LONDON — As Britain’s Labour party begins its annual conference in Liverpool this weekend, many delegates are confident that, by the time they meet again next September, the party will be in government for the first time since 2010.
It is a remarkable confidence given the tempestuous six months the party and its leader have experienced.
While allegations of anti-Semitism have dogged Jeremy Corbyn since he became Labour leader three years ago this month, the furor has reached a new magnitude since March.
The revelation that Corbyn defended an anti-Semitic mural, and the Jewish community’s “Enough is Enough” demonstration in Parliament Square in its wake, were swiftly followed by the row over the party’s refusal to adopt in full the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism. To boot, there broke a seemingly never-ending series of revelations about Corbyn’s links to terrorists, anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers over the course of the summer.
But the ongoing row over anti-Semitism in its ranks does not appear to have affected Labour’s popularity.
Britain is not due to go to the polls until 2022. However, last year’s inconclusive general election, which stripped Prime Minister Theresa May of her parliamentary majority, combined with the Tories’ barely concealed civil war over Brexit, means that the country is currently experiencing near-unprecedented political turmoil.
Negotiations with Brussels over the UK’s departure from the EU next March are stalled and few are willing to stake money on May’s government, fearing it may fall if a deal is not reached or the prime minister provokes further revolts on her backbenches by compromising with the EU in order to get one.
For its part, Labour has already made clear it will do nothing to assist May and will seek any opportunity it can to defeat her in parliament and force a general election.
Current opinion polls show the Tories and Labour level-pegging. Many Conservatives are keenly aware, however, that last summer Corbyn managed to overhaul May’s huge poll lead – the Tories were over 20 points ahead when the prime minister called her ill-fated 2017 general election – and fight them to a virtual draw. Labour’s superior social media operation and its huge army of door-knocking volunteers meant that the Tories were comprehensively outgunned in the all-important election “ground war.”
Pollsters today believe that Labour’s apparent resilience is a result of May’s weakness. Her government has been rocked by a string of high-profile resignations – the Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary and Brexit Secretary have all quit their posts since March. It has been likewise damaged by bitter feuding over her negotiations with the EU, and a scandal over its ill-treatment of elderly “Windrush” migrants who came to Britain after World War II.
“I suspect it is, ultimately, down to the old cliché of governments losing elections rather than oppositions winning them,” Anthony Wells, director of political research at the polling company YouGov, told The Times of Israel. “For people opposed to the government or opposed to Brexit, voting Labour is still the main alternative, despite their current problems with anti-Semitism.”
Anti-Semitism? What anti-Semitism?
There is strong evidence that, despite the banner headlines, many Britons simply have not noticed Labour’s anti-Semitism travails.
Populus, another polling organization, conducts a poll to find out which news story, political or otherwise, the public has paid most attention to during the course of each week.
Earlier this month, Will Clothier, Populus’s senior research executive, reported on its findings for August. Voters had picked up on stories about Brexit, Donald Trump and former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, he noted, but few had noticed those about anti-Semitism in the Labour party.
“No more than five percent mentioned the story at any point in the past month,” wrote Clothier. “In fact, it has never been mentioned by more than five percent since hitting the headlines months ago.”
This may, in part, be explained by other major stories dominating the news. In March, for instance, when the anti-Semitism row reignited, headlines in the UK were dominated by the Russian nerve agent attack on former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in the southern English city of Salisbury. This story appeared to crowd all others out of the public consciousness for five consecutive weeks, having a similar impact to the terror attacks which hit the UK last spring and summer.
Some believe that many Britons are simply less attuned to the language of left-wing anti-Semitism, and fail to recognize it in the manner that they would attacks on Jews directed by the far right.
However, David Hirsh, author of “Contemporary Left Antisemitism” and senior lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, finds such an argument unconvincing.
“It may be true that people don’t really recognize or understand the claims made against Corbyn as anti-Semitic,” he told The Times of Israel. “But then this is part of the problem. If it was anti-black racism we were talking about, people would make sure they understood it and they wouldn’t stand for it.”
Hirsh believes the explanation for Labour’s apparent ability to weather the anti-Semitism row is a complex one, and acknowledges that some Britons will be weighing the issue against other concerns, such as Brexit, when deciding how they might vote.
He also maintains that the continuing stream of allegations involving Labour and anti-Semitism will also be seen by voters in different ways.
“Some people will be put off by Corbyn’s anti-Semitism while others may be — secretly or not, consciously or not — attracted by it,” says Hirsh, as they see something admirable in Corbyn’s refusal to cave into pressure and the “establishment.”
Other people, he suggests, “just think that Jeremy is good, and a good person cannot be anti-Semitic. So it must be some kind of conspiracy. If they start by pouring all their hopes and fantasies into Jeremy Corbyn, then it’s easier to recognize complaints against him as malicious.”
Indeed, the notion that those complaining about anti-Semitism in the party are motivated by ulterior political considerations — principally, a desire to damage Corbyn’s wider hard left agenda — or are simply trying to stifle criticism of Israeli government policies has been vigorously advanced by the Labour leader’s supporters.
“Labour is able to essentially fire off enough chaff about the Israel-Palestine conflict, and to make things seem complex enough, to hide the anti-Semitism of some of their members in a miasma of foreign policy talk and confusion,” argues Glen O’Hara, professor of modern and contemporary history at Oxford Brookes University.
Such chaff was much in evidence during last month’s row over Corbyn’s attendance at a 2014 ceremony in Tunis at which the terrorists behind the 1972 Munich massacre were honored.
