A Brexit speech for a Labour leader

I stand here to give a speech which I had hoped not to have to make.

I campaigned hard for Remain before 23 June. I wanted the United Kingdom to stay in the European Union, as did 16 million fellow Britons. But 17 million fellow Britons voted otherwise. They delivered a clear, though narrow, verdict.

Labour has said that we respect the referendum result. And so we do. The United Kingdom, as the Prime Minister has said, is leaving the European Union. I am not here to talk about how to stop Brexit, but how best to implement it.

We respect the decision taken; we also respect the fact that it was narrow. We live in a deeply divided country. If we want to bring it back together, we have to find a settlement which can appeal, at least in part, to both sides of the national argument last year.

Perhaps that sounds uninspiring. Boring, even. But if the referendum made anything clear, it showed that we have become far too divided a country.

I believe we need to rediscover the virtue of compromise; of remembering that we usually do have more in common, as Jo Cox MP – so tragically taken from us last year – said in her maiden speech; of meeting our friends and neighbours halfway.

Labour believes that ‘by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone’. But working together requires finding common ground. And today I want to outline how Labour would make that possible.

Listening to Leave voters

Any attempt at doing that must start with asking ourselves: what were Leave and Remain voters saying on 23 June?

For Leave voters, sovereignty played a crucial role. There is always a balance here. We can keep our rights to do things our own way, on our own – but that often means the way others do things affects us and shapes our own choices, sometimes decisively or almost completely.

Or we can agree to do things together with other countries, knowing we’ll have to compromise a bit, but often having a greater real say in the overall package than we’d have had on our own.

Just as no-one sensible believes that we can’t do anything together with other countries, no-one sensible believes there’s nothing we can best deal with by ourselves. There’s no 100% right answer to where the line is: and those of us who campaigned to Remain must accept that we failed to convince enough people that the line lies in the right place now.

The UK’s global ties were also important to many people who voted to leave. Our global story is also part of our European story. For better and for worse, Britons, French, Spaniards, Dutch, Portuguese and many others crossed the seas – as soldiers, settlers, farmers, factory workers, missionaries and far more. As Quebec and Latin America could remind us, transatlantic ties are not just the United Kingdom’s to enjoy.

But the UK has an exceptionally strong sense of its global ties today. That’s partly down to the English-speaking democracies with whom so many Britons share bonds of family, friendship and affection. It’s partly due to the sheer reach of past British expansion. And of course, it’s partly linked to our distinctive version of shared sacrifice in two world wars.

There’s no conflict between being European and having ties elsewhere. But I fear pro-Europeans too often – without meaning to – managed to join some opponents of the EU in inventing a tension where there didn’t need to be. And we know many who voted Leave thought of our friends further afield when they made their decision.

And third, of course, migration. Too many people have talked as though this was the only thing Leave voters thought of. It wasn’t, and we do fellow citizens a disservice in pretending otherwise. But no-one can deny that concerns, fears and anger about migration played a crucial role in the vote on 23 June.

Now, at this point Labour politicians go on to talk about wage levels, about exploitation of migrant labour, about funding for public services in areas of high recent migration – and I will. We must condemn prejudice and celebrate the contribution immigrants make to the UK – and I will always do that. But economics doesn’t address all the reasons many people are worried, even angry.

Much of people’s concern about immigration stems from culture, not economics. I am not saying that anyone with these concerns is racist or prejudiced. I am saying that many people, probably most, are ambivalent at best and unhappy at worst about rapid and unmanaged change, especially when it feels done to them rather than with them.

Concern stems from views about different cultural attitudes, too. Everyone has characteristics and instincts shaped by their nationality and upbringing, so this is not a attack on anyone’s worth or culture. It’s simply to say that, just as people with different personalities can sometimes need to think about how to get along, so can people with different cultural backgrounds. And we have shied away from that discussion for too long.

Reassuring Remainers

So any way forward needs to find a way of speaking to those concerns. But what of the second-largest number of votes cast for any cause in British history? What about those who voted Remain?

First, we need to acknowledge many Remainers’ strong sense of internationalism – not a passionate love of European institutions, but something broader than that. Many Remain voters don’t just see it as a practical necessity to get on with the neighbours; they believe it to be a good thing in itself.

Many have travelled elsewhere in Europe; they may have friends there, or remember spending time there themselves. They value their, their children and their grandchildren’s rights to live and work elsewhere.

And of course, many of us remember the European Union’s origins as a peace project – a way for Europeans to argue in council chambers over product standards, not with tanks over borders. As they go to Brussels, UK ministers need to remember that too, and respect how seriously our partners take it. It is not only a majority of UK voters who can value politics and history just as much as economics.

Second, a commitment to EU rights and standards loomed large for many Remainers – especially Labour Remainers. It would be easy for me to attack a Tory Government here, and rest assured we will whenever it is merited. But it goes deeper than that.

The rights to parental leave, to consultation at work, to protection for temporary employees; it is indeed often true that the UK’s legislation goes further than the EU minimum. But European minimum standards set a floor for all of us – not just the UK. Some Conservatives may want the UK to try to undercut the Netherlands; but actually, the rules help protect all our social models.

Similarly, many who remember what British beaches and rivers were like in the 1970s will know that EU environmental standards have changed things for the better. The EU is one of the world’s most forceful actors on climate change – no, not forceful enough, but more so than anyone else, and one whose word as the world’s largest economy matters.

Tory threats to scrap those rights and standards, to move towards an ever-more-ruthless free-for-all if the EU fails to agree a deal to their liking, are unlikely to survive contact with the voters for now. But it would be exactly the sort of destructive race to the bottom common rules are in place to stop.

Third and most prominently, the economy was a crucial reason millions voted Remain. This isn’t really about the fears of an economic shock – not in the long-term. Those of us who campaigned to Remain should have the grace to say we expected the reaction to be far worse than, so far, it has been.

It is about the inescapable heft and proximity of the European single market. The EU covers around 44% of our exports on its own. Add in the Swiss and the EEA countries, all of whom are in the EU’s single market to varying degrees, and the countries with a partial customs union with the EU, and it’s over half. And that doesn’t even consider the free trade deals already struck by the EU.

