Owen Smith Wins Labour Debate at London Jewish Hub Simply by Not Being Jeremy Corbyn

The underdog Smith didn’t need to work hard to win over the crowd, but that’s scant comfort given the Labour Party’s Corbyn-crazy rank and file.

Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith at a Labour Party debate in Glasgow, August 25, 2016.
PA via AP / Jane Barlow

The most telling moment of Labour’s leadership hustings Sunday night at a London Jewish community center was party leader Jeremy Corbyn being heckled and asking the audience “let’s be kind.” As heckling goes, it was pretty mild, and by and large, despite the obvious hostility of most of those present, Corbyn was received respectfully.

But that any heckling was directed his way distinguished this event from all the other debates and appearances during this summer’s Labour leadership campaign. At every other event, even those where the organizers tried their best to ensure a balanced audience, the heckling was targeted at Corbyn’s challenger, Owen Smith.

To Corbyn’s credit, he knew what he was up against, and while sometimes he seemed slightly dispirited, he took it all in good cheer. He has spent the summer speaking at rallies in front of thousands of adoring fans. He can take one evening – at the JW3 Jewish Community Centre – of mild discomfort.

Last month, 92 percent of the members of the Jewish Labour Movement voted to endorse Smith. Corbyn received only 4 percent. Despite the resounding support for Smith, few of those who filled the JW3 auditorium had come to hear him. Until a few months ago, he was an anonymous MP elevated to the national stage by being one of only two Labour legislators willing to challenge Corbyn – on behalf of the over 80 percent of the parliamentary party that voted no-confidence in Corbyn’s leadership.

Smith’s performance so far can at best be described as adequate, but he has failed to sweep even the most anti-Corbyn party members off their feet. The moderator, BBC journalist Lucy Manning, valiantly kept the debate even-sided, but it was clear that all the questions were directed at Corbyn.

For anyone who has been following British politics with over the last year with even a passing interest, the questions were drearily predictable, as were the answers by both candidates. Corbyn was repeatedly asked about dealing with anti-Semitism in the party, which he answered first with condemnation and then with a gray blur about the procedural action he has taken.

Corbyn loves Israeli cities

Smith endeavored to sound even more vehement in his condemnation and then even grayer in the procedures he would undertake if in the extremely unlikely event he overcomes Corbyn’s massive party support when the results are announced at the end of this week.

The same dynamic was at play when they were asked about their attitude toward Israel. Corbyn said that he admired various undefinable qualities in the country such as the “verve and spirit of its towns and cities,” and that he was against a boycott of Israel in general but in favor of boycotting goods from the settlements.

Smith tried a bit harder, even bringing up a book by Amos Oz he’s reading and saying that in general he’s against boycotts. All very bland stuff, and in Corbyn’s case, more or less what he’s been saying ever since he began his first leadership campaign last year. He has slightly toned down the fiery rhetoric from the days when he still openly called Hamas and Hezbollah “our friends.” He stuck to his vague script, bravely facing the heckling when he wasn’t answering the questions.

The questions belonged to two categories: those dealing with anti-Semitism and Israel and those phrased to sound like the questions at any other leadership debate – so that people wouldn’t say that Jewish Labour members are too different from their non-Jewish colleagues. Many of these questions were aimed at creating as little discord as possible, so even the pressing issue of how the Labour Party should deal with Britain’s upcoming exit from the European Union didn’t come up.

This anodyne turn was actually a pity because the questioning on Israel has been the only moment in campaign where foreign policy has featured in any significant way. And since Corbyn’s and Smith’s expressed views on domestic issues are not that far apart – with Smith drifting a bit more leftward from neoliberalism than he would probably prefer and Corbyn slightly toning down his Marxism – foreign policy is where the true gulf lies.

It’s not about Jews

Corbyn may be tone-deaf to anti-Semitism, but his views on Israel have nothing to do with it being the Jewish state. It’s part of his more general anti-Americanism and “anti-colonialism” that sees the West as the culprit in any international conflict. If the Israel-supporters really wanted to score points against Corbyn, they should have asked him why he won’t commit to protecting Britain’s NATO allies should they come under attack from Russia, and why he supports dictatorships like Cuba and Chavista Venezuela.

They could have asked the cofounder of the Stop The War Coalition why he and his friends have been silent on the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Syrians over the last five years and why they have no problem with Russia invading and annexing parts of Ukraine. Many members of the Jewish community grumble, quite rightly, about how these debates are “always about Israel.” Perhaps the way to change that is to understand that for hard-leftists like Corbyn, hostility to Israel isn’t about Jews, it’s about their entire anti-Western global outlook.

The problem for the majority of Labour’s Jewish supporters is not necessarily Corbyn but the fact that the party is now under the control of a particular strand of left-wing thought. Under this view, Israel is the epitome of Western neocolonialism and anti-Semitism is generally a problem confined to right-wing skinheads. After all, the left is “anti-racist” by definition, and Jews are no longer an endangered minority because in 21st-century Britain they’re part of the hated establishment.

Corbyn is only the random figurehead of this movement that has moved, perhaps temporarily, from the left’s fringes to the mainstream of British politics.

Smith won the debate, but he won it even before he arrived – simply by not being Corbyn. That, however, is the only thing he’ll win this week.