Bad Company

Bablu Miah/Flickr
A mural in London’s East End by the street artist Kalen Ockerman, known as Mear One. It was erased in 2012 because of concerns that it was anti-Semitic.

Although British local council elections are often dissected, like the American midterms, for possible clues to the next general election, it’s very rare for the media to focus on the result in a single borough. But that was what happened on May 3, when Labour failed to take Barnet, a borough on the northern edge of London that it should have won. The opposition expects to do well at this point in the electoral cycle, especially when the government is in trouble, and Theresa May’s Tory government is in very deep trouble indeed.

Having become prime minister two years ago when David Cameron resigned after the European Union referendum, which he had called needlessly but expected to win and then lost, May called an election last summer, again needlessly but expecting to increase her parliamentary majority. Instead she lost it; since then she has also lost four Cabinet ministers and such little authority as she possessed. Her Cabinet is polarized and paralyzed by Brexit, with Boris Johnson, the unprincipled mountebank whom she so rashly made foreign secretary, openly and insolently attacking her proposal for a new customs partnership with the EU.

With all of that, Labour ought to have won the borough—except that Jeremy Corbyn is the Labour leader, and Barnet has a large Jewish electorate. Two years ago, Jonathan Arkush, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said that “Labour has a serious anti-Semitism problem—and Jeremy Corbyn is failing to fix it.” Barry Rawlings, the leader of the Barnet Labour group, reckons that Corbyn still hasn’t done so. He blamed the electoral disappointment on “Labour’s own failure to deal with evidence of anti-Semitism by some members quickly enough and firmly enough.”

Needless to say, right-wing politicians and press have gleefully pounced on this discomfiture for Corbyn. And yet the really damaging evidence was heard from several Jewish Labour members of Parliament on a dramatic recent afternoon in the Commons. Dame Margaret Hodge is a much-respected veteran MP, daughter of Jewish refugees (twice over, fleeing Germany and then Egypt), and niece of an uncle murdered at Auschwitz. “I have never felt as nervous and frightened as I feel today about being a Jew,” she said on April 17. “It feels that my party has given permission for anti-Semitism to go unchallenged.” More chilling still was Ruth Smeeth’s account. She said that she used to expect crazy Jew-hate mail from the right, but now it comes from the left as well, by way of social media: “Hang yourself you vile treacherous Zionist Tory filth, you’re a cancer of humanity…Zionist hag bitch Ruth Smeeth.” While Labour MPs loudly applauded Hodge, Smeeth, and their colleagues, Corbyn didn’t…

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