Bringing Britons together: a moderate Brexit

So any way forward should address both sides’ concerns, while fulfilling the mandate to leave. We should pursue a moderate, reasonable Brexit: a settlement our country can unite around for this generation. We must also seek a settlement which works for the European Union, whose survival and prosperity is a vital national and continental interest.

First of all, a moderate Brexit must be moderately implemented. In particular, we cannot allow ourselves to be driven off a cliff-edge by an ideological insistence on the fastest Brexit possible. The negotiations which lie ahead are the most complex we have had to negotiate in modern times. We must allow for a transitional deal, so we have time to get this right.

I believe our final deal must include membership of the single market. In many ways, the single market is a British invention. It goes far further than any free trade deal ever can. The reason Theresa May talks of preserving ‘single market arrangements in some areas’ – never mind the fact our partners won’t stand for cherry-picking – is this: she knows full well they cannot be bettered outside the single market.

It is quite possible to be in the single market and outside the EU. Plenty of Leavers looked to Norway’s place in the European Economic Area before the referendum. The EEA focuses on exactly the thing many eurosceptics in the UK said they always wanted: the most unfettered trade possible within Europe.

Norway is not in the EU. It plays no part in the Common Agricultural Policy or the Common Fisheries Policy. No EEA law takes direct effect in Norway; the Norwegian Parliament enacts it, and has more flexibility than an EU member. Political union is not an aim of the EEA. Norway makes smaller contributions to shared activity than it would as an EU member. There is a safeguard clause for legislation with unacceptable consequences – though Norway has very rarely had to use it. In principle, the EEA or something like it is the main arrangement able to include passporting for financial services.

As the Prime Minister has said, trade is not the only area where we wish to work with our European allies. Climate change is a shared challenge. The EU’s Emissions Trading System also includes Norway. The UK could be a leading player in green energy if it wanted to be, so it makes good sense for us to seek to stay inside. We should be no less keen to work with the rest of Europe on security and extraditions after Brexit than we were before and should be keeping the substance of the European Arrest Warrant, as far as possible.

The customs union and the Irish Border

Finally, the Prime Minister has argued for a renewed focus on trade deals elsewhere in the world once we leave the EU. I understand this: one argument for Brexit was pursuing new markets elsewhere. But at the moment, as a part of the EU’s customs union, our businesses are spared a tidal wave of paperwork in exporting to the rest of the EU. We are also spared customs checks on our only land border.

This is a difficult choice. Making the best of Brexit might be argued to require looking across the world for new business and new markets. But it is hard to see how the UK is likely, for now, to strike the kind of deals which would make up for such major new barriers with our largest market.

Above all, we cannot risk creating a hard border on the island of Ireland lightly. Any changes to our position in the customs union will require the closest consultation with Ireland and with the Northern Ireland parties. Labour will press the Government to ensure this happens.

Any measures which could reduce the burden of checks should be considered: facilities to carry out EU customs checks in the UK for Ireland-bound goods and vice versa, for instance, or ways of pre-certifying goods bound across the Irish Border. We should learn from Norway and Sweden, who ensure only one national authority needs to check goods. The UK should stand ready to discuss how such measures might be delivered and funded with Ireland.

And if broad consent in Northern Ireland can be found for special measures or some special status there, then – given its unique position – the UK, Ireland and the EU should give them the most serious consideration.

The issue of the customs union is almost uniquely difficult. We need time to address the challenges it raises. We should remain in customs union with the EU during the transitional period, during which we will be seeking to re-establish the trade deals we currently have as an EU member. We can do that from within a customs union with the EU.

And let us then take our final decision on its future on evidence, not ideology.

A close neighbour and a closer Union

My judgment is that the best approach – one which increases our domestic sovereignty, allows a renewed sense of global ties, supports our economy and protects our social rights – lies in membership of the single market, through the EEA or some other means.

I believe this path, together with close co-operation in security and foreign policy, reflects our position as a European nation with ties elsewhere. A close friend to the EU for whom its degree of integration has proved too great.

It also speaks to all four countries in our United Kingdom. The Scottish Government has been loud in seeking a differentiated solution for Scotland. The Welsh Government has put forward proposals of its own.

I do not believe the right solution for the UK is to create new borders within the UK. It is, instead, to respect the devolved nations’ concerns as part of a UK-wide settlement. Not Nicola Sturgeon’s seeming determination to use Brexit as a wedge for separation; not Theresa May’s seeming indifference to the views of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; but a settlement which can bring us all back together.

Free movement as managed movement

But I am not going to lie about the price of staying in the single market. Too many politicians have peddled too many myths over the years. The price of staying in the single market is some form of free movement of labour.

We have to understand that our EU partners are not bluffing about this. The European project relies on common rules for common benefits. For them, conceding that principle sets a dangerous precedent for the future. If one country can unpick parts of the single market, others can too. We need to recognise this and respect it. But I also know immigration was one of the main reasons people voted to leave the EU.

Faced with this, some say we should offer up our own people’s jobs on the altar of cutting migration. Others say we should ignore public concerns and carry on regardless. Still others say we should simply demand the single market and a end to free movement. The first ignores our people’s future; the second ignores democratic reality; the third ignores the clear views of our European partners. None of these are good enough.

What we need to do is find a way to handle the way free movement operates – and, over time, to better handle the pace of change. Not ‘free movement’ as we have implemented it in the UK so far, nor a denial of economic reality, but managed movement.

First, we need to make better use of the powers we already have to manage movement from the rest of Europe better. There’s no need to wait for Brexit to do this; a Labour Government could start working on it now. After three months, we actually have a right to tell EEA citizens they need to show they are working or studying or have the resources to support themselves if they wish to remain in the UK. We don’t do it at the moment. Let’s look at it.

Second, there are issues we can talk about in Brexit negotiations, especially around benefit claims and hiring policy. Of course, the vast majority of EEA citizens actually come here to work. But because of the way tax credits work in the UK, we do have concerns here about whether people have made a contribution before they start to receive benefits as well.

