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To Labour’s Anti-Semitism Saga, a Bitter Denouement

Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension after defying a report’s damning conclusions about his leadership was the last twist in a shameful chapter of the party’s history.
Keir Starmer, Jeremy Corbyn, and Rebecca Long-Bailey, 2019

Stefan Rousseau/PA Images via Getty Images

Then Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn (center), flanked by shadow cabinet members Keir Starmer and Rebecca Long-Bailey, at a meeting about Brexit in Parliament, London, March 2019; since then, Starmer has become party leader, while Long-Bailey has been demoted and Corbyn has been suspended, both over matters relating to Labour’s problems with anti-Semitism

There had been other moments that promised closure, but this was set to be the big one. At 10 AM on October 29, 2020, Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published the findings of its seventeen-month-long enquiry into anti-Semitism in the Labour Party—an event that many hoped would, at last, conclude a melancholy episode that had played out for more than four long years. That hope was cherished most fondly by British Jews, who had found themselves in an unfamiliar position—at the center of domestic political controversy—and didn’t much like it. They looked to the EHRC not merely to vindicate the case most of them had been making, but also to draw a line under the whole sorry business. Their hopes were realized on the first score. On the second, they were to be disappointed.

The commission had been set up by the last Labour government in the era of Tony Blair, charged with enforcing the law on equality and against discrimination. Only once before had it been called in to investigate a political party: the far-right British National Party. That the EHRC had seen enough evidence to open an inquiry into the Labour Party, as it did in May 2019, was seen as a mark of shame for a party that all but defined itself by its opposition to racism and prejudice.

The verdict the commission delivered last week was striking in its gravity and lack of equivocation. Sometimes, such bodies wrap their conclusions in language that is opaque or ambiguous. But the EHRC wrote as if it wished not to be misunderstood. “We have concluded that there were unlawful acts of harassment and discrimination for which the Labour Party is responsible…[O]ur analysis points to a culture within the Party which, at best, did not do enough to prevent antisemitism and, at worst, could be seen to accept it.”

If the report is not packed with vivid examples of anti-Jewish racism, it is because the inquiry’s remit was narrowly focused on a question of process: namely, how Labour handled complaints from Jewish victims. (It found that complaints of anti-Semitism were treated differently from other complaints of discrimination, subject to recurrent “political interference” from the office of the party leader—meddling that was “unlawful.”) Even so, the report makes clear that the cases of harassment of Jews it cites represent merely “the tip of the iceberg.” The day after publication, I spoke with EHRC executive director Alastair Pringle, who told me that he and his fellow commissioners had been appalled by the cases they had seen: “There were hundreds of them and they were absolutely atrocious: the language, the behavior, it was shocking. The words used to describe Jewish people: we found it quite shocking.” The EHRC has issued Labour with an “unlawful act notice” and has given the party six weeks to produce an action plan or else face further legal sanctions.

You might imagine this would have touched off a round of the deepest soul-searching in a party that takes such pride in its loathing of bigotry. From the new leader, Keir Starmer, it did. Greeting the report that morning of October 29, he declared it “a day of shame for the Labour Party” and, addressing the Jewish community, said he was “truly sorry for all the pain and grief that has been caused.”

But Starmer was soon upstaged by his predecessor as Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who had been in charge throughout the period under examination by the EHRC. When the EHRC identified “serious failings in leadership,” it was Corbyn’s leadership they were referring to. Lest there be any doubt, the EHRC’s lead investigator said as he launched the report: “Jeremy Corbyn is ultimately accountable and responsible for what happened at that time.”

Corbyn didn’t see it that way. Thirty-five minutes after publication, before Starmer had even delivered Labour’s official response to the report, Corbyn issued his own statement on Facebook making it clear that he did not accept all of the EHRC’s findings; indeed, he believed that the problem of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party had been “dramatically overstated.” That clashed with Starmer’s insistence that anyone who sought to minimize Labour’s anti-Semitism problem belonged “nowhere near the Labour Party.” (Indeed, I’m reliably informed that Corbyn knew in advance that this was precisely where Starmer would draw the line, but he chose to cross it anyway.) By lunchtime that day, Labour officials had suspended Corbyn’s party membership. He remains a member of Parliament, but will no longer count as part of the Labour group in the House of Commons. Considering that Corbyn was the leader of the Labour Party as recently as April, it’s a remarkably swift fall.

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Corbyn’s most devoted followers immediately organized an online solidarity rally demanding his reinstatement; some sent flowers to his home. It was clear whom the Corbynites regarded as the true victim of this episode—and it wasn’t the Jews harassed and discriminated against by Corbyn’s Labour.

How did it come to this? How did a political party that once regarded opposition to racism as a sacred principle end up guilty of discrimination so egregious that it broke the law? The answer explains much about why the Corbyn project failed—and it lies in the remarkable and unforeseen transformation of the Labour Party that began in the summer of 2015.

The Labour Party had then just lost its second election in succession, one it had believed it could win. The previous leader, Ed Miliband, resigned, and a trio of unexciting candidates stepped up to take his place, each one preaching electability and moderation, urging the party to move back to the center ground. They badly misjudged the mood of the party membership—whose ranks were spectacularly boosted, then and soon after, by a more radical influx, attracted by a historically low registration fee and an immediate opportunity to vote for a new leader. The country had endured five years of austerity at the hands of the Conservative-led government of David Cameron, gutting public services and shrinking the welfare state’s cash benefits that served as a lifeline for the neediest. To the newly empowered grassroots members, Blairite moderation had been tried and failed: it was time to try something new.

Suddenly, Labour members took a look at the fourth candidate for the party leadership, the veteran backbencher and decades-long campaigner Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn had only entered the race to ensure the left was represented: it was touch-and-go as to whether, according to the rules, he would even get enough MPs’ signatures to make it onto the ballot. Most of those who signed his nomination papers did so not because they backed him but, in the phrase of the time, “to broaden the debate.”

