Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension from the Labour whip is partly a product of the reticence of his supporters to aggressively defend him. Michael Doyle argues that the weakness of the Labour left’s response has an old pedigree of consistent failure.
Since the devastating General Election defeat in December 2019, the Labour left has been demoralised and in retreat. In the six months since Sir Keir Starmer acceded to the Labour leadership, his main focus has been to destroy the Corbyn interregnum, culminating in the disgraceful suspension of Jeremy Corbyn, his re-admittance and the suspension from the Labour parliamentary group. First, Starmer humiliated and marginalised and then sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey – the one prominent member of the Socialist Campaign Group (SCG) in his shadow cabinet. On policy, during his successful leadership campaign, Starmer committed himself to ten pledges which resembled the policy platform put forward by Corbyn in the 2017 General Election. It is these pledges that prominent figures on the Labour left say they must hold the leadership to. I will argue that this attempt and the wider political orientation it implies is naïve at best, and politically dangerous at worst for two reasons: it fails to acknowledge how the historical relationship between the Labour left and right-wing Labour leaders has manifested and secondly, the Labour left’s continuous retreat in the face of anti-semitism accusations shows that its relationship to the leadership is one of self-defeating conciliation.
Ralph Miliband’s characterisation of the Labour left in his famous book Parliamentary Socialism is as true today as when it was written in 1961. The Labour left’s purpose “has always been two-fold: to push their leaders into accepting more radical policies and programs, and to press upon them more militant attitudes in response to challenges from Labour’s opponents.” It is the first element of the Labour left’s purpose that I wish to focus on since this is the main plank of the strategy advocated by prominent figures on the Labour left. Historically, this strategy has been intended as a transactional one: radical policies in exchange for loyalty to the leadership – except the radical policies rarely result from this obedience to the leadership. For the duration of the Atlee government, the Labour left was content to implement the 1945 General Election manifesto. During this period, at least, there were radical policies – in the context of post-war reconstruction – such as the establishment of the NHS which today’s Labour leadership would not even begin to contemplate. In opposition from 1951 to 1964, the Labour left, then associated with the politics of Aneurin Bevan, sought merely to hold the Labour leadership to the Atlee consensus, and on foreign policy Bevan gave an impassioned speech in favour of retaining nuclear weapons and reaffirmed the left’s commitment to NATO.
Later, followers of Tony Benn exercised much of their politics through arid constitutional processes within the Labour party that were divorced from the task of building a class struggle outside of Parliament at a time when Thatcherism was beginning to decimate working-class communities. The Bennite insurgency proved to be the high point of the left’s struggle to occupy one of the leadership positions, with Benn coming within a whisker of the deputy leadership of the party. With the Bennite insurgency coming so close to upsetting the right’s traditional stranglehold over the leadership, the Labour right no longer sought to accommodate senior left figures by giving them cabinet or shadow cabinet positions. Rather, in the words of Lord Mandelson, the right put these left MPs into a “sealed tomb”. For the next thirty years, the left would remain in this sealed tomb until Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership election in 2015.
In 2015, the Labour left finally re-emerged. But the Labour left’s status in the party has always been dependent on its relationship with the party’s right. When the Labour left burst from the tomb and captured the party leadership, it did not change the essential logic of its relationship with the Labour right. That is to say, it still thought of itself as being in a transactional relationship with the Labour right – only now the Labour right would be loyal to the leadership in exchange for concessions made, some on foreign policy, others on policing and so on.
Corbyn’s commitment to Palestine solidarity was ruthlessly used to undermine his leadership. The accusation increasingly levelled at supporters of the Palestinian people that they are either antisemitic or have a blind spot to antisemitism was re-deployed and supercharged against Corbyn.
