Opinion

Labour Can’t Confront anti-Semitism Until It's Kicked Out Corbynism

The Labour party is voting for a new leader, but not a new era. Most of the frontrunners were appeasers in the anti-Semitism crisis – or complicit in it

From left, Labour leadership candidates Rebecca Long-Bailey, Lisa Nandy and Keir Starmer at the Labour leadership hustings at the SEC centre, Glasgow, Scotland. Feb. 15, 2020
Jane Barlow,AP

The UK Labour Party’s search for its next leader has now opened up to the votes of its membership. Even with Jeremy Corbyn - who led Labour to its worst defeat since 1935 - gone, becoming viable and electable again remains an uphill struggle for this divided, denuded, and institutionally anti-Semitic party.

Postmortems drawn up in the wake of the 2019 general election, which saw Labour’s vote drop almost 8 percentage points and 60 seats, make for grim reading, including on the issue of anti-Semitism

On February 10, the pollster Lord Ashcroft released the findings of his diagnostic report, revealing how, even if voters only had a sense of what was going on, the anti-Semitism crisis undermined Labour.

Ex-Labour voters would often bring it up in his focus groups unprompted. One said, "Corbyn has a dark shadow - links to terrorism, the anti-Semitism stuff. I don’t know much about it but it was there." Another ventured, "He didn’t do anything about the anti-Semitism. He knew it was rife, he knew it was, and he denied it all the way along. You lose respect for someone then."

Obvious, too, is the vast gulf between the party membership and the voters it lost. 73 percent of members - and 90 percent of those who voted for Corbyn in the 2016 leadership election - believe the issue of anti-Semitism within Labour was "invented" or "wildly exaggerated" by the "right-wing media and Corbyn opponents." "The anti-Semitism stuff was rubbish," one member said. "There may have been the odd incident, but it was hyped, weaponized. Other parties didn’t get the same scrutiny."

The "anti-Semitism stuff" was not, of course, rubbish, and as the journalist Oz Katerji’s new podcast, "Corbynism: The Post-Mortem," has outlined, the rot stemmed from the head.

One of his guests, ex-Labour councilor Adam Langleben revealed how a senior source within the party had told him that they "knew" Corbyn was an anti-Semite but they were "going to try and manage it." Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland reflected on his own run-ins with Corbyn, characterizing him as an "old school, country house English anti-Semite" whose hatred of Israel got him out of bed in the morning.

The Corbyn era cannot end soon enough. The defeated, discredited leader can return to the backbenches to spend more time with his friends in Hamas and Hezbollah and comrades like the "very honored citizen" Raed Salah, who was just sentenced to 28 months inside for inciting terror and violence. But the depth of denial within the party and the alienation of ex-voters shows the extent to which dealing with anti-Semitism demands nothing short of an internal revolution.

Of the three candidates left standing - Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer, Shadow Business Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey, and backbencher Lisa Nandy - only Nandy has come forward with a detailed action plan

Lisa Nandy at the Labour leadership hustings in Nottingham, England. Feb. 8, 2020
Jacob King,AP

The MP for Wigan suggests the creation of a new, independent, and above all transparent disciplinary process for accusations of anti-Semitism, improving training for those who have to handle anti-Semitism cases so they can more readily identify it, and educating members with a view to fostering a less febrile atmosphere surrounding discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Zero tolerance is Nandy’s message, and the fact that the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) has endorsed a parliamentarian who's also the chair of Labour Friends of Palestine indicates they take her at her word.

But within the party at-large, Nandy lacks support. The most recent polling from mid-January showed that, in the field of then-five candidates, she placed fourth with only 7 percent of the vote. Even assuming she has picked up supporters as other moderates have dropped out, she is still in no position to win the race.

Britain's Shadow Brexit Secretary and leadership contender Keir Starmer appears on BBC TV's The Andrew Marr Show in London. January 5, 2020
JEFF OVERS/BBC/ REUTERS

This leaves Starmer and Long-Bailey. Starmer, the former defense lawyer turned head of public prosecutions stressed his familial links to Israel (his wife’s father’s family) in a recent interview, adding he would fight anti-Semitism within the party from "day one." "If you’re anti-Semitic you shouldn’t be in the Labour Party at all [and] if you’re not 100% committed to fighting anti-Semitism you shouldn’t be in the shadow cabinet." 

Long-Bailey, meanwhile, called for "legally independent" disciplinary process, "free from political bias or interference," educating members, and calling out anti-Semitism at a recent town hall organized by the JLM. 

Fine words, yet both suffer from a credibility gap. Long-Bailey is the continuity Corbyn candidate. She has rated Corbyn’s leadership a "10 out of 10," calling him “honest, kind, [and] principled,” and has even said she would offer him a senior position in her shadow cabinet. "I love him so," she said.

She’s backed by the pro-Corbyn faction within Labour, Momentum, and has the huge Unite trade union’s financial muscle behind her. Unite’s boss, Len McCluskey, has repeatedly dismissed anti-Semitism as "mood music," an accusation of no substance and a politically manipulative anti-Corbyn talking point. Someone so tightly bound to Corbynism as Long-Bailey has little room for maneuver on anti-Semitism.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn sitting with 'continuity Corbyn' leadership contender Rebecca Long-Bailey MP during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London. Jan. 15, 2020
Jessica Taylor,AP

Starmer’s problem, meanwhile, is that he is too interested in healing (which is to say, papering over) the rifts and divides within the party, in being a kind of consensus candidate. He was reticent to call himself a Zionist at the JLM’s town hall (even Long-Bailey said she was), while his manifesto is an attempt to prettify the stale bread of Corbynism.

It’s working for him at the moment - in a two-horse race, he leads Long-Bailey two-to-one - but what Starmer would do, as the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush raised on Katerji’s podcast, when his supposed desire to root out anti-Semitism comes into conflict with Labour unity and harmony remains to be seen.

Neither has thus far adequately demonstrated that they comprehend that dealing with anti-Semitism necessitates dealing with Corbynism. The party must distance itself from the ideology and mentality of the Corbyn era, for it was the specific anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and anti-Zionist posture of Corbyn and the post-’67 New Left that lent itself so easily and so readily to anti-Semitic, abusive conspiratorial ideas involving "Zios" or, to quote Corbyn himself, the "hand of Israel."

Labour does not need a leader who will make the party feel better, but rather one who has the stomach for the fight. Nothing short of a clean sweep is required to remove those from within the party who enabled Corbyn’s leadership and its appeasement of racism. But the indications are that the party prefers to defer a real accounting with its dark recent past.

Liam Hoare is Europe Editor for Moment Magazine. He lives in Vienna where he reports on politics, culture, and Jewish life in Austria and the wider region. Twitter: @lahoare