Analysis

A Radical Split: How anti-Semitism and Islamophobia Are Dividing British Politics

The twin crises of Corbyn's anti-Semitism and Johnson's Islamophobia may split Labour and the Conservatives no less than Brexit has

Jeremy Corbyn, June 30, 2018, and Boris Johnson, March 07, 2018.
REUTERS/Simon Dawson, AFP

The Labour Party’s anti-Semitism crisis rumbled on this week, fueled as ever by a daily supply of anti-Jewish social media postings from its members, controversial quotes from its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and his team’s refusal to engage with the Jewish community in any way but with one-sided, self-serving statements. The ongoing saga was reinvigorated by a parallel development in the ruling Conservative Party, as the former foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, cooked up his own racism scandal.

Last weekend, Johnson wrote one of his whimsical columns in The Daily Telegraph, this time choosing Denmark’s new law that forbids wearing full-face veils in public. Johnson’s bottom line was to oppose the “burka ban,” which targets Muslim women’s niqab or burka coverings. But the dismissive way he wrote that burkas make their wearers look like “letter boxes” and “bank robbers” was perceived by many as a thinly-veiled attack on Islam and on Muslims in general. The criticism has led to an official probe of Johnson by the party and demands from senior ministers that he apologize. Just as in Labour, there are many Johnson supporters who see all this as an unwarranted and politically-motivated witch-hunt, and deny there is such a thing as Islamophobia in their ranks.

>> Opinion: Why Corbynism is a threat to Jews throughout the Western world ■ Opinion: Dial down the hysteria on anti-Semitism in Corbyn's Labour

While Johnson, unlike Corbyn, is currently a backbencher, there are many parallels between the anti-Semitism issue in Labour and what is now being seen as a similar Islamophobia crisis looming over the Conservatives. In both cases, the majority of the party’s MPs are enraged, calling for a probe and apologies. While both Corbyn and Johnson have only a small number of MPs on their side, they both enjoy a much wider, almost cult-like following among their party’s radical ideological fringe.

Another parallel between Corbyn and Johnson is that neither of them is entirely trusted by their colleagues on the main issue threatening Britain’s future: Brexit, the impending departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union. Corbyn, as leader of Labour during the Brexit referendum in 2016, officially held to the party’s position of remaining within the EU. However, his public statements on the matter failed to show any degree of enthusiasm, and he repeatedly refused to take part in cross-party Remain campaign events. As some have observed recently, Corbyn has sat on the same platforms with Holocaust deniers and conspiracy theorists, but he wouldn’t sit with Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron on the same platform against leaving the EU.

Throughout his career, before becoming leader, Corbyn was part of the hard-left faction that saw the EU as a capitalist cabal imposing its edicts on member nations to the detriment of workers’ rights. He has done little since becoming leader to show he has changed this position. On June 24, 2016, the morning after the Brexit referendum, he shocked many in his party by calling for the immediate signing of article 50, which would begin the process of departing from the EU. He is now opposing the demand by a large group of pro-Remain Labour MPs for holding a “second referendum” on the actual terms of Britain’s departure. This could prove an even more divisive issue for Labour than the definition of anti-Semitism.

Johnson is today the most prominent Conservative politician in the hard-Brexit camp. His resignation last month was caused by Prime Minister Theresa May’s plans to leave the EU while continuing to adhere to much of its trading regulations. But Johnson was never a true Brexiteer; throughout his career there were periods in which he favored remaining in the EU. Right up to February 2016, when he finally came out in favor of Brexit, he left his options open, even writing two versions of his ultimate Brexit column in the Daily Telegraph, one for remaining in the EU, the other one, which he published, for leaving. The decision was opportunistic, not ideological. Johnson has calculated that he has more chances of becoming leader of the Conservatives and ultimately prime minister by going down the Brexit path. Similarly, he sees using populist, racist dog-whistles as a way to power. He has recently been meeting with Donald Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon, a leading expert on such tactics.

In many ways, the parallel furors over anti-Semitism in Labour and Islamophobia among the Conservatives are a symptom of a much deeper malaise within the two parties. Both are split by large moderate wings in Parliament, but face a majority of more radical grassroots members.

The moderates in both parties would love to try and prevent Brexit, or at the very least go for a “soft” Brexit, which keeps Britain within the main EU trading and customs frameworks. But could the parties split?

There is talk of Labour splitting if Corbyn refuses to backtrack on the decision not to accept the full definition of anti-Semitism formulated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), as the Jewish community and a majority of Labour MPs demand of him. Likewise, if Prime Minister May decides to remove the Conservative whip from Johnson if he refuses to apologize for his Islamophobic column, there is the distinct possibility that he and a group of like-minded MPs will rebel against the Conservative leadership.

While it may be the twin crises of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia that split either party, the divide will mirror the Brexit debate. Supporters of Corbyn and Johnson are against going back on Brexit, while the moderate wings of both parties are dominated by Remainers. Ultimately, it will be fear of the deep damage Brexit will almost certainly do to Britain’s economy and society that could motivate a seismic movement in Britain’s politics.

For a century now, Labour and the Conservatives have dominated British politics. (The last Liberal prime minister, David Lloyd George, left office in 1922). Britain’s system of separate, first-past-the-post elections in 650 local constituencies makes it almost impossible for any but the two big parties to win more than a tiny handful of seats. The last major split in one of the parties, when senior members of Labour’s moderate wing established the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in the 1980s was a short-lived failure.

But the Brexit impasse and the rise of Corbyn, whose hardcore supporters have taken control of the party mechanism and are threatening to “deselect” independent-minded MPs who won’t toe his line – thereby not allowing them to run as Labour candidates in the next election – is a game-changing situation. With the anti-Semitism definition controversy unsettled and no consensus over Brexit, Labour is already split. Various options are being discussed, short of setting up a new party.

One would be for the majority of Labour MPs, along with like-minded Conservatives and members of other parties opposed to a hard Brexit, to create a voting bloc in Parliament that will force a second referendum over the terms of departure from the EU. A more radical option would be for these Labour MPs to declare themselves as independents for the duration of Corbyn’s leadership. If a majority of Labour MPs come together to do so, they could form an alternative Labour Party and become the official opposition.

The Conservatives in power are less likely to split right now, though a new centrist formation, fighting to oppose a hard Brexit, will be attractive to some of them. In the longer term, if Corbyn and his hard-left camp succeed in perpetuating their hold over Labour – as they are now in the process of doing with hundreds of thousands of devoted new members – and at the same time the xenophobic hard Brexit wing of the Conservatives becomes stronger, it is hard to see how either party can remain together. A new large centrist party capable of winning an election, similar to Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche! party in France seems increasingly likely. Consumed by anti-Semitic radicalism on the left and Islamophobic xenophobia on the right, the Labour and Conservative parties face a similar fate to the moderate parties of the right and left in France, where voters have migrated to the center or to the fringes of the neo-fascist Front National and the far left of Jean-Luc Melenchon.

Radical left-wing politics nearly split Labour in the late 1970s and ‘80s. Euroskepticism has been driving a wedge through the Conservatives for over 30 years. But despite it all, both parties stuck together. Until now. The twin hatreds of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are just the tip of an iceberg heading straight for Britain’s political structure.