Labour’s despairing dissenters

Anyone who’s tried to hold the political or moral line in Corbyn’s Labour knows the drill. Criticise Jeremy and you definitely get nowhere. Cite something Jeremy’s said to back your argument and you probably get nowhere. Draw a pragmatic line and the Corbynites call you unprincipled (except on Brexit, which is of course completely different). Draw a principled line and the Corbynites think you’re hiding a conspiracy under a moral carapace.

Much ink is spilled about how moderate Labour messed up its response to Corbynism. I’m sure that’s true in many ways. Yes: from moaning about McDonald’s to a premature leadership challenge, moderate Labour messed up on plenty of counts. Yes: moderate Labour should realised that Labour members wanted clear red water, at least in rhetoric. (It turns out they’re much less fussed about actual redistributive policy, but I digress.)

That’s all perfectly true. It’s also beside the point. Because people who think sorting all that would be enough for the median Labour member now are kidding themselves. It’s far, far worse than that.

If we’re honest with ourselves, today’s terrible poll just confirms what we already knew. Only 19% of Labour members could bring themselves to answer that their party faced a serious problem with anti-Semitism which needed urgent action without equivocation. 30% of members actually seem to believe that, even though the main representative body for British Jews has effectively declared Corbyn beyond the pale until things improve, Labour has serious no anti-Semitism problem and it’s all being hyped up to undermine him and/or stifle criticism of Israel.

Some cite the fact that 47% think it’s a genuine problem, but deliberately exaggerated to damage Labour or Corbyn (or, again, to stifle criticism of Israel), as comfort. Quite which bits of the problem anyone can seriously deem exaggerated is, frankly, hard to tell. But I suppose it’s less bad than outright denial. I suppose some people will be new to the issue and won’t have fully processed the scale of the crisis. I suppose some will have read ‘exaggerated’ as ‘leapt upon by others’ and not quite clocked what they’ve signed up to. (None of this excuses failing to see the age-old ‘shadowy conspiracies’ trope lurking in the middle option, but there we go.)

Even discounting generously, it’s a grim figure. And 61% think failing to even call for Christine Shawcroft to stand down from the NEC counts as handling the issue well. In short, a comfortable majority of Labour members seem OK with how this is being handled.

That is damning. It also places Labour dissenters in an impossible bind. When I stood in solidarity with British Jews on Monday, I hoped this horror might at least be a turning point, that more people who claimed to believe in equality might put it before loyalty to Jeremy Corbyn. For a few hours I even kidded myself it felt different this time. But if you’d asked me before last Sunday, I’d have said dissenters would make themselves more unpopular for speaking out. And now I’ve seen the poll, I’m not really surprised by the results.

Corbyn loyalists: if you think Labour dissenters are acting from calculation, put it from your mind. So far as I can see, talking about Labour’s moral crisis makes our internal position worse, not better. But so long as we stay, we have no choice. How can we keep our heads down and live with ourselves? We have to think about the long game. But we also have to look at ourselves in the mirror. (No, I don’t have a game plan. There was a time when I hoped someone cleverer, preferably with some actual influence, might have one.)

So, yes: when certain lines are crossed, some Labour dissenters stand up. This time they’ve exploded in rage because Corbyn’s personal enablement of anti-Semitism was exposed once too often. And it makes most members angry. And they dig in deeper. And the dissenters’ plight gets worse.

Short of leaving, what else can they do?

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 31 March 2018.

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Anti-Semitism: on putting our house in order

In the past couple of days, we’ve heard about a Labour MP sharing posts which effectively called for transferring Israeli Jews out of Israel and talked about ‘the Jews rallying’ to vote in an online poll on Gaza. We have also had a former Labour Mayor of London say, among other things, that ‘Hitler was supporting Zionism’ and ‘real anti-Semites don’t just hate the Jews in Israel; they hate the ones in Golders Green too.’ Over a longer period, we have also had former Labour councillors who linked ISIS to Israeli intelligence, a former CLP chair who talked about Jewish people’s big noses and Israel behaving ‘like Hitler’, and more besides. We have seen the Co-Chair of Oxford University Labour Club resign over his experience of anti-Semitism within the group. We have also seen Jewish Labour MPs targeted, at least in part, as Jews by some activists.

It shouldn’t be controversial to say that these incidents point to a serious problem in parts of the Labour Party. A party committed to equality should want to crack down on this, take a long hard look at its own practices and put its house in order. However, the Labour Party has temporarily suspended, readmitted and then resuspended people like this in more than one case recently. In both the cases linked to, a Google or Twitter search could have uncovered plenty of relevant information. The Compliance Unit (which looks into these issues) may very well be under-resourced: if so, we need to consider its resourcing, not talk about abolishing it.

Labour’s response

In the past few days, our leadership has dragged its feet in responding to the revelations about Naz Shah’s posts and Ken Livingstone’s comments. Statements which should have immediately provoked suspension pending investigation weren’t dealt with until an outcry from MPs, the media and activists forced the pace. You might talk about time to consider, but you don’t need over four hours to clock that saying ‘Hitler was supporting Zionism’ crosses a line. It shouldn’t take more than 24 hours, and a direct attack at Prime Minister’s Questions, for an MP to be suspended for talking about ‘the Jews rallying’ to respond to an online poll.

