LONDON — For Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters, September’s Labour party conference was supposed to be a time of celebration.
Gathered at the coastal city of Brighton in the south of England, the four-day confab offered the opportunity to laud it over critics who had wrongly claimed that the summer’s general election would see a catastrophic defeat for Labour and the swift removal of the party’s far-left leader.
The “Corbynistas” seaside party was, however, thrown off course when the festering row over anti-Semitism in Labour’s ranks was dramatically reignited.
Labour had hoped that a tightening of its rules cracking down on hate speech would bring an end to the string of allegations which has dogged it since Corbyn’s election in the autumn of 2015.
Instead, a slew of new incidents erupted. Leaflets were distributed to conference delegates backing the claims of the controversial former London mayor, Ken Livingstone, that the Nazis had initially supported Zionism. They quoted from the architect of the Final Solution, Reinhard Heydrich.
Loud calls were made for Jewish and pro-Israel groups within the party to be expelled.
And a speaker at one conference fringe event even appeared to suggest people should be allowed to discuss whether the Holocaust actually happened.
Appalled by the events, the Labour leader of Brighton council suggested that, unless the party put its house in order, it would not be welcome back in the city.
In response, Corbyn’s allies took to the airwaves. Livingstone accused critics of “completely distorting” the scale of anti-Semitism in the party, while the film director Ken Loach attacked “false stories of anti-Semitism.”
But the most significant intervention came from the country’s most powerful trade unionist, Len McCluskey. Allegations of anti-Semitism in the party, the leader of the Unite union claimed, were “mood music that was created by people trying to undermine Jeremy Corbyn.”
“I’ve never been at a meeting where there was any anti-Semitic language or any attacks on the Jewish nation; they would have had short shrift at any meeting that I was at,” The Guardian quoted McCluskey as saying.
Anger at McCluskey’s comments sparked a campaign by the pressure group We Believe In Israel, calling on him to apologize. Its director, Luke Akehurst, labeled as “perverse” the Unite leader’s dismissal of concerns about anti-Semitism as being politically motivated, noting that campaign groups had catalogued 39 recent cases of alleged anti-Semitism in the Labour party.
All of these cases, Akehurst wrote in an open letter to McCluskey, involved people who hold or have held office in the party, including seven MPs, one peer, three parliamentary candidates and 15 council members, as well as Livingstone.
In a reply to Akehurst, McCluskey was unrepentant. He accepted that Jewish members may have experienced anti-Semitism — emphasizing that his point was that he personally had never witnessed this. But he then went on to suggest that it was also possible that Corbyn’s critics were seeking to “inflate or exaggerate” the issue in order to undermine a leader they dislike.
The combative McCluskey continued, attacking as an “outrageous slur unsupported by a scrap of evidence” any implication that Unite was not a “welcoming and safe organization for Jews.”
Two weeks ago, however, McCluskey unexpectedly turned up at a conference organized by the Jewish News and the pro-Israel think-tank BICOM on the Balfour conference. Observers were surprised that the Unite leader found the time to spend the entire day at the event.
His questions — on settlements and recognition of a Palestinian state — were, says one attendee, “polite and reasonable.”
Jeremy Newmark, chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, welcomed his appearance, saying that after his “misjudged” comments at Labour party conference, it was “refreshing to see Len McCluskey take this opportunity to engage with the overwhelming mainstream views of British Jews on their complex but enduring connection to Israel.”
Others believe that, after recent controversies, McCluskey is attempting to “recalibrate” his position.
“He genuinely doesn’t want to be seen as anti-Semitic,” suggests one senior Labour figure.
Indeed, in his reply to Akehurst, McCluskey angrily defended himself against any suggestion that he was failing to uphold the union movement’s opposition to racism: “My personal role in fighting [including physically] racism and anti-Semitism throughout my life is well known.”
Unite’s divisive stance on Israel
On McCluskey’s watch, the Unite union has shown an unremitting hostility towards Israel and Zionism.
Last weekend, it joined other unions in backing a major demonstration in central London organized by the pro-BDS Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) to mark the Balfour anniversary. Unite is a long-standing affiliate of the PSC.
In June 2010, six months before McCluskey became general secretary, Unite unanimously adopted a policy which called for a boycott of Israel “similar to the boycott of South African goods during the era of apartheid.”
During recent conflicts between Israel and Hamas, the union has adopted inflammatory and one-sided language. In 2012, during Operation Pillar of Defense, a statement issued under McCluskey’s name “unreservedly condemned outrageous Israeli aggression,” accusing it of “terrorizing an entire population.” Making no mention of rocket attacks or terrorism, it suggested the conflict had followed “the illegal Israeli assassination of Palestinian leaders in Gaza.”