Article 112 of the EEA Agreement allows non-EU members to take safeguard measures if there are ‘serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties of a sectorial or regional nature liable to persist’. We should, if possible, seek a political understanding that the UK will take some proportionate action on EEA migrant benefits as an EEA member. We should also explore the possibility, as the Swiss (with extensive single market access, though not EEA membership) have recently, that those who have registered as jobseekers in the UK might be given priority for jobs over new arrivals.

We should also take action on wages and skills, so more British people are able to do jobs which others currently fill. Some pro-Europeans have bemoaned the rise in wages offered by agricultural employers in Lincolnshire. Not I. No social democrat worthy of the name should bemoan a better deal for low-paid workers. Labour’s commitment to higher wages and to tackling exploitation could open more of those jobs to British citizens.

We need to do far more both to support British citizens to develop new skills – so they have no need to worry about competition from others, because they will know they can hold their own. And considering migration from outside Europe, we should be willing to probe a bit deeper on whether we could be training more people here. If we struggle to find people in the UK who want to work in Indian or Chinese restaurants, for instance (as we have in the past), we should ask why more often.

Finally, we need to talk more about integration. The vast majority of people who make their home here want to play a full part here. In reality, people in the UK are mostly pretty good at getting on together. And evidence suggests that when people are reassured that immigrants overwhelmingly do wish to contribute, join in and integrate – which they do – their concern about immigration falls considerably.

So partly, we need to reassure people and show we value people living together, not just living beside each other. We should not be relaxed about the idea of people living parallel lives.

But there are some areas where we do have a problem. And it is progressive to say as much and look to do something about it. There is nothing left-wing about people, disproportionately women, finding themselves unable to get help they need or talk to people in their local area because they don’t speak enough English. There is nothing left-wing about cutting government funding for language classes. And to ask (and fund) councils to do more to support integration in their local areas would be good for new immigrants and established communities alike.

No one policy or strategy will succeed in squaring this circle. But making use of the powers we already have, seeking adjustments where this is feasible, taking real action on wages and skills and doing more to ensure people live together not apart can both better manage the pace of change and help address its consequences.

Wider Europe

No speech on UK strategy should ignore our wider European role outside the EU.

The UK is a European country and we must remain committed to European values. That includes the Council of Europe – wholly separate from the EU – and the basic values enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights.

The ECHR is the Council of Europe’s greatest creation and one of the world’s most remarkable backstops for basic decency anywhere in the world. Britons led the way in putting it together; assumptions that long informed the common law became part of its warp and weft.

Our membership of the Convention does not just matter to us: it matters to our whole continent. The European Court of Human Rights is far from perfect, but it matters to Russian human rights activists who struggle to get their cases to Strasbourg. It matters to novelists in Turkey who look to the Convention to help protect their free expression.

Quite rightly, our neighbours would be appalled were the UK – one of the world’s great democracies – to withdraw from its commitment to such a basic instrument of human rights protection.

Co-operation on extradition, on security and much else besides could be threatened if we no longer adhered to common human rights standards. Further, our influence in the counsels of our continent – a continent in which we will always need and wish to play a role – would be badly hurt.

But above all, the true values and true nature of the country where Amnesty International was born could never be served by turning our back on human rights protections. We seek a different relationship with the rest of Europe. But Labour wants no part in abandoning Europe’s finest values.

Protecting the West

The United Kingdom must also remain unequivocally committed to the collective security of our continent. How and to what extent we co-operate with the EU on military matters is a matter for negotiation, but our commitment to our continent through Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty is not. We stand with our neighbours.

And here, we cannot ignore the challenges to our east and the changes to our west. I don’t propose to say too much about President Trump today. The UK, and Europe as a whole, must of course retain a close relationship with the United States, above all through NATO. We must also be able to speak frankly where we disagree.

But we Europeans must recognise that our ability to speak frankly and our ability to defend ourselves are intrinsically linked. Credible defence is the foundation of an ethical foreign policy, to coin a phrase.

To our east, Vladimir Putin leads a country which, just three years ago, altered the boundaries of Europe to its own direct benefit for the first time since 1945. That country’s interference in the democratic processes of the West is now well-documented.

The UK, as Europe’s leading defence power, retains a crucial role in Europe. We must not abdicate it. We must build on our links within NATO, and our bilateral agreements with France. We should also seek to retain the right – like Norway, Serbia, Switzerland and Ukraine – to take part in joint procurement via the European Defence Agency, where this is in our interest.

But above all, we and other Europeans must have a serious, honest conversation about our defence capabilities. It should go without saying that the target of 2% of GDP on defence should be met by every NATO member. But more than that, we must ask whether that level will suffice to keep our continent safe.

Because we may be leaving the European Union, but we could not leave Europe even if we wanted to. And our neighbours’ security will always be part and parcel of our own.

Labour’s approach today

So we seek membership of the single market; a close relationship with the EU after Brexit, while strengthening our ties elsewhere; a balanced approach to managing migration within the single market and from outside the EU; and a firm commitment to European values and security. Where does this leave Labour, facing a Conservative Government?

We will be a responsible Opposition. The times are too grave to play games now. We will judge the Government against the vision I have set out, and we will reach out to other parties and other MPs who share some or all of it. And where the Government get it right, we will support it.

So I say this to the Prime Minister: you are not the prisoner of your backbenchers. You need not put their ideological obsessions above our country’s interests. Where you do the right thing for British jobs, British workers and British safety, Labour will support you. You can be as brave as you want to be.

In Government, we will accept that the question of EU membership is settled for this generation. But if this Conservative Government drags the UK out into a hard, damaging, reckless Brexit, Labour will work towards a partnership of the kind I have described today. We will reach out the hand of friendship to our fellow Europeans and bring our fellow Britons back together.

