Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Antisemitism and the battle for the soul of Britain's Labour party

 This article of mine appears in the edition of the Jerusalem Report dated August 5, 2019
          Discount the scenes of wild enthusiasm for Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Britain’s Labour party, by the party faithful. Discount the 2017 general election, in which prime minister Theresa May lost her majority and Labour won an additional 30 seats. The truth is that now, in mid-2019, the Labour party is in the midst of a life-and-death internal struggle for its continued existence. Brexit and the split between Leavers and Remainers has little to do with it. Antisemitism has become the proxy issue masking the deep-seated malaise that affects the party. 

          The battle is between the social democratic wing and the hard left tendency represented by a movement called Momentum, set up in 2015 to support Jeremy Corbyn’s bid for the leadership. Britain’s Labour Party has always promoted itself as “a broad church”. Founded at the turn of the 20th century by a trade union movement based on Marxist principles, Labour also embraced from the start much gentler social democratic concepts inherited from the Christian and philanthropic impulses of the Victorian Liberal Party. 

          In 1918 the party incorporated into its constitution, as Clause 4. the out-and-out socialist objective of securing “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.” In practical terms that meant that a future Labour government would be obligated to nationalize as much of the state’s economic infrastructure as possible, and indeed when Labour came into power after the 1945 general election, it proceeded to enact this program. It brought into public ownership the coal and steel industries, Britain’s railway system, road transport, the electricity and gas industries, and of course, by establishing the National Health Service, the provision of health care. 

          Although at first there was general acceptance of this great socialist experiment, disillusion soon crept in. When inadequate services, soaring prices and strikes began to affect the public, their mood changed. Within the Labour movement the social democratic leadership began to see that electoral success depended on softening, if not abandoning, Clause 4. After losing the 1959 general election, Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell made a courageous attempt to have Clause 4 amended. The harder left wing fought back, and defeated him. 

          It was a Pyrrhic victory, since it was followed by the brilliant electoral successes of Tony Blair and his “New Labour”. Blair was an unapologetic social democrat, and for a time he succeeded beyond all expectations in gaining the confidence of the British electorate.

          Before Blair’s edifice came tumbling down in the débacle of the Iraqi war, he managed to have Clause 4 and all references to nationalization radically revised. After Blair’s departure the Labour party was in disarray. When a leadership election was held, three of the four candidates could reasonably be described as social democrats. The fourth was a wild card, a long-standing rebel within the parliamentary Labour party. Prominent figures in the party urged members not to vote for him. But Momentum had enthused thousands of young people to join the Labour party and support Jeremy Corbyn, and in the event Corbyn was elected by a landslide. 

          Corbyn, a Member of Parliament (MP) since 1983, had been a rebel before entering parliament, and remained a rebel after taking his seat. During the 1970s a Trotskyist hard-left group, called the Militant Tendency, embarked upon a long-term, calculated effort to infiltrate and eventually take over the Labour party. Corbyn supported Militant and opposed its expulsion. Eventually Militant defied the Labour establishment once too often, decisive action was taken, and the party was cleansed.
           The hard left, with its anti-colonialist traditions, sometimes includes support for a so-called world Zionist conspiracy. Representing the establishment of Israel as a colonialist enterprise, the extreme left aligns itself with rejectionist Palestinian opinion, and condones the policies of extremist bodies like Hamas and Hezbollah, condemned as terrorists by much of the world. Anti-Zionism morphs easily enough into antisemitism, and from the moment Corbyn became leader, antisemitism within the Labour party – never previously an issue of importance – became a major bone of contention. The principles of the hard left had become the principles dominating the party. 

          A year ago journalist Matt Seaton wrote: “From a journalist’s point of view, Labour’s antisemitism crisis is the gift that keeps on giving.” His observation has proved itself repeatedly over the past twelve months. In February 2019 nine Labour MPs even resigned from the party, citing as their reason the leadership's handling of antisemitism. 

          Now the party is yet again in the throes of a divisive issue centered on antisemitism. 

          Chris Williamson, a long-time friend and supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, has been a Labour party member for over 40 years and an MP since 2017. He was suspended from the parfty in February 2019 after video footage showed him telling a meeting of the hard-left Momentum group that Labour’s reaction to antisemitism allegations had been “too apologetic” and had led to the party being “demonised”. 

          On June 26 his case was considered by an antisemitism panel of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC). He was issued with a formal warning and readmitted to the party. 

          A furious backlash followed. More than 120 Labour MPs and peers led by the deputy leader, Tom Watson, demanded that Corbyn step in to expel him from the parliamentary party. Almost 70 Labour staff members wrote to express their anger at Williamson’s readmission. 

          The furore lasted 24 hours. Then one of the three-member NEC panel, Keith Vaz MP, wrote to Labour’s general secretary proposing that a new panel should be convened. As a result Williamson has had his suspension from the party reimposed, while his case is re-examined. Meanwhile the Equality and Human Rights Commission has launched an official inquiry into whether the Labour party has unlawfully discriminated against, harassed or victimized people because they are Jewish. 

          Britain’s parliamentary Labour party is now openly split. On July 9 three Labour peers – Lords Turnberg, Trieseman and Darzi – resigned, accusing Corbyn of antisemitism. The following evening the BBC broadcast a TV documentary on its main domestic channel: “Is Labour Antisemitic?” during which a number of former party officials alleged that senior Labour figures had interfered in the process of dealing with antisemitism complaints. The whistleblowers also claimed that they had faced a huge increase in antisemitism complaints since Corbyn became leader in 2015, and described the great personal strain they had faced in trying to handle them.

          The response by the tight team surrounding Corbyn was to smear the TV producer and attack the former party officials as having “personal and political axes to grind.” As a result two of them are suing the Labour party for defamation of character. In addition Labour backbenchers have published a letter condemning the “officially sanctioned spin campaign”. There is even talk of a leadership challenge to Corbyn from more moderate quarters within the party. 

          Meanwhile the hard-left, having gained power within the party, are not going to relinquish it without a fight to the death. This it might eventually turn out to be. With the emergence on July 23 of Boris Johnson as Britain’s new prime minister, a general election sooner rather than later is widely predicted. Johnson has two main priorities: to achieve Brexit by October 31, and to prevent Jeremy Corbyn from ever becoming prime minister. A recent UK-wide poll of voters found that 42% of voters believed antisemitism is a “genuine and serious issue” in the Labour party. In rejecting antisemitism, the British electorate would be rejecting the hard-left political philosophy that nurtures it.

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