief at Corbyn’s defeat. Only six percent of Jews, pre-election polls suggested, planned to vote Labour. Nearly half said they would have “seriously considered” emigrating if Corbyn – a man 87% of those polled believe is an anti-Semite – had become prime minister.
That relief was evident in early reaction to the results. As Gideon Falter, Chief Executive of Campaign Against Antisemitism, said in a press statement: “Not for the first time, our nation has stood firm against anti-Semitism. The British public has watched the once proudly anti-racist Labour Party become infested with Jew-hatred and it has resoundingly decided to stand with its Jewish community and give the anti-Semites a crushing rebuke. The faith that British Jews showed in our country has been vindicated.”
The faith that British Jews showed in our country has been vindicated.
“Now it seems like the British people have told the Corbynites where to go, I realize that the worst thing they did was make Jews so nervous that we even doubted our fellow Brits. They don’t like extremists and never have. It was awful we should ever have felt need to doubt that,” tweeted the Jewish Chronicle’s editor, Stephen Pollard.
The cabinet minister Michael Gove told a Conservative victory rally that he wished to address “a very special group of people, our Jewish friends and neighbors.”
“You have had to live in fear for months now concerns we will have a prime minister who trafficked in anti-Jewish rhetoric and embraced anti-Jewish terrorists,” he said.
“You should never have to live in fear again,” Gove, who has close ties to the Jewish community, said to loud applause.
Anti-Semitism reverberated beyond the Jewish electorate
Political experts linked the anti-Semitism crisis which has roiled Labour under Corbyn’s leadership to the party’s defeat.
“Voters have cared about the anti-Semitism issue beyond the Jewish community,” argued the BBC’s Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg, as the scale of Labour’s defeat began to unfold. Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former press secretary, similarly suggested anti-Semitism had played a big part in the rout Labour suffered.
The Jewish Labour Movement demanded Corbyn resign, saying in a statement: “After this historic election defeat, Jeremy Corbyn must stand down immediately. His team and supporters who have been responsible for Labour’s moral and political failures must take responsibility themselves for allowing five more years of Tory rule.”
In a message of congratulations to Johnson, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Marie van del Zyl, said that “history will not look kindly on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, where anti-Jewish racism has been allowed to run amok.”
The result will also be warmly welcomed in Jerusalem given Corbyn’s fierce anti-Zionism and deep antipathy towards Israel. The Conservatives are pledged to ban local authorities from boycotting Israeli goods. Labour, by contrast, had vowed if it won to ban settlement goods and immediately recognize a Palestinian state, curtail some arms sales to Israel and adopt a more hostile stance towards the Jewish state at the United Nations.
Anti-Semitism in the mass media
The precise impact of the anti-Semitism crisis in Labour’s defeat is a matter for academics, pollsters and psephologists to pore over in the weeks and months ahead.
But what is not in doubt is that, unlike in the 2017 election, the issue repeatedly dominated the news agenda, putting Corbyn on the defensive and distracting attention from Labour’s efforts to push its pledges to end austerity, ramp up spending and introduce sweeping economic and social changes.
The campaign began with a widely publicized front-page appeal
by the Jewish Chronicle to non-Jews not to vote Labour. It saw an unprecedented intervention by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, warning
that Jews were “gripped by anxiety” about the outcome of the election. And anti-Semitism was repeatedly raised in the TV debates and interviews, with Corbyn finally being forced to apologize to the Jewish community after having doggedly refused to do so during a setpiece interview with the BBC’s Andrew Neil.
The final week of the contest saw lurid headlines about the leaked contents of the Jewish Labour Movement’s damning submission to the probe being conducted into the party by the UK’s anti-racism watchdog, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. On Sunday, files detailing the failure of Labour’s disciplinary unit to expel anti-Semites from the party were also leaked to the Sunday Times newspaper. For the first time ever, the JLM itself “effectively downed tools” during the campaign, confining its backing to only a handful of “exceptional” candidates.
Beyond Jewish groups, anger at Corbyn’s handling of anti-Semitism led some normally supportive voices to abandon the party. It cost the party the endorsement of the left-wing weekly the New Statesman. The Observer newspaper, the Guardian’s Sunday sister publication which also usually backs Labour, similarly withheld its backing from the party. Throughout the campaign, pro-Conservative newspapers returned time and again to allegations of anti-Semitism leveled against Labour candidates.