Perhaps it is unusual for a Labour leader to cite Churchill rather than Attlee. But in a speech about reuniting a nation, it makes some sense to look across the party divides. On 11 May 1953, he said:

Where do we stand? We are not members of the European Defence Community, nor do we intend to be merged in a Federal European system. We feel we have a special relation to both. This can be expressed by prepositions, by the preposition “with” but not “of”—we are with them, but not of them.

Churchill was enlisted by both sides of the referendum debate. But it might be fitting if our new place in Europe and the world reflected his real complexity more than the partisan moulds into which he has been shoehorned.

The future I describe is not the one I argued for before 23 June. But for this moment, for this generation, it might be one with which we all can live.

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On Article 50

Whether the Supreme Court was legally correct to say that Parliament must legislate before the Government can invoke Article 50 is for others to debate. Rightly, the courts gave judgment and have settled the issue. Politically, I always believed the Government should seek approval from Parliament for its timing and strategy.

But the Supreme Court’s decision places Labour in a truly poisonous position. Most of our voters backed Remain; most of our seats backed Leave. We cannot defy the referendum result; we cannot back a hard Brexit. I do not envy our embattled MPs.

Second Reading

I can see why Jeremy Corbyn wishes to ask Labour MPs to vote for the Article 50 Bill at Second Reading. And ultimately, I won’t blame him for that, although I disagree with a three-line whip. I know Labour cannot simply ignore the referendum result, and that many – probably most – will feel they should vote in favour to show they accept that result.

But Labour MPs overwhelmingly backed Remain. In many cases, their constituents did too. MPs like Jo Stevens, Catherine West and Tulip Siddiq put themselves at great risk if they ignore their own residents’ views. And some – those who are and have always been committed Europeans – will feel their consciences can only stretch so far.

I accept parties of government must have a position on such issues, but frankly I see little point in pretending Labour is in any danger of being in government soon anyway. The current struggle is for survival – one which many MPs will struggle to win if they alienate their Remain-voting constituents. Jeremy can take his position, and most Labour MPs will back him, but it is divisive and unhelpful to force MPs’ consciences at Second Reading. MPs will split hopelessly anyway; best to make some shred of virtue out of overwhelming necessity.

Third Reading

The more important question for the national interest is how Labour MPs vote at Third Reading. Here, there comes a point where Labour MPs must consider the policy consequences of their votes, however electorally inconvenient that may be. Reluctantly, I accept the country voted to leave: overriding the vote without a referendum would be anti-democratic and could occasion a terrible backlash against mainstream politics, and we would lose a second referendum by a larger margin than the first. We now need to try to minimise the damage. As such, I recognise Labour cannot reject Article 50 en masse regardless of the circumstances.

But once the UK triggers Article 50, we have a two-year window in which to negotiate an exit agreement, hopefully with a transitional deal as we move to a new relationship with the EU. It’s all very well to talk about meaningful parliamentary votes on the deal, but we can only extend those talks if every other EU member agrees. It’s legally uncertain whether we could even revoke Article 50 outright unilaterally, but clearly the Government will not do so. That means a vote on the final deal on exit and transition is very likely to be a choice between whatever May comes up with or nothing at all. Backing the Tories’ deal or being thrown out on WTO rules isn’t much of a choice.

If Parliament really wants to influence the shape of Brexit, it has to exercise that influence now, before the two-year countdown starts. And that means Labour’s backing for the Article 50 Bill must depend upon the amendments the Commons passes. If Labour MPs will not vote against the Article 50 Bill at Third Reading in any circumstances, they will effectively show that in the final analysis, they are prepared to let any kind of Brexit through.

The referendum gives Theresa May no right to a blank cheque. Nor does she have a right to ride roughshod over the views of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’s administrations and legislatures. Her form of Brexit will do enormous damage to the people Labour represents. It may well poison our relations with the rest of Europe at the very time when the United States may abandon our continent too. Labour should not sign her cheque so long as it stays blank.

Labour and Brexit

More broadly, Labour needs to be frank about the true implications of what Theresa May plans to do. She has said she wants to leave the single market and the customs union, although she seems to have some notion of simplifying customs proceedings. Responding to her speech, Keir Starmer said: ‘It is good that she has ruled out that hard Brexit at this stage.’ He also said ‘I accept that form follows function’.

His response ignores the secret of the single market. The rules and institutions of the single market are the single market: the form creates the function. It is simply not the case that May’s ‘bold and ambitious free trade agreement’ will do the same job. And Labour does no service to scrutiny by allowing that elision to pass unchallenged.

Jeremy Corbyn’s response shows where such a path leads us:

We welcome that the Prime Minister has listened to the case we’ve been making about the need for full tariff free access to the single market but are deeply concerned about her reckless approach to achieving it.

It is simply not good enough to say ‘hard Brexit’ is only about process, not endpoint. Labour should back remaining in the single market and level with voters about the tradeoffs – as well as the reality of our EU partners’ position. The Opposition should puncture the Government’s delusions, not indulge them.

In conscience

Finally, I will not lie about what I would do at Second Reading if I were a Labour Member of Parliament. I could not in good conscience vote to give any impression I approve of what we are about to do. I do not approve, even if I try to be resigned. I am a passionate European and I always have been. I believe the European project is, for all its faults, the greatest attempt to build relations between our countries on the basis of law and not just power we have ever seen. I believe it has made an invaluable contribution to peace, democratisation and constitutionalism on the continent of Europe. I believe it is part of a web of institutions and habits of mind and inaccurate historical memories, a web which helps keep the dark heart of man at bay. And I would not want it said that the United Kingdom’s representative assembly walked away from it as one.

NATO: on solidarity

Labour is collectivist by instinct and culture. Founded by the trade unions, it could hardly be otherwise. The welfare state the Attlee Government did so much to build was founded on collective insurance. Labour has stood in solidarity with oppressed groups, minority communities, countries under attack and many others in the past.

Collective security is solidarity by another name. It’s wholly fitting, therefore, that the Attlee Government took the United Kingdom into NATO as a founding member. As the Cold War deepened, western Europe needed the United States to guarantee its security. Not all NATO’s members were always democratic, but it nonetheless bound free Europe to the US. Since then, it has formed the bedrock of British defence policy. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty provides almost our ultimate insurance – our fallback in an existential crisis.

