LONDON — Throughout its history, the British Labour party has prided itself on its opposition to prejudice and racism.
In its infancy in the early 20th century, it provided an outstretched hand to Jewish migrants who the Conservative party frequently shunned. In the 1960s and 1970s, Labour governments passed landmark race relations legislation. And over recent years, the party has resisted attempts to demonize and scapegoat EU citizens from Eastern Europe who have come to live and work in the UK.
Given this history, it might have been expected that allegations of anti-Semitism within its ranks might have elicited universal feelings of concern, sympathy and a desire to act swiftly and decisively.
Many Labour MPs do appear to have been so affected. Appalled by the revelation that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had defended an anti-Semitic mural, dozens attended last Monday’s demonstration outside parliament called by the Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council at which approximately 1,500 people declared “Dayenu.”
The first test of Corbyn’s newfound commitment to be a “militant opponent” of anti-Semitism saw over 40 parliamentarians write to the Labour leader on Friday calling for the dismissal of Christine Shawcroft, a senior figure on the party’s governing body who had defended a candidate suspended for posting an article claiming the Holocaust was a hoax.
Many Labour MPs have indeed grasped the gravity of the challenge their party faces. Joan Ryan, the chair of Labour Friends of Israel, warned that Labour is “drinking in the last chance saloon.” Phil Wilson, former Labour prime minister Tony Blair’s successor as the MP for Sedgefield in northeast England, declared that he feared “for Labour’s soul” if it did not drive anti-Semites from the party. And John Mann, the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Anti-Semitism, branded his own party “rotten to the core” and suggested it was facing an existential threat.
The Labour leader himself, though, has adopted a rather different stance. Having recognized last week that allegations of anti-Semitism within the party have “too often been dismissed as simply a matter of a few bad apples,” Corbyn has chosen in recent days to associate himself once again with those who have publicly made that very case.
On Monday night, he took part in a Passover seder in his Islington constituency with the left-wing Jewdas group. This group had condemned last week’s demonstration as “the work of cynical manipulations by people whose express loyalty is to the Conservative party and the right wing of the Labour party.”
It has also accused the Board of Deputies, Jewish Leadership Council and Jewish Labour Movement of “playing a dangerous game,” and has said criticism of Corbyn is “faux outrage greased with hypocrisy and opportunism.”
Jewdas describes itself as “radical voices for the alternative diaspora.” That’s possibly an understatement. Last week, it concluded a blog post with the words: “Enough is enough. F*ck you all. Chag Pesach sameach.” It has also previously described Israel as a “steaming pile of sewage which needs to be properly disposed of.”
Corbyn’s appearance at the Seder, suggested the normally diplomatic Jewish Labour Movement, “truly topped off the worst week on record of awful relations between the Labour party and the Jewish community.”
“When we called on the leader of our party to show moral leadership and take decisive action to stamp out anti-Semitism,” it noted wearily, “this is not what we had in mind.”
Others were no less despairing. The Labour MP John Woodcock said Corbyn’s attendance at the Jewdas Seder was “irresponsible and dangerous,” while Gideon Falter, chair of the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, called it “a very clear two fingered salute at mainstream British Jewry.”
This is deliberately baiting the mainstream Jewish community days after they pleaded with him to tackle antisemitism. And he must know that meeting them now will give his members the message that the group’s extreme views are ok. Irresponsible and dangerous https://t.co/NORQQiFq8J
— John Woodcock (@JWoodcockMP) April 2, 2018
Corbyn’s decision to attend the event — which, his spokesperson confusingly said, he attended in a personal capacity and not in his official role as Labour leader — took place just days after he defended the similarly controversial Jewish Voice for Labour. That group organized a counter-demonstration at last Monday’s rally and has previously derided the “myth of anti-Semitism in the Labour party.”
But however much his activities may infuriate the community, it would be wrong to think that Corbyn’s actions risk damaging his support within the Labour party itself.
New polling released over the weekend shows that nearly 80 percent of Labour members believe that the accusations of anti-Semitism are being exaggerated to damage Corbyn and stifle legitimate criticism of Israel. A similar figure approved of the Labour leader’s job performance, with 61% saying he was handling the anti-Semitism crisis well.
The polling also revealed the extent of opposition to Israel among Labour’s grassroots. Nearly two-thirds (65%) of members said they believe the Jewish state to be “a force for bad” in the world — six points higher than the 59% who think the same of Iran (although it is worth noting that only 50% view their own country as a force for good, and 68% consider that the US exercises a malign influence globally).