Reports during the campaign suggested that, among the wider public, concerns about anti-Semitism were raised unprompted in focus groups. Political reporters and analysts also noted that the issue of anti-Semitism had cut through with voters in a way that it did not in the 2017 contest.
This is unsurprising. Since last spring, when it was revealed that Corbyn had defended an anti-Semitic mural in East London, the issue has rarely been out of the headlines. A string of disclosures about both Corbyn’s past comments and actions, and the failure to tackle Jew-hate within the party, culminated in a number of Labour MPs quitting over the issue earlier this year and the EHRC launching its formal investigation in August.
As the Sunday Times newspaper suggested last weekend: “For many, the scandal has cast doubt on Corbyn’s competence, moral character and suitability for high office.” Labour itself conceded the damage the issue was doing, with Corbyn’s close ally, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, admitting at the weekend that “this has had its effect.”
Corbyn’s legacy hard to shift?
Corbyn’s days as leader are now numbered, but his hard-left legacy will be harder to shake. Many moderate members quit long ago, leaving a membership which tilts heavily to the left. The party machine is in the hands of Corbyn loyalists. And Labour’s – albeit depleted – parliamentary party will see an infusion of new left-wing MPs thanks to the election.
Moreover, despite the party’s heavy losses, a number of new staunchly anti-Zionist candidates – such as Apsana Begum in the east London constituency of Poplar and Limehouse; Zarah Sultana in the Midlands seat of Coventry South; and Bell Ribeiro-Addy, a former Campaigns Officer for the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, who won the south London constituency of Streatham – were elected.
By contrast, a number of high-profile moderate MPs and pro-Israel voices on the Labour benches – including deputy leader Tom Watson and former Labour Friends of Israel chairs Joan Ryan and Louise Ellman – did not stand for re-election.
There is also some evidence that the controversy over anti-Semitism in the party might be impacting the attitudes of Labour voters as a whole. Polling published this week found that 20% of those supporting the party agreed with the statement that Jews have a disproportionate influence in politics, compared with 15% of the wider public and 14% of Tory voters. At 29%, Labour voters were also more likely than Tory supporters (24%), or Britons as a whole (24%), to view Jews as more loyal to Israel than the UK.
As Dave Rich of the Jewish charity, the Community Security Trust, tweeted: “Corbyn cheerleaders love pointing to polls from a few years ago showing more antisemitism on the right than the left. Well guess what? Four years of abuse and gaslighting under this leadership have changed things.”
With Corbyn’s announcement that he will not lead Labour into the next general election, a leadership contest will debate and decide the party’s future direction. Hard-left favorites such as shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey will offer variants of “Corbynism without Corbyn.”
A slow move back to the center might take place if the party picks the shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, or shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer.
Backbencher Jess Phillips, a critic of Corbyn who has gained popularity beyond the party, might also run and might offer the sharpest break with the past.
But that debate about why Labour lost and how it moves forward may also be a fraught one. As Dr. Toby Greene, a research fellow at Queen Mary University of London, wrote on Wednesday: “Some of [Corbyn’s] devotees will surely blame any loss on a conspiracy by the media, financial interests and, yes, British Jews.”
His warning was echoed by Ellman, who also suggested earlier this week that “we are now preparing for a situation where the Jews are the scapegoat” if Labour is defeated. “The Labour Party is entering a new stage of anti-Jewish hostility and I just ask them to call a halt to it,” she argued.
Early signs of those fears came when Ken Livingstone, the controversial former London mayor who claimed in 2016 that Hitler had supported Zionism, told the PA news agency overnight that “The Jewish vote wasn’t very helpful.” The remarks, said the BBC’s Kuennsberg, “may well cause some eyebrows to shoot up.” (Livingstone did go on to suggest that Corbyn “should have tackled that issue far earlier than he did.”)
At the very least, the response from the Labour leader’s supporters to Jewish demonstrators outside a Corbyn eve-of-poll rally in London suggested little sympathy towards their fears about anti-Semitism in the party.
Many Britons will simply be happy this dark and divisive winter campaign has come to an end
But, for now, many Britons will simply be happy this dark and divisive winter campaign has come to an end. Despite the unpopularity of their respective leaders – Johnson’s ratings are the worst of any new prime minister in 40 years – both parties opted to run presidential-style election campaigns. The election was thus best seen as an unpopularity contest.
Ultimately, many voters held their noses and voted for the party led by the man they disliked the least. It comes as no great surprise that that turned out to be Boris Johnson.