When the Iron Curtain lifted and the Soviet Union fell, new eastern European democracies wanted to join NATO. Given their history, it’s hardly surprising. On a continent where collective security lost its meaning, Chamberlain and Daladier browbeat Edvard Beneš into signing away the Sudetenland in September 1938. Czechoslovakia was dismembered by Hitler the following March. A Franco-British guarantee meant nothing. In September 1939, Britain and France did honour their guarantee to Poland. Poland still suffered years of unspeakable horror. In 1945, eastern Europe came under Soviet control: the ‘people’s democracies’ only fell in 1989. Again, the West stood aside. You might say the West had little alternative in 1945-8: it’s a sobering and unedifying story nonetheless.

That so many of those countries have now joined the community of Western democracies is a cause for celebration. Churchill’s ‘capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe’ no longer languish behind an Iron Curtain, but have joined with their sisters to their west. NATO has provided the anchoring for a community of states linked by law to grow together.

The last Labour Government was a good friend to eastern Europe – championing its right to a place in the Western world. And until now, no Labour leader has ever wavered in their support for the Atlantic Alliance. Michael Foot opposed nuclear weapons, but he kept Labour pledged to NATO. Jeremy Corbyn’s ambivalence at present and in public, and his hostility in the past and probably in private, is unique. His opposition to NATO deployment in eastern Europe as a deterrent to a revanchist Russia is deeply misguided. His refusal to say he would defend NATO allies under attack is profoundly dangerous.

In 2017, eastern Europeans have good cause to value their NATO membership. In February 2014, Russia and Estonia signed an (admittedly unratified) agreement finalising their border. In March, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea because Ukraine wanted to sign a deal with the European Union. Both countries have large Russian minorities. Both once formed part of the USSR. Granted, Ukraine is central to Russia’s sense of self in a way which doesn’t hold true for the Baltics (of course, this doesn’t make its aggression any better). But another crucial difference is the guarantee under Article 5.

It would be unwise enough in normal circumstances to disdain our current insurance policy with no alternative in mind. In these abnormal ones, it is almost farcical in its foolishness. In 2014, a great power annexed a neighbour’s territory on the continent of Europe for the first time since 1945. Its leader is hostile to the liberal international order on which the UK relies, and nothing in his history suggests ‘relationship resets’ or a pacifying stance will appease him. It has links to far right (and radical left) parties in democratic Europe. It props up a toxic but anti-Western regime in Syria. It interfered in the US presidential election and may have even affected the outcome.

Thanks in no small part to the US election, NATO has rarely faced greater threats from within. In eight days’ time, a man whose commitment to European security is questionable will become President of the United States. That Donald Trump and Theresa May agreed on the importance of NATO in a telephone call is of limited comfort, even if he meant what he said. Credibility means everything in deterrence: it matters that Trump once said he wouldn’t mind too much if NATO dissolved, not just whether he continues saying such things as President. This is exactly the moment at which European governments must try to ensure NATO does not wither on the vine. It’s also a moment when NATO’s word must be seen to be its bond. I struggle to imagine a worse time to argue for undermining its shared deterrence strategy in Europe.

History makes clear that Britain cannot ignore the rest of Europe, that its security is bound up with its continent. Brexit does not change the essential fact, however much Nigel Farage might like it to. If the US disengages, Europeans will need to look to our own security: the UK has no opt-out. But in any event, it would be profoundly wrong to let Putin dictate policy in eastern Europe – and even more so to regard any NATO ally as somehow dispensable. I see nothing left-wing about old-style spheres of influence. I see nothing progressive in ignoring eastern Europeans’ right to choose their own destinies. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania became liberal democracies by their own free choice. They are our allies. They deserve better than to be treated as our buffer states.

Collective security is vital for democratic Europe. It has not faced such severe threats from without for many years. It has rarely, if ever, seemed more besieged from within. Britain could never separate itself from the fallout if it broke down. And even if it could, it would be an appalling act to abandon our friends and allies to Vladimir Putin. No true progressive should countenance it.

Saving the single market

Dear Labour MPs

The referendum result is a terrible tragedy, but I understand the people have spoken. I am not asking for a second vote unless voters actually want one, which they clearly don’t now. I accept we have to try and make the best of Brexit. But we shouldn’t just let its most hardline advocates define our future. I am horrified that so many Labour MPs who campaigned to remain are saying an end to free movement of EEA nationals must now be a red line.

Most of you campaigned for Remain – so you know the EU means what it says about the single market’s four freedoms being indivisible, because you travelled the country saying so. But to reiterate: Brussels is not bluffing. The European project relies on common rules for common benefits. Conceding that principle sets a dangerous precedent for the future – throw your toys out of the pram, walk away from your neighbours and reap the rewards. It would be a tragedy of the commons on a continental scale.

Some of you talk about an ‘ambitious negotiating strategy’ to try and square the circle. Yes, other EU countries face challenges too: the threat from Marine Le Pen, Angela Merkel’s difficulties with the refugee crisis, Matteo Renzi’s upcoming constitutional referendum. But offering Britain some sweetheart deal would make their electoral troubles worse, not better. Polling clearly shows their voters do not want us to get any such deal. Some mainstream politicians have talked about greater border controls on entering the passport-free Schengen Area or even longer-term ones within it, but curtailing or ending EEA free movement rights is a distinct issue. Renzi has said an end to free movement won’t happen. Whatever changes Sarkozy puts forward for Schengen, he’s not challenging EEA nationals’ rights (and no French mainstream candidate will go further than him).

Some might point to the fact that, technically, EU free movement is on a different legal basis from the models the EFTA countries apply. The EEA countries have slightly different rules on free movement – essentially, EU citizenship is not a relevant concept and the right is (technically) free movement of workers rather than people. If Switzerland’s compromise on ‘local preference’ in hiring gets consent from Brussels (far from guaranteed), perhaps we could secure something similar to effectively stay in the single market in goods (though not in services). The Swiss model would harm a country as dependent on service exports as Britain. Either approach keeps free movement – and selling tweaks as radical changes failed dismally in the referendum. In the end, you only put off the evil day when we have to choose: do we accept the single market’s rules or not?

