LONDON – It’s hard to overstate the impact the Corbyn era had on the British Jewish community, particularly on the large swaths who view themselves as left-leaning and liberal. Anti-Semitism not only swept the Labour Party but also appeared to seize control of its structures. Many Jews felt they had effectively been expelled from their political home; the trauma is still being processed.
So one would have expected the hotly anticipated Labour leadership hustings hosted by the Jewish Labour Movement – a party affiliate for over a century that declined to campaign for the party as a whole in the last election – to be a raucous event.
The event sold out within an hour and was moved to a much larger space at a north London synagogue. The 750 attendees were warned before proceedings kicked off not to “boo, heckle or interrupt.” According to rumors circulating through the crowd ahead of the event, Jewish Voice for Labour – the far-left front group formed to defend the party from charges of anti-Semitism – might be staging an intervention.
In the end, though, the event was kind of tedious, in a nice way.
To launch the proceedings, all four candidates began with emotional apologies for anti-Semitism. Rebecca Long-Bailey, the “continuity Corbyn” candidate who famously gave the outgoing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn a “10 out of 10” score for his leadership, stressed over and over how “shameful” it was that the party had become mired in such scandal.
“In Salford, the community I represent, the hurt and anxiety was palpable,” she said.
As Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry, the outsider candidate who is unlikely to make it onto the Labour race’s final list, put it: “I was appalled that a minority in Britain believed rightly or wrongly – I believe wrongly – genuinely believed they would be less safe if Labour were elected. I do go out of my way to go to events where people are very angry with the Labour Party, and they shout at me, and I get it.”
Front-runner Keir Starmer, the shadow secretary of state for Brexit, said simply, “I’m sorry,” adding: “If you’re anti-Semitic, you shouldn’t be in the Labour Party.”
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A dash of populism
But the polite applause that met these declarations only became enthusiastic, and even uproarious, when it came to Lisa Nandy, lawmaker for the northern town of Wigan.
“I’m ashamed of where the party has got to,” she told the audience. “Labour has lost all moral authority.” Calling anti-Semitism “a poison” and “the canary in the coal mine,” she said that “by refusing to speak out, we gave the green light to anti-Semitism.”
When the candidates were asked what they had done in recent years to combat anti-Semitism in Labour, they scrambled to produce some time-stamped proof they had spoken out: They mentioned the strong representations they had apparently made in the shadow cabinet.
Audience questions put to the four panelists by well-known British political journalist Robert Peston were carefully pre-moderated. This also ensured that the discussion could be curated to cover not just anti-Semitism but also a quick gallop through populism, high housing prices and social care.
Yet the event was dull because most of the interesting bits were innuendo. The candidates all excoriated the idea that Labour should hand out peerages to those who had worked with or done favors for the party. But no one mentioned the party’s Shami Chakrabarti, who was given a peerage four months after producing her tepid April 2016 inquiry into anti-Semitism.
Nandy told the crowd that “anti-Semitism was a particular form of racism” – perhaps a sideways dig at Corbyn’s relentless insistence to elide hatred of Jews with “all forms of prejudice.”
Corbyn himself was studiously ignored by all concerned apart from the candidates referencing private conversations with “Jeremy” at which they had apparently expressed their outrage over anti-Semitism.
“I know what happens if the person at the top has a line of sight on things,” Starmer said, promising that stamping out anti-Semitism would be his “day one” issue. “It depends on the person leading the party to show that leadership.”
First past the post
No one, however, went as far as saying the leadership was why anti-Semitism had flourished in the first place.
The audience’s patience finally began to wear thin toward the end when Long-Bailey was explaining why she thought Labour had lost so badly in the election, blaming Brexit and a failure to articulate Labour policies.
“It was the leader!” came a cry from the audience.
Perhaps inevitably, the last question of the night was Israel-related: “Would any of you describe yourself as a Zionist?” They all did, more or less, with some equivocating by Starmer. Nandy won over yet more hearts and minds by pointing out that she’s a longtime member of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East – and now chairwoman – but saw no contradiction between that and being a Zionist.
So all the candidates played to their audience, and there were no upsets or surprises. And there were no surprises the following day when the Jewish Labour Movement, which as an affiliate has the right to nominate its candidate for leader, announced it would be supporting Nandy. She won more than 50 percent of the members’ vote, with Starmer placing second and Thornberry and Long-Bailey trailing with less than 2 percent each.
The Jewish Labour Movement’s choice is unlikely to reflect that of the wider party. Starmer, a political centrist following a respectable career as the director of public prosecutions for England and Wales, is comfortably ahead in the polls to lead the party. It might have been nice if he resigned over anti-Semitism rather than staying comfortably in the shadow cabinet, but he’s somebody the community – definitely most members – can work with.
In the end, the event’s predictability and tedium also felt rather healing. After the genuine trauma of the last few years, the Jewish left wants nothing more than to sit in an overheated meeting space kibitzing about comprehensive social care and abolishing the House of Lords.
Politics is supposed to be important, not a constant emotional drain that sometimes feels like an existential fight for survival. The community is tired – not only of speaking out about anti-Semitism but of being continuously angry.
The relief among the Jewish Labour activists, processing the event as Brits do over a beer in the pub afterward, was palpable. The stay-and-fighters finally feel vindicated. Convincing the rest of the community they can trust Labour again may take a while, but on the Jewish left the fightback has certainly begun.