Under pressure from We Believe In Israel, McCluskey budged only slightly, conceding that Unite was “wary” of Hamas, in part because the terror group had expelled the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions.
Eighteen months later, during Operation Protective Edge, Unite’s “Statement of solidarity with the Palestinian people” briefly noted the “tragic and deplorable” murder of three Israelis youths before railing against the “brutal siege of Gaza,” “Israeli-state racism and apartheid,” “ethnic cleansing” and “colonization.”
Accusing Israel of committing “war crimes with complete impunity,” the union suggested: “This isn’t about rockets from Gaza. It’s about Israel fighting to maintain its control over Palestinian lives and Palestinian land.”
Unite — which has warned union officials who have participated in Trade Union Friends of Israel delegations to Israel — has also been accused of helping to “cover-up” the allegations of anti-Semitism at the Oxford University Labour Club which rocked the party last year.
Moreover, one of its representatives on the National Executive Committee (NEC), Labour’s governing body, is claimed to have suggested that a former Cabinet minister initially appointed to probe the allegations was unsuitable because she had once visited Israel. Another sent an email suggesting that the “Israel lobby” had manufactured the crisis and “Labour’s Blairite right wing have used the smear of anti-Semitism to undermine Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.” (Unite denies these allegations.)
McCluskey has also signaled that Unite intends to support the newly formed Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL), an allegedly anti-Zionist group which supports the BDS movement and opposed the change to the party’s rules which clamp down on anti-Semitism — two issues the broader British Jewish community does not align with. (Unite voted in support of the changes but McCluskey has publicly opposed the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism which underpins it, claiming that too much of it “seeks to circumscribe criticism of the Israeli government.”)
McCluskey’s presence at JVL’s launch in September, and warm words suggesting that Unite would not only endorse it but be “getting involved and supporting their efforts,” worry pro-Israel activists in the party. The organization believes that his support puts the group “firmly on the political map as a force to be reckoned with.”
The political cache of ‘Red Len’
It is difficult to overestimate how important a figure McCluskey is in Corbyn’s Labour party. A former Liverpool docker who rose to head the 1.4 million member Unite union, McCluskey — or “Red Len” as he is dubbed by the Conservative-supporting tabloid press — is the poster-boy for the kind of hard-left militancy which, the Tories suggest, will let rip should Corbyn make it to Downing Street.
For the traditionally cash-strapped Labour party, Unite’s huge financial war chest has long been crucial. As well as financial clout — it is the party’s biggest donor — Unite also has major organizational heft within the party.
It controls the votes of around 20 percent of delegates at the party’s annual conference, which is Labour’s top policymaking body, and its seats on the NEC give it influence over who is selected to fight key parliamentary constituencies.
But the relationship between Corbyn and McCluskey has super-charged Unite’s power.
As Richard Angell, director of the centrist Labour pressure group, Progress, argues: “Len McCluskey is important in Labour — always has been — but under Jeremy Corbyn he is emboldened, behaves accordingly and would have revolving door access to Downing Street in a way no other trade union general secretary would have and has ever had before.”
Despite his firebrand image, McCluskey’s preferred candidate to lead Labour after its defeat in 2015 was the centrist former Cabinet minister, Andy Burnham. His hard left executive committee, however, voted to back Corbyn.
The endorsement of the country’s biggest union gave Corbyn’s hitherto quixotic campaign a major credibility boost, an immediate infusion of cash and direct access to the many Unite members who had a vote in the leadership election.
McCluskey has been nothing but studiously loyal to Corbyn ever since. Throughout the first tumultuous year of his leadership, the union boss has acted as a bulwark against the rebellious parliamentary party.
Had McCluskey, like the Shadow Cabinet and backbenchers, turned against Corbyn in the summer of 2016, the Labour leader would probably have been ousted. “Corbyn owes Unite everything,” argues one Labour insider.
Key McCluskey allies — such as the Labour leader’s steely chief of staff, Karie Murphy — now sit at the center of Corbyn’s political operation.
But it is the role of McCluskey’s most powerful lieutenant, chief of staff Andrew Murray, that pro-Israel Labour activists find most troublesome.
An outsized role for ex-Communist Andrew Murray?
A veteran member of the Communist party of Britain — an electorally insignificant force which has nonetheless exercised disproportionate influence in the trade union movement — Murray joined Labour only last year and was swiftly drafted in to the party’s headquarters to head its general election campaign.