If Britain insists on ending free movement, therefore, we will make our way out of the single market. That will damage working people’s incomes, jobs and communities far more than immigration ever could. The evidence simply does not support the idea that immigration depresses wages overall. At worst, it may have a small effect on some low wages – though even then, it mainly seems to affect other migrants rather than British workers. Of course, if you’re on the breadline, a small change has a big effect. But the lost jobs and tax revenue (and guess whose tax credits or public services will be cut to make up for that?) from hard Brexit will dwarf any notional gain in wages.

To be clear: this is not about metropolitan liberals refusing to listen to anyone outside the M25. I understand you want to meet voters halfway on immigration. And yes, we probably have relied on low-paid labour from elsewhere too much and for too long. You can talk more about training our own people. You can ask why we don’t pay enough for British people to do more of these jobs. You can say tackling both of these could reduce immigration and slow the pace of change. You can spell out that people feel that their society changed too fast without their being asked. You can use plainer English to talk about the issue – metropolitan liberals should stop insisting that you tie yourselves in linguistic knots whenever it comes up.

But there is a difference between doing all that and staying quiet while the Tory Right sells us snake oil. It won’t appease people in the end anyway. What do you think will happen if Britain marches to hard Brexit and the country ceases to be a gateway to the world’s largest single market? Do you think angry voters will be less angry once investors go? Once Nissan leaves Sunderland? When people find themselves without work? What will Labour say to them then?

You are the Official Opposition. I realise fulfilling that role is much harder with our current leadership. But you are still the second largest bloc of MPs, and you can put pressure on a Government with a small majority in perilous times. Theresa May could well be held hostage by those Conservative MPs for whom no level of anti-European zealotry would ever be enough. Labour MPs need to press her to minimise the damage Brexit does, not encourage her to maximise it.

Yes, the referendum result mandates some form of Brexit. But all of us, not just some of the 52%, should have a say as we decide what form we choose. Please reconsider, for all our sakes.

Best wishes
Douglas Dowell

A letter to the Labour Left

Dear Comrades

Labour’s more centrist wing talks a lot about winning elections. Given our dismal result last September, I admit we should show some humility on that score.

In summer 2015, members and supporters wanted an Opposition which opposed. They wanted someone to be unapologetically anti-austerity; to speak up for left-wing values without blushing; to refuse to triangulate or fudge in the face of a right-wing Conservative Government. Most concluded no-one would do that except for Jeremy Corbyn; they felt like they were being asked to choose to give up everything they believed in if they voted for anyone else.

People like me failed to grasp that, and we just ended up lecturing the membership. We told everyone else to meet the voters on their ground and take their concerns seriously, and we completely failed to take our own advice. We failed with the best of intentions, we failed because we wanted a Labour Government, but still we failed. We have to learn from that.

10 months on, I can understand the anger now that Jeremy is facing a leadership challenge. He won by a landslide: I accept that. He won a mandate to move the debate in Labour to the left. He has done that, but I can see why many feel cheated.

But please don’t think that Labour moderates are the main threat to the Labour Left. We were trounced in 2015: Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper won 21.5% between them. Corbyn supporters cite the old saw that Tony Blair was Margaret Thatcher’s greatest achievement to illustrate the problems with Blairism. On that logic, Owen Smith is Jeremy Corbyn’s greatest achievement.

Owen is standing as an unabashed socialist, backed by all of Labour’s most centrist MPs. Labour members are not being offered insipid triangulation or Andy Burnham Mark II: Owen is putting forward an unambiguous, democratic socialist programme. He’ll also put flesh on the programme’s bones, which Jeremy never managed to do.

As Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Owen has led Labour’s opposition to the Tories’ welfare cuts. In the early days of his campaign, he’s set out 20 key policies to end austerity and make the wealthy pay their share. Bringing back the 50p rate; higher capital gains tax; a new wealth tax; raising corporation tax; £200 billion invested in a British New Deal: it is crystal clear which side of the fence he’s on. These are specific and costed, and they make a sharp contrast with 10 months in which, after last summer’s promises, practically no party policy emerged at all.

When Owen made his 20 pledges, Jeremy had set out one policy from our 2015 manifesto, one policy based on Owen’s pledge on investment, and one unworkable pledge on pharmaceuticals. Owen has now released a major programme for workers’ rights, too. We have heard a little more since then, but even then the difference stands out: one candidate translates the ideals into concrete policies; the other, unless pushed, does not. Now Labour has been jolted to the left, it needs to fight to make a leftward shift credible: Owen is the better candidate to do so.

Crucially, Owen will turn his fire on domestic policy. If you want to challenge the political consensus head-on, you need a clear target and a steady aim – not a scatter-gun assault on all positions at once. If we’re going to campaign from the Labour Left, we need a clear, overwhelming theme: Conservative cuts are not compulsory; working people shouldn’t pay for the hubris of a lucky few; the interests of those lucky few have railroaded everyone else’s for far too long. Owen will do that. If you wanted a clear, full-throated left-wing party, focused on taking the fight to the Tories: now you can vote for one.

Yes, Owen will stay nearer to the centre than Jeremy in some areas. In particular, Owen will not refuse to sing the national anthem, he will avoid foreign policy controversies (though he voted against military action in Syria), he will be a multilateralist on Trident and he will want to speak to people’s sense of national identity. I understand that these last two are a major compromise for many.

But once these are out of the way, Labour MPs and activists on all sides will rally round a radical domestic programme for government. Arguing about Trident, the Falklands or the IRA is a distraction. These issues alienate people who could otherwise vote Labour. Labour moderates like me will refuse to pretend we can accept them. The Tories will make hay with them. And all the while, the hope of an unequivocally left-wing government drifts further away.