The leader of the Labour Party, furthermore, seems incapable of speaking about the problem openly or with proper recognition of its gravity. In this, he apparently reflects far too many of his supporters, who often seem more interested in talking about media or ‘Blairite’ conspiracies against the leadership than weighing up the problem and tackling it. When an MP and the former Mayor of London are found to make serious anti-Semitic remarks, you act promptly; you condemn anti-Semitism without equivocation (and you don’t insist on bracketing it with all other forms of racism – you don’t need to qualify or justify a focus on prejudice against Jews); you certainly don’t speak as though you think the problem is a conspiracy against your leadership. And when someone (even if it’s your brother) thinks it’s appropriate to respond to worries about anti-Semitism by saying ‘Zionists can’t cope with anyone supporting rights for Palestine,’ you make sure to dissociate yourself from such sentiments. Difficult? Perhaps, but if you’re a candidate for Prime Minister, and you want to run the whole country, it comes with the territory.

Laying into the media or the ‘Blairites’ is beside the point, and it’s alarming that so many people have done so in preference to addressing the problem. (In any event, much of the media hue and cry is thanks to our own failure to get onto the front foot.) When you hear about any form of prejudice within your ranks, you don’t shoot the messenger: you read their message carefully and get to the bottom of it. It says a great deal that, even now, the new inquiry (very welcome in itself) will focus on general racism rather than anti-Semitism specifically. It says a great deal that, on the available evidence, the leadership had to be pushed into going so far – and two Shadow Cabinet members felt they might have to resign to get action to be taken.

Sorry, but this is basic stuff. It’s Anti-Discrimination 101 to take allegations seriously and investigate them fully and promptly when they’re made. Charities, private sector employers and trade unions throughout the UK have policies to deal with incidents of discrimination or prejudice: it simply is not good enough that the leadership of Britain’s main left-wing party has to be pushed by the media, its MPs and its activists into following these basic principles. The vast majority of Labour members and activists hate anti-Semitism – of course they do – but the number of incidents (with more being identified as I write) and the initially inept and then delayed response to them suggest an institutional problem with tackling it when it arises. We also have a leadership which has done little, if anything, to give confidence that such a problem will even be acknowledged, let alone addressed.

A hierarchy of prejudice

The whole debacle illustrates a broader problem. The left has generally recognised that specific accusations, slanders and types of language tap into prejudices against particular groups: as a gay man, I’m particularly sensitive to any hints of associating homosexuality with paedophilia, for instance. As with homophobia, so with anti-Semitism: anti-Semitic tropes are insidious and many-headed. But too often, too many on the left seem to have a blind spot in this area when it comes to Jews.

So we need to clarify: it is anti-Semitic to deploy particular tropes. For instance, the linking of the belief in the Jewish people’s right to a state with the man responsible for the Holocaust is intrinsically offensive, as well as historically spurious, and forms part of a broader anti-Semitic tendency to try and link Israel and Nazism. Attempting to make that link is a well-established delegitimising tactic. The left should be the champion of anti-discrimination and has a responsibility to educate itself. It would do so for other groups who experience oppression: Jews should be no different.

The problem lies disproportionately, but not exclusively, on the hard left: a long-standing ‘anti-imperialist’ worldview, rooted in hostility to US power and Western states in general, with Israel at the forefront, has intertwined with a whole series of unpleasant, insidious anti-Semitic tropes in far too many cases. To be clear: this isn’t to say activism opposing Israeli policy and presence in the Occupied Territories is in any way invalid. Of course it’s not, and most people manage to keep on the right side of the line. But too many people, too often, use language linking that activism with claims about the ‘Zionist media’, citing the Holocaust as a stick with which to beat Israel, calling universities ‘Zionist outposts’ on the basis of the size of their Jewish Societies and so on. And the minority who speak and think like this have been given a platform, accepted by people from the majority who don’t, for far too long.

This blind spot has had dangerous, deeply damaging consequences. It means we’ve got out of the habit on the left (not just the far left) of drawing the line, standing firmly on one side of it and calling the people on the other side out. It means people who mean well have too often for comfort tapped into some delegitimising tropes themselves (uniquely requiring Jewish cultural festivals not to receive state sponsorship from Israel, for example). And partly as a result, we’ve let attitudes which shouldn’t be given a moment’s house-room seep into the main left-wing party in Britain, and into other parts of the left.

Enough is enough. The Labour leadership, and the left more broadly, need to act. If Jeremy Corbyn is willing, he can do more than almost anyone else to draw a line: to distinguish between trenchant criticism of the Israeli government and prejudice in code; to use the word ‘Israel’ without immediate, axiomatic condemnation; to condemn anti-Semitism without bracketing or qualification. Labour members should demand that he does so.

If you want to show solidarity with Jewish members of the Labour Party, you can join the Jewish Labour Movement as an affiliate.