A political party in defeat is rarely a pretty sight. Two months after a humiliating defeat in the general election, Britain’s Labour Party is tearing itself apart in the process of selecting a new leader in the stead of Ed Miliband, who resigned after it emerged that, contrary to all the polls, the Conservative Party had won reelection with a slender parliamentary majority.
But what is roiling Britain’s main opposition party is not just the routine rivalry between competing candidates and the usual squabble over why Labour lost so badly; it is the surprising success and prominence of a far-left candidate who originally was labeled a no-hoper that initially couldn’t even gather the minimum number of endorsements from fellow MPs. Only at the last minute was he able to get the necessary signatures, in an attempt to “broaden the debate” around the leadership race.
Jeremy Corbyn is a veteran parliamentarian, representing London’s Islington North constituency for more than three decades. However, his views on nearly all major issues, economic and social, don’t even represent those of 10 percent of the party’s 232 MPs. However, his leadership campaign seems to have attracted the support of many grassroots party activists, as can be seen by the fact that he has won more endorsements by local constituency party branches than any of the other three, more centrist candidates, Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall.
Corbyn has also received the support of Unite, one of the largest and most politically influential trade unions, which is also Labour’s biggest funder. His surprising success, along with leaks of surveys claiming Corbyn could be in the lead toward the leadership election on September 12, is causing an unexpected furor in British politics.
The warring factions within Labour cannot reach a consensus over whether the party lost the election because it was not “aspirational” enough and seen as incompetent to run the national economy – in other words, it was too left-wing - or that it wasn't left-wing enough. Both narratives can be backed up by contradicting statistics and analyses of how voters across Britain defected from Labour in various directions. Corbyn, with his radical and uncompromising positions, has succeeded in gathering around him those who have never reconciled to the basic truth that Labour only ever won elections when it hewed to the political center-ground, as it did under three-time election winner Tony Blair. For them, being a “Blairite” is worse than being a hated Tory, tantamount to class-betrayal.
The fear among Labour’s senior leadership, that an insurrection of the party’s left wing could actually lead to Corbyn’s election, has led to dark mutterings of Labour spending decades in the wilderness of opposition and a split in the party should he win.
There has been another strain of concern over Corbyn’s surge, beyond the unelectability of a politician holding old-school socialist views and that is with his militant abhorrence of Israel. Corbyn isn’t just the run-of-the-mill pro-Palestinian activist prevalent on the left, supporting either a one or two-state solution - he has visited the most radical groups in Lebanon and Gaza. In a speech in London Corbyn spoke of his “pleasure and honor” at hosting “our friends from Hezbollah” in parliament and his regret that “friends from Hamas” were prevented by Israel from arriving. He referred to them as people promoting “peace, understanding and dialog” and denounced the British government for designating them terror organizations.
Corbyn’s attitude toward Middle Eastern terrorist groups wasn’t particularly relevant while he was on the sidelines of the political scene. But now, when he has the prospect of leading a major party, it receives much more attention. Last week, in an interview on Channel 4 with Krishnan Guru-Murthy, Corbyn burst out in anger when asked whether he actually considered Hezbollah and Hamas as friends. Nearly choking on his indignation, Corbyn explained that he used the term “in a collective sense” and that his intention was that “all people involved in the Middle East issue come together and be able to have a discussion.” He said that he “doesn’t agree with them and what they do” and accused Guru-Murthy of “tabloid journalism” for his line of questioning.
While Corbyn’s actual position now is even less clear – friendship with Hamas and Hezbollah or just wilful ignorance of the views of religious extremists which are the antithesis of any true left-wing ideology - it could be accurate to simply base Corbyn's views within the everything-the-imperialist-west-believes-in-is-bad camp and leave it at that. But since he is now running to lead a mainstream party he has to take in to consideration the feelings of wider communities, and in Britain this means also the broadly Israel-supporting Jewish community.
Last week, Corbyn declined an opportunity to be interviewed by the Jewish Chronicle – which was arranged at the request of his campaign - probably because he objected to the identity of the proposed centrist, though Labour supporting, interviewer. On Monday night he may avail himself of another opportunity to address the community at a hustings at the JW3 Jewish cultural center in London, where all four candidates are scheduled to speak. If Corbyn shows up, it promises to be a lively affair.
The Community Security Trust, the main Jewish organization monitoring all forms of racism, highlighted on its website that Corbyn is also scheduled to appear soon at a conference of the conspiracy-theory peddling anti-Israel organization Middle East Monitor, along with the anti-Semitic and Holocaust denier cartoonist Carlos Latuff. As the CST's communications director Dave Rich writes, "The problem is not that Corbyn is an anti-Semite or a Holocaust denier – he is neither. The problem is that he seems to gravitate towards people who are."
It is probably a mistake to focus too much on Corbyn's views on the Israel-Palestine conflict since foreign policy is not really an issue in the Labour leadership elections (nor did it feature very much two months ago in the general election). It is ironic however that while Ed Miliband, who was seen five years ago as the more leftist of the main candidates, was not only Jewish but had even reluctantly admitted to being a Zionist, the man who could be succeeding him freely associates with anti-Semites. The fact that a large part of party members don't see that as problem is certainly a worry to Jewish supporters and members of Labour, since it shows just how much antipathy there is in the party toward Israel. But at the same time, committed party activists are a small minority among the already shrinking number of Labour voters, so this doesn't necessarily reflect deeper public attitudes. In the same way, it is unthinkable that a Corbyn-led Labour would ever come to power.
While the debate between the four leadership candidates has mainly been on economic and welfare issues, the complexity of these issues has made it much easier for pundits and interviewers to personify Corbyn's hard-core positions by quoting his "our friends Hezbollah" remark. In some ways there is even a positive side to Corbyn's, most likely fleeting, success for Israel-supporters in Britain. While many of Israel's fiercest critics are anxious to portray themselves as being pro-peace and anti-violence, as Corbyn does himself, his embracement of Hezbollah and Hamas makes him a ridiculous caricature of a peace activist and could well end up discrediting the anti-Zionist cause as just another pet-hate of the loony left.