And yet, the Corbyn campaign caught fire, especially with younger voters, those with few memories of the bitter battles of left versus right that had nearly destroyed Labour in the 1980s. Next to his polished rivals, Corbyn had a rumpled authenticity. Never a careerist, he seemed to promise a return to purity and socialist principle. Cartoonists drew him as a kind of unworldly holy man. By summer’s end, he won his party’s leadership in a landslide.

Suddenly, a left faction that had been in the wilderness for decades was at the heart of Britain’s main opposition party. Habits of mind once confined to the fringes, or that had existed only in tiny splinter groups outside Labour, were now on the inside. Among them were some strange attitudes to Jews.

It wasn’t the fervent hostility to Israel and Zionism, though that had long been a shibboleth on the British left—and was a particular passion of Corbyn’s. No, it was a willingness to look past even the most lurid views about Jews if those views came from a source deemed sound on Palestine or otherwise admirably left-wing. It was a form of left populism that saw capitalism as the conspiracy of a wicked few against the noble many, and that invited a question—who, exactly, are these wicked few?—to which, for many, anti-Semitism supplied a ready answer. It was a form of identity politics that decided Jews didn’t count as a minority deserving of protection and solidarity, because they were surely all white and affluent; that saw attacking Jews as punching up, rather punching down.

These were the attitudes Jewish members increasingly found themselves facing in their branch meetings or on social media. One Jewish Labour MP at the time, Luciana Berger, went public with the abuse she was facing: the rape and death threats, the messages branding her “a paid-up Israeli lobby operative,” the email urging her to “resign or perhaps kill yourself so that an actual Labour MP can take your place, Tory cunt.” When Berger attended the Labour Party conference in Liverpool in 2018, she was given police protection.   

Appeals for Corbyn to act on this—say, by quote-tweeting an example of abuse in order to denounce it—repeatedly fell on stony ground. He was reluctant even to speak about anti-Semitism as a singular problem, preferring to say he opposed “anti-Semitism and all forms of racism”—a formulation the British-Jewish comedian David Baddiel calls the left equivalent of “All Lives Matter.”

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In truth, few expected Corbyn to act. For his own record suggested that he, too, saw Jews through a lens clouded by prejudice. One episode that became notorious was telling. In 2012, word came that a street mural in East London was to be removed: it depicted a group of hooked-nosed Jewish bankers playing Monopoly, literally, on the backs of the poor. On Facebook, Corbyn learned of the mural’s removal, posting the response: “Why?” along with a message of solidarity to the artist. He could see no problem with the image. The artist was sticking it to the capitalist powers that be: What could possibly be wrong with that?

Episodes from Corbyn’s recent past kept surfacing. The video of him upbraiding two Jews at a 2013 meeting on Palestine by noting that the trouble with Zionists like them was that, even though they might have been born in Britain and lived there a long time, they had no grasp of “English irony.” The tea he gave on the House of Commons terrace for Raed Salah, an Islamist preacher whose sermons had featured the blood libel—the medieval lie that Jews ritually devour the blood of Gentile children.

Every time Corbyn had a chance to draw a line under this past, to try to make amends, he refused to take it. The EHRC report says explicitly that Corbyn’s Labour Party could have tackled the anti-Semitism problem “if the leadership had chosen to do so,” yet it did not. Days before the election defeat in 2019, a BBC interviewer repeatedly invited Corbyn to apologize to the Jewish community for the hurt Labour had inflicted: he declined to do so every time.

It was Corbyn’s bad luck that he happened to lead Labour in a period when Britain’s Jews had themselves changed. The community had long been characterized by a keep-your-head down quietism: when the fascist Oswald Mosley planned to march through the mainly Jewish East End of London in 1936, the established Jewish leadership urged Jews to do nothing and let the moment pass. (It was Jewish activists who defied their elders, together with their non-Jewish allies, including Communists, dockers, and miners, who took to the streets for the now-legendary Battle of Cable Street that stopped the Blackshirts.) But the generation of Jews Corbyn faced was in no mood to keep quiet. They took to the streets in 2018 to make a move that would once have been unthinkable: staging a demonstration against the Labour Party outside Parliament. The slogan: Enough Is Enough.

What the EHRC report, along with a recent book, Left Out, an account of the Corbyn years by journalists Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire, make clear is that the Corbyn project was undermined by a series of traits that had long characterized the far left: a lethal susceptibility to internecine warfare; a basic incompetence in the practicalities of electoral politics; and an unnerving tendency to say or do things that make Jews anxious. (We should perhaps qualify that generalization: a 2018 survey found that a mere 86 percent of British Jews considered Jeremy Corbyn anti-Semitic; about one in twelve did not.)

Now the party is under new management and Corbyn has, for now, lost his party card. Might that trigger a civil war, with the left rallying around their lost leader and subjecting his successor to a draining round of bloodletting? Possibly. But the Corbynite left is not the force it was. Labour’s ruling central body, the National Executive Committee, was told two months ago that some 80,000 members had left the party this year, while 90,000 new members had joined, according to one well-informed party source who assumes it’s mostly disaffected Corbynites who’ve left. Even if those who remain decide to go all out against Starmer, it’s not obvious how much damage they can inflict. Instead, they might recede to the place they occupied before 2015: noisy, active, but marginal.

As for Britain’s Jews, there is, for many, relief that today’s Labour Party speaks with a different tone and in a different voice. But they’re not about to rush to judgment. They saw how quickly Labour embraced Jeremy Corbyn, how ready some of its leading lights were to make excuses for him. Even if that is now a memory, it’s not one that will fade quickly.

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