Analysis

Labour’s Decision on anti-Semitism Will Not Solve the Party’s Existential Crisis

Many U.K. Labour MPs despair of Jeremy Corbyn’s response to the anti-Semitism scandal, but it is his hapless stance on Brexit that will eventually split the party

Demonstrators take part in protests outside a meeting of the National Executive of Britain's Labour Party which will discuss the party's definition of antisemitism, in London, September 4, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
\ HENRY NICHOLLS/ REUTERS

The ruling body of the U.K. Labour Party met on Tuesday to try and lay to rest a controversy that has been roiling the party for the past few months. They almost certainly failed.

Three years into the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, Labour finally came up with agreed-upon procedures and guidelines to deal with the deluge of anti-Semitic statements coming from Corbyn-supporting party members.

Earlier this year, the party's National Executive Committee voted to accept the definition of anti-Semitism formulated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance – but with a number of major changes, ostensibly made to “allow” free speech and criticism of Israel. 

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Among other things, this change allowed Labour members to accuse British Jews of being more loyal to Israel than their home country. 

In Tuesday’s meeting, the committee agreed to adopt the IHRA definitions in full, issuing a vaguely worded statement saying this would “not in any way undermine freedom of expression on Israel or the rights of Palestinians.” It also emerged, however, that Corby had tried – and failed – to get a much wider caveat added to the decision and that the definitions would be revisited at a later date, when Corbyn’s supporters would have a much more robust majority on the NEC. 

Labour’s previous refusal to accept the IHRA definitions in full, coupled with a series of revelations of previous statements made by Corbyn himself – including a 2013 speech from in which he accused British Jews, thinly veiled as “Zionists,” of not understanding “English irony” – has caused a deep rift between Labour and the overwhelming majority of the Jewish community.

An unprecedented consensus among all sections of British Jewry – with the exception of a tiny minority of far-left activists – demanded that Labour ditch its new “code of conduct” and replace it with the full IHRA definition. The community is supported by most of Labour’s members of parliament, including some Corbyn allies.

A demonstrator takes part in protests outside a meeting of the National Executive of Britain's Labour Party which will discuss the party's definition of antisemitism, in London, September 4, 2018
\ HENRY NICHOLLS/ REUTERS

While the decision is now being portrayed as an attempt to defuse the tension with British Jews, Corbynists will see the move to abandon Labour’s code as a capitulation to what NEC member Peter Willsman called, in a toxic rant against the Jewish community in July, “Trump fanatics.” 

The “freedom of speech” statement, added to the IHRA definitions, is already being attacked by Jewish organizations as an unnecessary caveat, and it will certainly not end the crisis between British Jews and Labour, nor close the inevitable split in the party. That’s because Corbyn’s Labour is no longer the party that many Jews and non-Jews alike were members of and voted for, and the anti-Semitism crisis is just one symptom.

It won’t be forgotten that the Jewish community was humiliated, disregarded and abused by many of Corbyn’s supporters in the process. Past statements by Corbyn himself and many of those he willfully shared platforms with over the years, will be analyzed under the definitions and judged to be, at the very least, borderline anti-Semitism.

Supporters of the Labour leader have branded Jewish concerns as anti-Corbyn “smears” and a knee-jerk reaction by Israel supporters to a politician who has been steadfastly anti-Zionist throughout his career. And it is true that for a section of British Jewry, Corbyn’s views on Israel are anathema.  But the deep-felt concern of many left-wing Jews, themselves very critical of Israel’s current policies, and even the discomfort of many Jewish activists who actually support Corbyn, over the tone adopted by Corbyn supporters like Willsman – who, despite his diatribe, was just reelected to the NEC by Labour members – and Corbyn’s inability to call them out, simply won’t go away.

Jeremy Corbyn and the cult of followers that has sprung up around him will never be trusted by the Jewish community, including most left-wing Jews. Too much toxic waste has been thrown at Jews from the Corbyn camp, and tolerated by its leader, for that distrust to ever go away.

But while it is a crucial issue for Jews (and some non-Jews), the anti-Semitism controversy is also a proxy issue. There are many other deep disagreements pitting Corbyn and the party’s MPs against what was once the mainstream center-left consensus.

U.K. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in London, April 2018.
\ Henry Nicholls/ REUTERS

The most immediate of these issues, on which the U.K. parliament will have to vote in the coming months, is Brexit.

Unlike the large majority of Labour MPs and supporters, Corbyn is a Euroskeptic. Although, during the Brexit referendum, he claimed to be against the U.K. leaving the European Union, he was far from convincing. Since the vote two years ago in favor of leaving, Labour under Corbyn has failed to articulate a clear idea of how the divorce from the EU will take shape. Corbyn has also blocked calls for a second referendum once the terms of departure are decided upon.

Many Labour MPs are as despairing of Corbyn’s hapless failure to deal with Brexit as they are of his attitude toward anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism may be an outlier, but the event that could cause a group of Labour MPs to split with the leadership – sitting in Parliament as independents – is much more likely to be a crucial Brexit vote.

A demonstrator takes part in protests outside a meeting of the National Executive of Britain's Labour Party which will discuss the party's definition of antisemitism, in London, September 4, 2018
\ HENRY NICHOLLS/ REUTERS

However, the most fundamental reason why whatever decision emerges from Tuesday’s anti-Semitism debate will have little effect on Labour’s existential crisis, is that the party has changed drastically. Most of Labour’s MPs first joined a party that, while officially calling itself “socialist,” was always more social democratic in its domestic policies and, despite always having a fringe of far-left members like Corbyn, was essentially centrist on foreign policy. It was Atlanticist, supporting the creation of NATO and the wider Western alliances against Soviet influence.

For many Labour members, a party dominated by the once-fringe elements who espouse Marxism and anti-imperialism is a party they never would have joined. Many of them have already left, rather than continue canvassing for a Labour government under a prime minister whom they see as a danger to Britain’s security.

For the lawmakers who have made a career out of politics, it is more difficult. They not only have to face voting against their conscience by supporting a leader they do not believe in. They also run the risk of being “deselected” by local party members who are increasingly fervent Corbynists, anxious to purge the party of “disloyal” MPs.

The wave of anti-Semitism in a party that was once regarded as the natural political home for British Jews is only one symptom of how Labour has changed, perhaps irrevocably. Even after adopting the IHRA definitions on Tuesday, Corbyn’s Labour will remain inhospitable to Jews. It is no longer the party of moderate leftists and social democrats, who are now struggling to come to terms with their political homelessness.