Opinion

'Traitors' and 'Enemies': The Corbyn Left Turns Conspiracist on Syria and anti-Semitism

When challenging anti-Semitism means you're plotting a coup and when backing humanitarian intervention makes you a warmonger: Inside the ideological farce of Britain’s Labour leadership

Protesters block traffic outside Downing Street during a demonstration organised by the Stop the War Coalition against military intervention by western allies in Syria. London April 13, 2018.
Alastair Grant/AP

Has a new front been opened in the UK hard left’s war on traitors? So far, it’s been anti-Semitism as a political smear that has been a touchstone dividing Labour’s Corbynite true believers from Blairite liberal centrists. 

But a kind of uncomfortable truce has been reached between these warring factions in recent weeks. Jeremy Corbyn's meeting with Jewish community leaders, however luke-warm, led to some conciliatory noises and some tentative steps forward, despite community leaders labeling it a "disappointing missed opportunity." 

Witness the entrance of Len McCluskey, the head of the powerful Unite union, Labour party power-broker and funder.

Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, the UK’s largest union. London, Feb. 16, 2017.
Bloomberg

In an extraordinary intervention last week,McCluskey seemed to redraw the battle-lines over anti-Semitism, now introducing the issue of Syria into the toxic mix as a litmus test of support for the party faithful.

"If you look at the list of MPs who rebel on one issue after another you see the same names," he wrote in the New Statesman. "There is, to say the least, a marked overlap between those who backed Theresa May in risking a new bloody intervention in the Middle East, and those who work overtime trying to present the Labour Party as a morass of misogyny, anti-Semitism and bullying."

The messaging was eye-wateringly stark, followed up with an explicit threat of deselection (when a local party rejects the incumbent MP running as a candidate in an upcoming election) and names five Labour MPs he considers fair game.

"Those who wish to hold Corbyn to account can expect to be held to account themselves," he concluded. 

So much for Labour’s new, more conciliatory mood.

By McCluskey’s convoluted logic, Labour MPs who backed Theresa May’s intervention in Syria on humanitarian grounds are if not actual Tory plants, ideological traitors trying to undermine socialism.

For those who thought that a level of political maturity or at least pragmatism was emerging in this Labour party, McCluskey’s intervention will prove particularly disappointing.

Corbyn supporters counter-protest a rally organised by the British Board of Jewish Deputies to oppose anti-Semitism in the Labour Party.Parliament Square, London. March 26, 2018.
\ HENRY NICHOLLS/ REUTERS

Let’s leave aside McCluskey’s fondness for conspiracy theories (last year, he dismissed accusations of anti-Semitism as "mood music” to undermine the party’s leader; in 2016 he claimed that the “dark practices” of Britain’s MI5 intelligence agency were behind an anti-Corbyn campaign).

Maybe McCluskey is just an early adopter. "The issue of Syria is being usedto stage a coup against Jeremy Corbyn," he wrote in the Huffington Post way back in November 2015, accusing "pro-bombing" members of the shadow cabinet of undermining him. 

His latest article reconfirms the phenomenon we have seen since Corbyn’s election as leader re-energized that section of the far-left that has long seen Jews as part of the white colonialist class, perpetrators rather than victims of prejudice. 

And they and their fellow-travellers buy in wholesale to the world view that deems the Syrian civil war to be all about oil, regime change, Western imperialism and other items from a pre-determined tick list with little connection to real events.

This matters because the official Labour party line towards Syria has been far more offensive than its inaction on anti-Semitism.

Vans with slogans aimed at Britain's Labour Party are driven around Parliament Square ahead of a debate on antisemitism in Parliament, in London, April 17, 2018.
\ HANNAH MCKAY/ REUTERS

Ed Miliband, to his great discredit, began Labour’s populist manoeuvring when he scuppered British plans to intervene following the 2013 chemical weapons attacks in Khan Sheikhoun.

It was a shameful tactic that Corbyn has gone on to make his own, and one which somehow feels worse because it’s ideologically motivated rather than opportunistic. Labour foreign policy now appears to being set according by the Stop the War coalition, the campaign group Corbyn famously once chaired and which is happy to ignore all wars prosecuted by anti-imperialists like Russia or Iran.

It’s no coincidence that McCluskey’s chief-of-staff - a former chair of the Stop the War coalition, of course - is Andrew Murray, hired by Corbyn as a part-time consultant in February.

That same month, shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry wrote an oped in the Guardian to mark 15 years since the Iraq war in which, revoltingly, she failed to mention Assad even once.

The situation in Syria is heart-rending, bloody, achingly complex. Ordinary people of good faith can’t be blamed for supporting the Labour leadership’s calls for full enquiries into chemical weapons attacks or working through the United Nations for a permanent ceasefire. 

When the only alternative seems to be dropping bombs, supporting a political solution and lasting peace sound wonderful. 

Protest organized by the Stop the War coalition against the UK government carrying out airstrikes on targets in Syria. Parliament Square, London. April 16, 2018.
Matt Dunham/AP

The problem is that these are just lies.

Diplomacy has failed, repeatedly, and Russia’s veto power has made achieving any UN consensus laughable. Casting doubt on the Assad regime responsibility for gas attacks is just buying into Russian propaganda

The lack of intervention has also had consequences; it’s hard to see how the situation could be made worse than 12 million displaced and 500,000 killed.

If those who support any kind of intervention in Syria are somehow warmongers, then in that kind of upside down conspiracist mindset, indeed there’s not much more than a hop, skip and a jump from there to equating them in with those accused of  "weaponizing" anti-Semitism accusations.

We have reached the point where military action, in the form of targeted strikes on (mostly empty) chemical weapons facilities can hardly change the course of the Syrian war. 

But as it enters its last, horrific stages, the far left are still intent on using Syria as a set-piece illustration of its facile interpretation of imperialism - and exploiting it as a party political weapon.

"Good" Jews on the left were supposed to keep quiet and take one for the team when it came to Labour's anti-Semitism fiasco. For a certain sect in Labour, the Syrian civilians under fire, gas attack and barrel bomb strike also serve as extras in their ideological farce.