Analysis

Anti-Semitism Was Symptom and Catalyst of U.K. Labour Party Split, Not Root Cause

The decision of seven lawmakers to leave Jeremy Corbyn’s party will have huge implications for Jews in left-wing parties everywhere, not just in Britain

Labour Party MP Luciana Berger announcing that she is leaving the party, London, February 18, 2019.
AFP

In recent weeks and months, a list has been circulating of five or six angry Labour lawmakers who were planning to leave the party in protest at party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s policies. One name was not usually mentioned among them: That of Jewish MP Luciana Berger, who was the target of years of racist, misogynistic and anti-Semitic abuse and physical threats – much of it from Corbyn loyalists. For various reasons, Berger was not expected to be in the first wave of defections.

But on Monday morning, when the seven members of Parliament who took the plunge gathered for a press conference in London, it was the heavily pregnant Berger opening the event, putting the issue of anti-Semitism front and center.

It was an unprecedented moment in politics. A major party – one of the oldest and most influential in the Western world – has now split, with anti-Semitism being cited as a main reason. This will have huge implications not just for British Jews but for Jews in left-wing parties everywhere.

These seven MPs have been members of Labour their entire adult lives, some growing up in families that have been voting Labour for generations. One after another, they got up and denounced the party for being “institutionally anti-Semitic and racist” under Corbyn.

No Jewish politician or Jewish community anywhere wants to be in this situation, where the mistreatment of Jews is given as the reason for a major political development. Yet it is happening in London in 2019 – and in the Labour Party, long the political home of many British Jews and at the vanguard of the fight against racism in the United Kingdom.

Britain's Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaking during a visit to Hastings, southeast England, January 17, 2019.
\ Peter Nicholls/ REUTERS

The tide of anti-Jewish rhetoric unleashed in the Labour Party since Corbyn’s election nearly three and a half years ago is well documented, as is the history of Corbyn’s own statements from his days as a backbencher, and his past and present associations with anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers. But it is important to point out that this wave – and the unwillingness of Corbyn to fully acknowledge it and his leadership team to properly tackle it – are more symptoms of Labour’s current condition and catalysts of the split rather than its root cause.

Brexit was another reason given by the seven MPs for their departure. As the March 29 deadline for the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union draws closer, the mainly pro-European centrist Labour MPs have been forced to admit that Corbyn – who before becoming leader was implacably opposed to the EU, which he saw as a militaristic, capitalist club – would be doing nothing to try to prevent Britain from blundering out of the world’s biggest and most peaceful trading alliance. This desperation at their party facilitating this unnecessary act of national self-harm also prompted the timing of their announcement.

But Brexit is also more of a catalyst than a cause.

The anti-Semitism crisis and Brexit morass provided the impetus, but the deeper reason for their departure is that the Labour they once belonged to – a social-democratic, center-left broad church – no longer exists. Under Corbyn and his cult, Labour has been gripped by constant bouts of online bullying, while its traditional center has increasingly despaired at the leadership’s abandonment of the party’s internationalist traditions.

Over the last three years, the far-left, pro-Corbyn Momentum group has taken over the party’s institutions and, ahead of the next election, plans are afoot to “deselect” MPs who do not toe the leader’s hard line.

MPs Ann Coffey, left, Angela Smith, Chris Leslie, Chuka Umunna, Gavin Shuker and Luciana Berger leaving a news conference after announcing that they are leaving the Labour Party, February 18, 2019.
\ SIMON DAWSON/ REUTERS

Labour currently faces the most hapless Conservative government in British history, one hopelessly clueless in how to deliver Brexit. Yet Labour, which should be well ahead in the polls, is at best level with the Conservatives, while less than a quarter of the British public see Corbyn as a viable prime minister. 

Hard-core Corbyn supporters have accused those leaving of “ensuring another Conservative government.” But the truth is that under Corbyn, Labour has ceased to be a credible alternative. As one of the departing MPs, Chuka Umunna, said, the British public is “not going to be saddled with this appalling choice of incompetence” – between Corbyn and the flailing prime minister, Theresa May. “How irresponsible it would be to allow this leader of the opposition to take the office of the prime minister of Britain,” added another, Chris Leslie.

The seven left because they could not continue in good conscience to campaign on behalf of a leader whom they believe is a threat to their nation’s unity and security, and because Labour is no longer the party they joined and served for decades.

It’s not the Labour Party; it’s Corbyn’s party. The kind of party where anti-Semitism festers and flourishes, its leader calls for Britain to abandon its allies, and its supporters hound skeptics out. Which is why there will almost certainly be more Labour lawmakers joining the group of seven. The “splitters” still have much more in common with the large majority of their former parliamentary colleagues, if not with the Corbynist leadership and grass-roots membership.

Seven MPs may seem a small number, but this is the largest split in one of the major British parties since the early 1980s. Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system means that third parties have little chance of upsetting the Conservative-Labour duopoly that has existed for a century now. The seven, who will sit in parliament for the time being as the Independent Group, are jeopardizing their political careers. Being reelected in their current constituencies as representatives of a party that does not yet exist will be extremely difficult.

However, with Labour having become a hard-left cult and the Conservatives increasingly in the grip of nativist Brexiteers, this leaves a huge space in the middle of British politics. This could well be the end of Labour as a potential party of government and the birth of a new pro-European centrist party, hospitable to Jewish members, which will be much more similar to what Labour was before Corbyn became its leader.