The Labour party and Corbyn’s most devoted political and media cheerleaders assiduously sowed doubt about Munich and those buried at the cemetery in a bid to blunt the media attack. One Labour MP, for instance, told the BBC that the Munich killers were “alleged terrorists,” while, behind the scenes, the party spun the line that those buried in Tunis were not actually physically present in Munich so were thus not involved.
Polling underlines the degree to which US-style political polarization has had an impact upon how voters view such controversies. YouGov, for instance, found that while most voters were aware of the furor over the wreath-laying ceremony, opinion on the Labour leader’s conduct was sharply divided along political lines, with substantial numbers of the party’s supporters simply not believing the media reports.
So then why is Corbyn slipping in the polls?
Nonetheless, there are two reasons for believing that, beneath the headline poll figures, the anti-Semitism row may be taking a toll on Labour.
First, given the government’s widely perceived mishandling of Brexit, its own internal wrangling and May’s less than sterling personal ratings, Labour should have been able to open up a large and consistent poll lead. It has singularly failed in this ambition, although it is, of course, impossible to definitively pinpoint the factors behind this.
New polling by YouGov commissioned by the Labour Against Anti-Semitism campaign suggests the party’s association with Jew-hate may be a key factor.
It finds that nearly one-third of Britons who say they’re not currently backing Labour but might potentially do so think the party has a problem with anti-Semitism. Of those, 39 percent say it would make them much less likely to vote Labour.
Among those the poll describes as “Labour waverers” — people who say they would currently vote Labour but might change their mind — 28% believe Labour has a problem with anti-Semitism. Within that group, just over one-quarter say they would be much less likely to vote Labour if the problem is not addressed. Together, these two groups make up about 800,000 people — more than the margin by which the Conservatives edged ahead of Labour in last year’s general election.
Second, Corbyn’s own ratings — which have been poor throughout his time as leader but surged during last year’s general election — appear to be slipping badly.
Wells believes that while the anti-Semitism crisis in its ranks has not hit Labour’s opinion poll numbers, it “may have had an impact on perceptions of Jeremy Corbyn.”
“His net favorable/unfavorable score is down to -28 from -12 at the start of the year,” the pollster said. “Obviously it’s never possible to be certain this is down to one single factor, and his response to [the Russian nerve agent attack in] Salisbury may also be an element, but the ongoing issue of anti-Semitism may well be part of it.”
However, Wells noted, this drop in Corbyn’s ratings “probably doesn’t translate directly into damage for Labour support, because there were already a significant number of voters who continue to say they’ll vote Labour despite being opposed to Jeremy Corbyn.”
It is symptomatic of the low esteem in which both Labour and the Conservatives, and their respective leaders, are held that, when asked to choose the best prime minister, more Britons pick “don’t know” than either Corbyn or May.
However, since March, May has almost always led Corbyn by double-digits. Her advantage may not have recovered to the levels it was at prior to the general election, but the two no longer appear as evenly matched as they were in the immediate aftermath of Corbyn’s unexpectedly strong performance on polling day.
Moreover, it is possible that many people who voted Labour last June as a protest vote against May’s “hard Brexit” approach might balk at backing the party at a future election when the prospect of a Corbyn premiership seems so much more likely.
But, like US President Donald Trump, another populist political outsider with sky-high negative ratings, Corbyn has been repeatedly, and wrongly, written-off. Like the president, too, he has been lucky in his opponents. In the 2015 Labour leadership contest, he faced three uninspiring centrist candidates whose campaigns never caught alight and who never showed much appeal to the wider public.
Corbyn was lucky again less than a year later when, infuriated by his lackluster performance in the Brexit referendum, Labour MPs overwhelmingly passed a motion of no confidence in him, triggering a leadership election in the summer of 2016.
It proved a fatal miscalculation, allowing Corbyn to present himself as the victim of parliamentarians who were unwilling to respect the mandate from party members he had won just nine months prior. Corbyn won re-election with an increased majority and enhanced authority.
And, of course, his luck held when the Tories last summer ran the worst general election campaign the normally politically agile party has run in living memory.
With friends like these
While he has survived allegations that may have felled many other politicians, ironically the closer Labour looks to attaining power, the more vulnerable Corbyn’s position may potentially become.
It has been notable in recent weeks that John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor and the Labour leader’s closest and most long-standing political ally, has been attempting to put a little distance between himself and Corbyn.
McDonnell is reportedly irritated by the manner in which the anti-Semitism row has dragged on and apparently pushed behind the scenes for a more emollient approach towards the Jewish community.
The Shadow Chancellor — whose interests, unlike Corbyn’s, have always centered more on domestic than foreign policy issues — is seemingly determined that nothing and nobody should hamper Labour’s chances of returning to government.
In reality, behind McDonnell’s more genial, media-savvy exterior there lurks a similarly ideologically rigid, hardline political persona. In his interview with the Jewish News earlier this month, McDonnell’s soothing words could not disguise the fact that he supports the effort to reopen the debate on Labour’s adoption of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism to insert a clause proposed by Corbyn protecting the right of members to label Israel’s formation racist.
An effort by Corbyn’s allies to replace him with a hard-left leader whose past associations might be less damaging to Labour’s political prospects remains unlikely. Any indication that Corbyn had been pushed would provoke fury among his undoubtedly large and loyal band of supporters in the party’s grassroots. Moreover, it’s not entirely clear that the relationship he has been built with his followers would automatically transfer to another leader, even one of the same ideological ilk.
However, if he hopes to attend next year’s party conference as prime minister, it is his friends, not his enemies, upon whom Corbyn might be best advised to keep a watchful eye.