The fury of many of Corbyn’s supporters at the charges of anti-Semitism was evident in an open letter signed by more than 2,000 of them which said that last week’s demonstration was the work of a “very powerful special interest group” whose organizers had used their “immense strength” to “employ the full might of the BBC” in order to launch an “onslaught” against the Labour leader.
Such words were clearly embarrassing to the party leadership, with John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor and Corbyn’s long-time political soulmate, publicly disavowing the letter. Describing Jews as a “very powerful special interest group,” he wrote, is “an anti-Semitic stereotype that undermines, not supports, Jeremy and his determination to unite our communities.”
The open letter cannot, though, be dismissed as an isolated example of over-zealousness by so-called “Corbynistas.” One ally of the Labour leader on the party’s National Executive Committee promoted a statement by the hard left Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, which urged activists to stand by Corbyn in the face of “unjust attacks that are being made on him and the Labour party.”
From around the country, there are similar reports of pro-Corbyn activists turning their fire on those who have been calling out anti-Semitism in the party.
In Edinburgh, for instance, local members passed a motion saying there was a “systematic and organized campaign designed to destabilize the party leadership” and called for a formal investigation into those who were “actively” working to undermine Corbyn.
Labour MPs who attended last week’s demonstration have also come under attack from the Labour leader’s supporters, with at least one ordered to appear before her constituency party this week to explain why she chose to join a protest against what they dismissed as “unsubstantiated and unspecified” allegations of anti-Semitism.
More worryingly, Luciana Berger, the Jewish Labour MP who first demanded that Corbyn explain his defense of the anti-Semitic mural, has also revealed that she has received “a torrent of abuse from people purporting to be of the left” over the past week and has called in the police.
Momentum, the powerful Corbynite pressure group, has attempted to face both ways on the issue roiling the party. Monday night, it issued a statement acknowledging that “accusations of anti-Semitism should not and cannot be dismissed simply as right-wing smears nor as the result of conspiracies.”
At the same time, however, it suggested that some were “using this issue as a way to undermine [Corbyn’s] leadership.” That stance, argued Joe Goldberg, a senior Jewish Labour councilor in the London borough of Haringey, where a number of moderate Labour councilors have been forced out of office by Momentum, was simply another example of “more victim-blaming” by the hard left.
More victim blaming. And how about you start with your own organisation such as Haringey branch who organised a demonstration against a motion opposing anti-semitism https://t.co/maDWyM9Xr5
— Joe Goldberg (@joedgoldberg) April 2, 2018
Three years, and worlds away
The discordance between the voices of moderate Labour MPs raised at Westminster and those of grassroots activists throughout the country underlines how deep the divisions within the party now are. But they also demonstrate the manner in which Labour has been transformed over the past three years. Roughly three-quarters of the party’s 540,000 members are estimated to have joined since Corbyn’s rise to the leadership.
In many regards, this is a new party and the events of the past 10 days may make it even more amenable to Corbyn. Many members, appalled by the accusations of anti-Semitism faced by the party, are voting with their feet.
Hundreds reportedly resigned their membership last week and more than 3,000 did not renew their direct debits.
Of course, a great many of Corbyn’s youthful and idealistic followers are attracted by his supposed authenticity and his promise of “straight talking, honest politics.” Despite his three decades in parliament, large numbers see the Labour leader as unlike the “career politicians” who allegedly dominated the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
But Corbyn also appears to have attracted a darker following, too. Last weekend’s Sunday Times investigation into 20 of the biggest pro-Corbyn Facebook groups uncovered more than 2,000 racist, anti-Semitic, misogynistic, violent and abusive messages.
The anti-Semitic cesspit included images of the Israeli flag with the Star of David replaced with a swastika, and posts which suggested Hitler should have “finished off the job,” that the death of 6 million in the Holocaust was “a big lie” and that Blair was “Jewish to the core.”
Labour’s defense — that the groups “are not run by the Labour party or officially connected to the party in any way” — may well be true, but it does not answer the uncomfortable question of why some anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers feel drawn to its leader.
Some moderates are determined to stay and fight. More than 2,000 people signed a petition by the centrist group Progress and its ally Labour First calling on Shawcroft to resign from the party’s governing body.
However, there is a hard dilemma that both they and the Jewish community must soon grapple with: To what extent does the Labour party as Britain has known it for the past 118 years actually still exist?
Journalist and writer Robert Philpot is the former editor of Progress magazine and is now a contributing editor to it. His articles have appeared in The Jewish Chronicle, The Sunday Times, The Guardian and History Today. He previously served as a special adviser in the Northern Ireland Office and Cabinet Office.