He is now said to split his time between Corbyn’s office and McCluskey’s, underlining the symbiotic relationship between the Labour leader and the Unite general secretary.
For a decade, Murray headed the Stop the War Coalition — a hodgepodge of far-left and Islamist groups, dubbed by critics the “red-green alliance” — which sparked to life in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war.
Once chaired by Corbyn, the coalition is virulently anti-Israel and anti-Western. Thus, during the summer of 2014 it both organized mass demonstrations against Operation Protective Edge, raging against Israel’s “barbarism” while simultaneously warning that it was “vital we oppose” US intervention to prevent ISIS’ genocide against the Yazidi people.
Unsurprisingly, leading Stop the War Coalition figures have described Hamas and Hezbollah as “resistance” groups which are “a legitimate part of [our] movement.”
Murray’s own hostility to Israel was on display when he addressed Stop the War rallies against Operation Pillar of Defense.
Expressing “solidarity with the heroic Palestinian people in Gaza,” he suggested: “Palestine stands today undefeated and unbowed despite the bloody aggression by one of the greatest military powers on earth.”
In a speech which failed to reference rocket attacks or civilian casualties in Israel, he continued: “We have a message for the Israeli embassy, the Israeli government… every time you kill a Palestinian child, you are digging your own graves.”
Murray also called for “the [UK] trade to drop the illusion that the Histadrut (Israel’s national trade union) is a proper trade union, and break the links with the Israeli trade union movement.”
Some detect Murray as the driving-force behind Unite’s anti-Israel stance.
“The ideological impulse for this is coming from Murray, not McCluskey,” believes one observer of the trade union movement, who also notes that the two men hail from different far-left traditions.
Murray’s comrades were so-called “tankies” — orthodox Brezhnev-era hardliners with a deep hostility to Israel. McCluskey, however, was a supporter of Militant, which was far less fixated on Israel and the supposed evils of Zionism.
But the problem extends far wider than the attitude of two — albeit very powerful — men.
Shifting battlefields in the fight over Israel
For the past decade, two separate but interrelated shifts have reshaped the battlefield on which fights about Israel are conducted within the trade union movement.
First, has been the disappearance of “old right” trade unions through the process of a series of mergers and the election of a new crop of left-wing general secretaries.
Unite was formed when the T&G union — long hostile to Israel — merged with Amicus. Amicus, in turn, was a fusion of two unions which had traditionally been much warmer towards the Jewish state and heavily involved in Trade Union Friends of Israel: the AEEU and the MSF.
Sadly for pro-Israel advocates, the T&G — in which McCluskey was a senior official at the time of the merger — swiftly gained the upper hand in the new union.
Second, for nearly a decade, the PSC has targeted civil society institutions — from the churches to the unions — and using its membership to push pro-BDS policies in them.
Like the churches, the unions are hardly dynamic, growing institutions. Nonetheless, they are serious national organizations with millions of members and hundreds of staff. Their support lends the BDS campaign a veneer of respectability.
Now, almost all of the major unions are affiliated to the PSC and have some form of boycott policy (the more moderate advocate settlement boycotts).
Attempts by anti-Israel campaigners to reverse Labour’s longstanding opposition to BDS have been prevented in recent years by party moderates’ control over the Conference Arrangements Committee, a key body which exercises great sway over the agenda at its annual conference. In September, however, the committee, one of the last centers of power in the party not under the control of Corbyn’s supporters, fell to the hard left.
Supporters of Israel now expect a renewed push for Labour to adopt a policy backing settlement boycotts and an arms embargo on Israel.
Some fear that the hard left will use any flare-up in fighting between Israel and Hamas or Hezbollah which results in civilian casualties as an excuse to further delegitimize the Jewish state and its backers in the party by, for instance, banning the Israeli ambassador from attending the conference (last year, it barred the ambassadors of Saudi Arabia and Sudan, sparking an angry reaction from League of Arab States).
For Israel’s friends on the British left, these are dark days. The spread of anti-Zionism within the trade union movement now threatens to engulf the Labour party.
There is a neat — albeit disturbing — symmetry to this story.
McCluskey is the direct heir to the post once held by one of Israel’s fiercest opponents. Before joining the Cabinet and becoming Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, who fought the establishment of the Jewish state in the post-war Labour government, was the all-powerful general secretary of the T&G union. Today, his shadow looms large.
Robert Philpot is a journalist and writer. He is the author of The Honorary Jew: How Britain’s Jews Helped Shape Margaret Thatcher and Her Beliefs. He 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.