Antisemitism has been a poison in British society and British politics for hundreds of years and the Labour Party has not resisted infection. The founder of the Labour Party, Keir Hardie expressed the antisemitic view that “modern imperialism is really run by half a dozen financial houses, many of them Jewish, to whom politics is a counter in the game of buying and selling securities.” One of the most revered figures of the Labour right, Ernest Bevin, complained in the aftermath of the Second World War about European Jews “pushing to the front of the queue” and, during the 1947 fuel crisis, of a black market being controlled by “the Israelites”. This strain of antisemitism even infected the antagonism between the right and the left wings in the party, with Hugh Dalton calling the left-wing chairman of the party, Harold Laski “an undersized semite” and his political views “Yideology”. In the 2005 General Election, Tony Blair’s campaign posters depicted his Jewish opponents Michael Howard and Oliver Letwin as flying pigs, which at the time received only the mildest of criticism or equivocation from the very Labour MPs who would infer that Jeremy Corbyn was either enabling antisemitism or was an antisemite himself.
When Jeremy Corbyn entered the Labour leadership contest, he was the first candidate who had an extensive record of both fighting antisemitism and campaigning for the Palestinian cause. His election as Labour leader should have been welcomed as a positive step forward in the fight against antisemitism and all forms of racism in Britain and internationally at a time when far-right leaders were coming to power. Over the next four and a half years, media coverage of antisemitism would largely or completely ignore the daily threats to Jewish communities by some of these leaders and the emboldened neo-nazi sphere they emboldened, and instead focused on antisemitism in the Labour Party.
Over the four and a half years of Corbyn’s leadership, there were two competing narratives of Labour and antisemitism: evidence-based and evidence-free. The first acknowledged that antisemitism existed in the Labour Party but was not institutional, relying on evidence from many reputable organisations including the Institute for Jewish Policy Research and establishment bodies like the Home Affairs select committee. The other narrative was evidence-free. Routinely, the media would report allegations that mostly referred to offensive social media posts from a minuscule number of party members and supporters, followed by the assertions that ‘Jeremy Corbyn has a blind spot’, ‘the Labour leadership is not dealing with the problem’ and ‘Labour under Corbyn has created a haven for antisemites’. This narrative also included the creation of an odious binary between ‘mainstream Jews and non-mainstream Jews’, itself a long historical practice of antisemites.
This campaign was replete with the bizarre spectacles of life-long racists being brought into TV studios to be the moral arbiters on Labour’s antisemitism problem, with the media framing the issue as a problem unique to Labour.
Despite the protestations of his accusers, that their charge of antisemitism against Corbyn was not related to the defence of the Palestinian cause, the accusations against him mostly revolved around this issue. The accusations are too numerous to be dealt with in extensive detail here. Both Bad News for Labour, edited by Greg Philo and Antisemitsm and the Labour Party edited by Jamie Stern-Weiner extensively document the allegations of the past five years. Those not related to Israel ranged from Corbyn’s pronunciation of the name Epstein during a General Election to his attendance at a Passover seder with Jewdas, a group that Corbyn’s opponents then falsely accused of not really being Jewish or even of being antisemites, are not worth documenting in extensive detail because of their preposterousness. One would think, based on the hysterical blanket media coverage, that the Labour Party was bursting at the seams with anti-Semites.
Sadly the Corbyn project’s media outriders did not rebut these accusations. For example, on the BBC This Week program, the host, Andrew Neil asked Aaron Bastani “why is antisemitism endemic in the Labour Party?” Rather than say it was not, and then refer to the YouGov poll commissioned by the Campaign against Antisemitism group, one of the most hostile critics of Corbyn on this issue, that showed that antisemitism in the Labour Party had slightly fallen under Corbyn, Bastani conceded the point, and then proceeded to give a convoluted and unconvincing explanation related to a “digital culture bleeding into a mass membership party”. Another common talking point employed by both Corbyn’s accusers and some of his misguided supporters was that the Labour leadership had ‘failed to get a grip on the problem’. It is understandable why the accusers would overlook the deliberate foot-dragging of Labour HQ’s right-wing staff, it is less explicable why the supporters would. Moreover, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report demonstrates that when Corbyn replaced Ian McNichol, a general secretary who never reconciled himself to the Corbyn leadership, with Jenny Formby, a Corbyn supporter, the complaints procedure drastically improved. Yet this defence of the Corbyn leadership was not pushed by many with a platform on the Labour left.