I won’t lie to you: I would normally argue for a more moderate programme to take to the country. But in 2016, the Labour Left has won that battle within the Party, hands down. The biggest threat to that victory is not bedraggled Blairites. It’s crushing, repeated electoral defeat, with all the demoralisation that entails. Defeat will, if you let it, drag the Labour Party away from what you want. Jeremy Corbyn has done what members wanted him to do: to build on that, a new leader will have to take the message to the country, not just the party.

If Owen Smith wins the leadership contest, please don’t think Labour moderates won’t want to make it work. We will throw ourselves into selling him, and Labour, to the country, as we always do. If Labour wins on a manifesto substantially to the left of Ed Miliband, we will be delighted. We also want to tackle inequality – as slowly as we must, yes, but as fast as we can too.

There are two candidates from the Labour Left in this election. One has shown he cannot speak to the country as a whole; the other is champing at the bit to try. The second stands the best chance of showing what a more radical Labour can do.

Yours fraternally
A Labour moderate

If you want to help Owen’s campaign, you can sign up to volunteer.

Why Jeremy Corbyn cannot lead

Jeremy Corbyn was elected in September 2015 with a decisive mandate. Nonetheless, I am convinced that Labour needs a new leader and that it faces disaster if it does not have one. Those of us who seek to overturn that mandate must make our case now.

In doing so, I want to address the electoral damage to Labour, but that is not my main focus here. Corbyn cannot win: but nor could he devise a workable platform for government, even if he did. Nor is such a platform his priority. As long as he leads, Labour cannot do its job as a serious opposition and an alternative government.

Campaigning efforts

To take electoral efforts first, however: it is evident that Corbyn’s Labour is far from forming a government. He is the first Opposition leader ever to lose seats in local elections in his first year in charge. The Opposition he leads is the first to lose seats in local elections since 1985. The average of polls has never once put Labour ahead of the Tories since Corbyn’s election. This all points to a defeat much worse than in 2015.

Policy and positions aside, Labour’s campaign under Corbyn was unfocused and poor. As a slogan, ‘Standing up, not standing by’ appealed only to the already-converted, who took Tory sins as articles of faith. It said nothing to anyone who wasn’t already convinced – indeed, it had no policy content at all. Our whole local election campaign focused on issues which councils couldn’t affect. Labour won in London – where Sadiq Khan spoke to the majority of Londoners, focused on their priorities and kept Corbyn off the leaflets.

But those problems pale in comparison to our EU referendum effort. We don’t know whether a sharper Labour effort would definitely have changed the outcome. But our leader skipped the launch of Labour In for Britain to attend a CND rally. Even in May, less than half of Labour voters knew their own party’s policy. Our leader constantly referred to the Party line when asked about his own views. He took a week’s holiday three weeks before polling day. I co-ordinated campaign efforts locally and knew I couldn’t go on holiday: clearly Corbyn took a different view. We now know the Leader’s Office consistently weakened pro-European speeches throughout the campaign. It is in genuine doubt how he actually voted himself.

On its own, Corbyn’s failure to campaign properly in the EU referendum is damning. His current position entails responsibility far beyond his own party. This was a crucial vote. It is hard to think of a Leader of the Opposition who has helped inflict more damage on his country.

Competence: credible policy

This isn’t just about whether people like Labour’s policies or how Corbyn campaigns. It is also about whether he can put any coherent platform together or show any kind of judgment on policy. I never thought he could, and events since September have given me no reason to change my mind.

Take the Tories’ Fiscal Charter, with its commitment to deliver an overall Budget surplus. Members and supporters voted for Corbyn to deliver a meaningful ‘anti-austerity’ policy. They got a Shadow Chancellor who first said he’d vote for the Tories’ fiscal charter as ‘little more than political game playing’, then decided he’d better vote against, and then produced a set of fiscal rules pretty similar to Ed Balls’. There’s a good case for a policy of balancing the current budget while borrowing to invest. But trashing that policy, seesawing from one extreme to another and then returning full circle – to general confusion – is no way to advocate it. Instead, McDonnell made Labour (defeated in 2015, to a large extent due to a lack of fiscal credibility) look like a party with no serious understanding of what it even wants, never mind how to achieve it.

Corbyn’s lack of judgment extends to foreign affairs. Reasonable people took different views on Syria, and there were plenty of good arguments against intervention in December. But reasonable disagreement differs from total failure to grasp the nature of the problem. Corbyn’s call for back channels to talk to Daesh fell into the latter category. Daesh is committed to an Islamic caliphate as a prelude to waging jihad on a global basis: striking a deal is literal anathema to its leaders. Syria and Iraq’s territory are not the West’s to negotiate over, and in any case we have nothing we could ever offer Daesh. Millenarian, theocratic totalitarianism cannot be appeased – as anyone with even a basic understanding should be able to grasp.

Corbyn’s positioning on Brexit since the EU referendum has been damningly inept. The morning after the referendum, he demanded the immediate triggering of Article 50, starting the two-year countdown to leaving. We had just fought a whole campaign, one where he had (notionally) been a key campaigner, in which Remain had emphasised the complexity of Brexit, the lack of any plan and the difficult trade-offs if Britain voted Leave. Anyone with even a passing interest in the debate should have known that to start the process immediately, with no permanent Prime Minister, no set of UK negotiating priorities and no discussion with devolved administrations, MPs and others would have been as disastrous as it was farcical.

Our new Brexit Secretary’s stated policy on negotiating with EU partners is either hubris or bluff; a stronger Labour Party could fight to ensure Remain voters’ interests are taken into account by a Government which currently risks sleepwalking into a hard Brexit. Having argued for a disastrous, precipitate negotiation, we have now spent a month supporting single market access while accepting an end to free movement, with no understanding of the contradiction. It is sadly typical that we only got any more clarity once Corbyn faced a leadership challenge and had to explain it to members rather than voters.

We are currently proposing to put Jeremy Corbyn to the country as our candidate for Prime Minister, making crucial decisions at short notice every day. Faced with such decisions as Leader of the Opposition, he has not shown the slightest ability to handle them. And for all his vaunted principles, he shows no interest in how to put them into practice – even if he won an election.

