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Fringe concerns. Why all the focus on anti-Semitism in the Labour party?

March 6th, 2019

Imagine, if you will, that Labour sweep to power under Jeremy Corbyn. There is much that an avowedly socialist government would wish to do. No doubt it would look at nationalising key industries. It would open up the spigots of the Treasury, letting its funds gush into any number of spending channels. It would look to make irreversible redistributions of wealth.  

What it would not do, however, is seek to redraw the boundaries of the Middle East – it would neither have the time nor the wherewithal. Aside from making a few essentially token moves, Israel and Palestine would be left to fend for themselves. That question is peripheral to the priorities of a UK Labour government.

This leads me onto the subject of this piece. Much has been written about the current debate about anti-Semitism which is convulsing the Labour party at present. Relatively little has been written about what is superficially the most baffling question, which is why this has arisen in the first place.

Jeremy Corbyn has certainly had a longstanding interest in the troubles of the Palestinians (his interest in the difficulties that Israel might face is less well-attested). Backbenchers can luxuriate in problems where they can make only marginal differences and for more than 30 years Jeremy Corbyn found causes around the world to champion.

On becoming Labour leader, however, he needed to focus on the things that matter most to voters. In fairness, a lot of Labour’s efforts have been to do exactly that. The 2017 manifesto was a melange of different vote-grabbing policies, lacking coherence but having pizazz. Despite strenuous attempts by the Conservatives, Labour have striven mightily to consign Jeremy Corbyn’s past eyebrow-raising connections firmly to the past, with some success at least as far as younger voters are concerned.

Despite all this, Labour have spent the time since the last election bogged down in increasingly raw arguments about anti-Semitism. Why has this proved the hill that Jeremy Corbyn might die on?

Many of the Corbynites vigorously argue that this is all something got up by the enemies of socialism to discredit the congregation. They regard the instances being found as being wilfully exaggerated, have decided that wreath-laying was not at the grave of a dead Palestinian terrorist (whatever the facts might show), point to many Jews who agree with the criticisms they have made of Israel and note that the critics of perceived anti-Semitism are voluble critics of the Labour leader on many other fronts too.

There is the germ of a point here. The pearl-clutching by many on the right about anti-Semitism is hypocritical in the extreme, given how relaxed they were about campaigning for Leave under a poster that whipped up untrue fears of millions of Turks being poised to descend on Britain. It seems that bigotry is acceptable to them when it furthers their own ends. Such are the debased politics we now endure, a politics of motes and beams.

There is no doubt that many of the critics of perceived anti-Semitism within the Labour party are no friends of Jeremy Corbyn. And there is no doubt that one of the consequences of social media is that every whackjob with a twitter account and a Labour membership card can be held up as an example of an institutional problem.

Yet it is not just made up by the leadership’s opponents. Jeremy Corbyn himself has accepted that there is a real problem. Jon Lansman, the head of Momentum, acknowledges a major problem. Many of the instances of abuse are appalling, no matter how insignificant the instigator. Some of the instigators are senior and repeat offenders. Labour has already supposedly accepted that it needs to act here.

On every other front the Labour leadership has focused on voters’ central concerns. For example, it has been rigidly disciplined about not stirring up controversy about NATO membership or Trident, about both of which Jeremy Corbyn has Firm Views and about both of which he could actually do something were he to become Prime Minister. When did you last hear about either of those subjects? You can be sure that if Labour were elected you’d hear a lot about both.

Why would he throw away that hard work for no reason?  It’s not as if he really needed to do very much. The party’s usual channels for dealing with disciplinary offences were there and needed only to be used.  A few stern words about respect for all communities and dissociating himself from the extremes on social media would have brought self-appointed outriders to heel. Meeting MPs who had suffered intense abuse would have healed rifts. The rest is silence.

Jeremy Corbyn did not do that. It appears to have been an active choice to let this controversy continue to rage. Indeed, the leadership appears to have meddled with the disciplinary process to the advantage of some of those potentially to be sanctioned.  

So is this something which is so dear to Jeremy Corbyn’s heart, despite his outward recognition of the problem, that he refuses to take the steps necessary to close it down? The unsentimental shutting down of the rest of his minority opinions strongly suggests otherwise.

This leads to the inevitable conclusion that this being actively used by the Labour leadership in some way. The only conceivable use that I can identify is that it is being used to stamp the leadership’s mark on the rest of the Parliamentary Labour party.

By driving out MPs or forcing them to hunker down unhappily behind the leadership, the leadership get definitively to remake the party in their own image. It might be massively unpopular with voters but that really doesn’t matter. One way or another, they get the Labour party – an asset of great value in the long term and worth a lot of short term pain.  

Some MPs have already broken away and others are clearly considering their options.  The leadership presumably wants those MPs to be seen to be making the final decision, so that they can then condemn the betrayal. So it plays grandmother’s footsteps on the subject, alternately stirring the subject up then backing down. Each retreat is signalled as a concession, to be undermined shortly thereafter by another affront to which MPs need to decide whether to respond.

If this is right, we should expect more defections and perhaps a lot more. The MPs on the right of the Labour party have sent their scouts. At some point one of these calculated provocations will have the calculated effect. Both the leadership and the defectors will then get what they want.

Alastair Meeks