Image by Kevin Walsh, Preston Brook, England – Jeremy Corbyn Liverpool rally
In an interview with Oz Katerji, which forms part of a podcast series on why Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party were so resoundingly defeated in the 12 December 2019 UK general elections, Stephen Bush, political editor of the left-leaning New Statesman, revealed that he didn’t vote for Labour in the 2017 or 2019 elections. The party leadership’s anti-Semitism was a deal-breaker for him.
I applaud any leftist who refuses to support an anti-Semitic party. Your anti-racism isn’t just for show. You’ve passed the test of basic moral hygiene.
But how did we get to this stage? I can’t forget the image of Andrew Neil, one of the most respected broadcasters in the UK, as he asked Corbyn to apologise for his anti-Semitism. Corbyn’s haughty expression belied any contrition he expressed. This was unsurprising: a particular brand of conspiratorial anti-Semitism has been an integral feature of Corbyn’s political career. His celebration of Hamas and Hezbollah; his obeisance to the Islamist cleric Raed Salah; his apology for the Munich terrorists; his blindness to that mural: all this—and much more—forms an ugly concatenation of beliefs. In effect, Neil was asking him to apologise for wasting a significant part of his adult life on causes in which he deeply believes.
Corbyn is leaving. There will be a new Labour leader in April. The three remaining candidates have declared their opposition to anti-Semitism. Lisa Nandy, the MP for Wigan, sounds by far the most convincing. Many people have viewed Corbyn’s failure to deal with anti-Semitism as symptomatic of general incompetence. Bush makes this point in the Katerji podcast. Corbyn was cited as a main factor in Labour’s worst electoral defeat since 1935 in the recently published Lord Ashcroft poll, and by those who canvassed and campaigned for the party. But the deeper problem with Corbyn and anti-Semitism is not strategic, but moral. Strict stipulations of moral principle are characteristic of those on the left. But if you don’t stick to those principles, you risk looking morally bankrupt.
Mihail Sebastian’s provocative and haunting novel For Two Thousand Years describes the ubiquity of anti-Semitism and the brazenness of anti-Semites. The unnamed narrator, a Romanian Jew, remarks that, “The nature of today’s anti-Semitism seems so different from 600 years ago. Religious then, political now,” but adds “If tomorrow’s social structure centres neither on politics nor economics but instead on—let’s say bee-keeping—the Jew will be detested from the point of view of keeping bees.”
For many of Corbyn’s hardened supporters, Corbyn is an avatar of virtuous politics. This explains why Labour members often consider him more successful than the man who won three consecutive majorities. It is also why, according to the Ashcroft poll, over 90% of the members of Momentum—a campaign group created specifically to support Corbyn’s leadership—think the allegations of anti-Semitism are a media concoction. (Almost half think that the problem was exaggerated, but that the leadership “should have done a better job of dealing with it”—which is another way of saying that the leadership should have done more to stop being the leadership).
Because Corbyn is manifestly virtuous—he has spent a lifetime fighting racism, they say—anyone who thinks otherwise is part of a conspiracy to bring him down. And who foots the bill for conspiracies? Jews.
Schoolteacher Holly Rigby is a member of Momentum. After the UK’s chief rabbi spoke out against Corbyn, Rigby accused the rabbi of being an untrustworthy political partisan. Others—like left-wing columnist George Monbiot—have accepted that Corbyn isn’t “perfect.” Nevertheless, they felt other issues were more pressing than taking an unequivocal stance against the oldest prejudice in our civilisation.
On the one hand, then, certain Corbyn supporters considered the invocation of anti-Semitism a conspiracy. On the other, they viewed the problem as less pressing than stopping Boris Johnson from winning a majority. There is a certain logical consistency to this. If it is, to your mind, inconceivable for Corbyn to espouse bigotry, then the accusations against him are necessarily false. But the latter position—that it is not a priority—is hypocritical. It was wrong to vote for Jeremy Corbyn. It was absurd to do so if your morality is closer to black and white than to shades of grey.
People often mock Liz Kendall, a political moderate, for her disappointing bid for the Labour leadership. But, according to the Ashcroft poll, 72% of Kendall supporters think “anti-semitism was a real problem in Labour and that’s why it got so much attention.” Only 4.5% of the party supported Liz Kendall in 2015.
I don’t know what to say to Labour members and activists who’ve denied that anti-Semitism is a problem in the party. To denounce them risks sounding sanctimonious. But the severity of the Labour Party’s failure on this moral question warrants sanctimony, which is a far less damning charge than cowardice or hypocrisy.