Competence: Parliament, party and country

MPs and peers have said a great deal about Corbyn’s performance as a leader in Parliament. He appointed, sacked and reappointed a Shadow Arts Minister without consulting or informing her while she was undergoing treatment for breast cancer; his Shadow Health Secretary had to make camp outside his office to get a decision on NHS policy; his Shadow Transport Secretary found herself undermined on key issues where she had reached an agreement with him in person. He may have claimed credit for Lords victories over tax credits, trade unions and housing, but Labour’s leader in the Lords points out she didn’t even have a conversation with him about those votes: peers were getting on with the job themselves. It is hardly surprising that his MPs have no confidence in his ability to lead.

This partly points to simple incompetence – a theme running throughout Corbyn’s leadership. It also points to a fundamental lack of interest in Parliament itself and the business of Parliament – in government or in opposition. When explaining his refusal to step aside, it was not the country or the voters to whom Corbyn said he felt responsibility; it was the members. Whenever challenged about electoral success, he would cite a growing membership. MPs with concerns are instructed to respect the membership. And so on.

Of course, Labour members and activists are vital. But they cannot be the sole – or even, if I am honest, the primary – focus of accountability for Labour MPs. It’s not just that you can’t be elected without appealing to voters at large: it is a point of principle. We live in a parliamentary democracy. The route from an individual citizen to Number 10 is stewarded by their local MP. It is fundamentally wrong to subordinate that link to a small, though dedicated, subset of activists. MPs should of course listen to their members: but citizens must come first.

The poor management of MPs, the lack of interest in parliamentary change and the refusal to prioritise winning elections point to a fundamental failure to understand that priority – and a rejection of the purpose of the Labour Party. As set out in Clause One of our Constitution, that purpose is to elect Labour representatives to Parliament. We don’t exist for our own benefit: we exist to build a better country.

‘Principles’

Like Corbyn, I want a more equal Britain. I want poverty reduced; I want investment in public services; I want the rich to pay a larger share. But I would be lying if I pretended not to have fundamental differences with him, too.

Above all, I reject his anti-Western worldview. It is possible to do this while opposing some recent interventions in the Middle East. I marched against the 2003 Iraq war myself, more than once. But I believe interest and principle point to a UK anchored in Europe and in the Atlantic world. I do not see the European Union as a bosses’ club to be regarded with suspicion: I see it, for all its faults, as the greatest attempt to govern the relations between European states by law rather than power ever seen. To me, the United States is not a country to be held at arm’s length – though of course we can disagree with its leaders – but a liberal democracy and a friend, far more benign than any other plausible world hegemon and essential to our security. I do not share Corbyn’s hostility to Israel: it has done some terrible things, and it should change its policies for its own sake as well as the Palestinians’, but it remains a broadly free, open society in the Middle East and a guarantor to Jews everywhere that, after millennia of persecution, there will always be somewhere to offer refuge.

Corbyn’s worldview has led to some terrible associations and decisions. Rob Francis has said more or less everything that needs to be said about the first: I’ll focus on the second. It leads him, for instance, to want to leave NATO. In fairness, he hasn’t said anything much about NATO since becoming leader (though he did appoint Ken Livingstone to co-chair a defence review, who did), but we have no reason to believe his views have changed. Corbyn refers to a policy based on international law and peace: no one denies these are good things, but Britain has to have an ‘if all else fails’ policy in a supreme national crisis. At present, that policy is based on the NATO alliance. Corbyn wishes to get rid of our current policy, with no alternative in mind. Even if he does compromise on NATO, how are our allies meant to have any confidence in him? Britain already looks like it is considering withdrawing from the world: how would this help?

The assumption that we are always wrong, that the West is always to blame and that the answer must always be for Britain to give ground puts Corbyn at odds with the British people on some of the most fundamental issues of all. Arguing the UK should find an accommodation with Argentina over the Falklands – never mind the views of the people who live there – was a case in point. The public may not think much about the Falklands, but the idea that British people living on British territory should be defended from invasion and have their rights protected by Britain is a red line for them. And they are quite right. A man who seems to place his own country in the wrong in every circumstance is not a man who will ever enter 10 Downing Street.

Finally, I just can’t ignore the minimising, tolerating and denying of anti-Semitism under Corbyn. I’m sorry: I can’t stomach his record. Associating with people any decent politician should shun, failing to take a single step to address anti-Semitic incidents unless forced, refusing to condemn anti-Semitism without qualification: this is not how the leader of a mainstream party should be. If Labour cannot recognise one of history’s most vicious, most insidious prejudices, what are we for? There are few things more shaming than one of our Jewish MPs, attending the launch of a report into anti-Semitism in Labour, finding herself accused of ‘colluding with the media’ – a classic anti-Semitic trope. Worse, she saw her Party leader do nothing and then found he apologised to the man who abused her.

Conclusion

Corbyn’s record exposes the essential unseriousness of Corbynism. Our current leadership has no interest in working out how to sell ‘anti-austerity’ or even what it actually looks like. If we keep a leader the British people will never elect, who we know could never be Prime Minister even if he won, who is incapable of responding to the problems the country faces and who doesn’t even see any of this as his priority, we fail in our basic purpose. Worse, we leave everyone in this country who needs a Labour Government to the mercy of the Conservatives.

Electing Owen Smith as Labour leader won’t fix all the deep problems Labour faces. How to keep enough middle-class liberals and traditional working-class voters in the same tent, make Britain more equal in economic circumstances far more difficult than those of the late 1990s, repair our shattered place in the world, appeal to older voters and speak to all the nations of the UK: all of these problems will remain, and some or all of them will still have to be tackled. But without a new leadership, we can’t even begin to do that.

That is why we need to remove Corbyn. Not to solve our problems, but to start to try and solve them. Not as a quick route to victory, but as the first step towards working out how we can deliver our values in government and persuade our fellow citizens. Not for a quick fix, but for a long, hard slog – gruelling, but the only way to help build the more equal, better country we all want.

If you want to help Owen’s campaign, please do sign up to volunteer.

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.