Analysis |

Corbyn Failed the Litmus Test for Basic Decency and That Will Be His Legacy

How one of the world’s most influential center-left parties came to be led by Jeremy Corbyn and how antisemitism proved his undoing

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Corbyn leaves his home in North London ahead of the release of an anti-Semitism report, October 29, 2020.
Corbyn leaves his home in North London ahead of the release of an anti-Semitism report, October 29, 2020.Credit: Aaron Chown,AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Former U.K. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn looked shell-shocked Thursday evening as he rushed to react to the party’s decision to suspend him. That followed his response to the report by Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission into antisemitism in the party. It had been less than a year since he launched the party’s election campaign, as Labour’s leader and candidate for prime minister. Now he’s out of the party, pending an investigation.

But he wasn’t about to apologize or retract his statement just hours earlier in which he said, “One antisemite is one too many, but the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media.”

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That was his response to a painstaking report, researched and written over more than a year, that found “serious failings in leadership” – his leadership – under which there was “a culture within the Party which, at best, did not do enough to prevent antisemitism and, at worst, could be seen to accept it.” Corbyn was incapable of taking any responsibility. He said it wasn’t his fault. It was a “problem” that had been “dramatically overstated” by his political opponents and the media.

A demonstration against antisemitism outside of the Labour Party headquarters, London, April 8, 2018.Credit: TOLGA AKMEN / AFP

Corbyn was blind to the culture that he and his supporters had created in Labour during his four and a half years at its helm – just as he had never noticed over many years as a backbencher that he was endorsing and sharing platforms with terrorists, dictatorships, conspiracy theorists, Jew-haters and Holocaust deniers. He was blinded long ago by an anti-imperialist dogma that could not recognize the preponderance of all these malignant elements in its ranks. It’s not that Corbyn is himself a racist or an antisemite. He simply lacks the introspective intelligence and intellectual curiosity to notice it around him.

That was the case long before he surprisingly became Labour leader and remains the case today after all that has come to light about his dismal record. Blind dogmatists don’t change. Corbyn certainly won’t. Whatever the outcome of his disciplinary procedure, he won’t be admitting any blame.

Corbyn is no longer the story. For most of his 55 years of party membership, he belonged to a fringe element of his party, and for 32 years as a member of parliament, he was never considered for a front-bench position in government or the shadow cabinet until being unexpectedly thrust into the limelight as leader. The real story is how one of the oldest and most influential center-left political parties in the world came to be led by Corbyn, who at one point seemed on the doorstep of No. 10 Downing Street, and why, of all issues, it was antisemitism that proved to be his undoing.

There could have been multiple opportunities for suspending Corbyn over his long career as a crank for his statements and associations, but he never seemed to his party’s leadership to be a real threat. He was tolerated simply because Labour preferred to be a “broad church” that also included its old-school Marxists and radicals – as long as they did no real harm.

Jeremy Corbyn arrives for the annual Commonwealth Service at Westminster Abbey in London, March 9, 2020. Credit: REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

Corbyn’s rise to power, his landslide victory in the party leadership election in 2015, seemed as improbable as Donald Trump winning the Republican primaries in 2016. And just as with Trump, the disillusionment with politics as usual and politicians as usual paved the way for a simple-minded populist with simple ideas whose overnight converts were happy to overlook his noxious views and friends.

Both Trump and Corbyn are what happens when political classes become hopelessly out of touch with their electorates. Corbyn was close to winning an upset victory of his own in 2017. But ultimately his misfortune was that, unlike Republican senators and congressional representatives who rolled over for Trump, the majority of Labour’s MPs refused to buy into his project. And in 2019, in Boris Johnson, the current prime minister, he faced a much more capable and devious populist.

Following Labour’s decimation in 2019, Corbyn stepped down and the party is now being again led by a serious grown-up, Keir Starmer, a lawyer. Starmer, who since his election has made reengaging with the Jewish community his first priority, unequivocally accepted the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s stance and apologized to British Jews. But instead of Corbyn fading away, he remains the focus of the party’s lingering dalliance with left-wing antisemites and its mistreatment of its Jewish members.

Starmer attending the weekly Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London, October 21, 2020. Credit: JESSICA TAYLOR - AFP

Corbyn could have saved himself his suspension by keeping quiet or issuing a bland response to the report. But his urge to insist that it was all “dramatically overstated” and nothing was his fault got the better of him. It gave Starmer little room for maneuver and made it all about Corbyn, who has now again won martyrdom status on the far-left.

And it has made it once again about British Jews, many of whom want a Labour Party that reflects their views and where they feel welcome as members, and who are sick and tired of being the canaries down Labour’s mine. There were many factors besides the hostile environment to Jews under his leadership that made Corbyn thoroughly unsuitable to be Britain’s prime minister, and there were a wide range of reasons why he was trounced last year at the ballot box. But antisemitism remains both the litmus test for basic decency in politics and Corbyn’s enduring legacy.

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