Perhaps the starkest example of this readiness to accept the narrative that Labour had a serious antisemitism problem that was a manifestation of Corbyn’s critical attitude to Israel, was the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. The IHRA comes in two parts: a working definition and eleven examples – four of which are related to Israel and Zionism. The definition, in the words of retired Lord Justice Sir Stephen Sedley “fails the first test of any definition; it is indefinite”. The examples, according to leading human rights lawyers such as Stephen Sedley and Geoffrey Bindman, “may seriously chill political debate on Israel/Palestine’”. Corbyn was prepared to compromise by accepting the definition, seven of the eleven examples unamended and the four examples related to Israel/Palestine amended to protect free speech for pro-Palestinian activists. Perhaps that compromise could have worked if Corbyn’s allies had stood behind it. Instead, as documented in Owen Jones’ new book, his close allies John McDonnell and Andrew Fisher implored Corbyn to adopt the IHRA in full. Fisher is quoted in Jones’ book saying “it is f**king ridiculous to not adopt the IHRA when your party is accused of having an ‘antisemitism problem’”. That, in a nutshell, was the pitiful stance many senior leftists around the Corbyn project took on an issue that was being used to delegitimise pro-Palestinian activism and to destroy the Corbyn leadership.
Prominent left media voices and people in and around the leadership did not show solidarity with the group Jewish Voices for Labour (JVL) which was formed by a group of Jews who did not feel the anti-Corbyn Jewish Labour Movement represented their political views, nor did they think the problem of antisemitism was endemic or that the leadership had a complacent attitude to it. JVL were derided as ‘cranks’ and regarded as ‘part of the problem’ by some leading left media figures. Moreover, despite the extensive body of empirical evidence that refuted the claim that Labour had a mass, systemic problem with antisemitism, Corbyn’s media supporters did not consistently marshal this evidence to defend the leadership. Most of the members supportive of the Corbyn project took the position of JVL: not denying antisemitism existed in the Labour Party, but understanding that it had been exaggerated with the intention of undermining Corbyn’s leadership and silencing pro-Palestinian voices. They too were not defended, leading to demoralisation which undermined morale in the Corbyn project.
By December 2019, the public perception of Labour’s antisemitism problem was completely out of kilter with reality. A survey carried out by Survation in March 2019 found that participants thought 34% of Labour Party members had complaints of antisemitism made against them. In reality, the number of Labour Party members who had been the subject of antisemitism complaints – but not necessarily found guilty of antisemitism – amounted to less than one-tenth of one per cent. Two of the leading organisations that were responsible for creating this alternative narrative, the Campaign against Antisemitism and Jewish Labour Movement, sent dossiers of complaints to the EHRC which decided to launch an investigation into whether the Labour Party had complied with equalities laws when dealing with antisemitism complaints. The Labour Party’s governance and legal unit prepared an extensive 851-page submission to the EHRC which was leaked to the press and was not to be submitted to the EHRC despite it being the party’s defence of its record on fighting antisemitism within the party. Many suspect, correctly in my view, that the reason it was not going to be submitted – even before the leak – was down to factional manoeuvres.
When the report was finally published on the 29t October, and before Corbyn was suspended, the focus of the media was not on the recommendations of the report, but on whether Corbyn would be suspended. His response to the statement was nuanced, expressing strong condemnation of antisemitism – an evil which he has fought all his political life unlike some of his accusers in the PLP – and the evidence-based and factual claim that allegations of antisemitism levelled against the party’s members were exaggerated. His subsequent suspension for speaking the truth represented the deeply disturbing culmination of a witch-hunt which was always intent on claiming his political scalp. To his accusers, it does not matter that the public perception of a Labour Party with 1/3 of its members accused of antisemitism creates fear amongst British Jews that the party they historically supported and voted for, is now institutionally hostile towards them.
The left’s response to the suspension was typical of its traditional deference to the right of the party. It consisted mainly in online petitions and pitiful calls by leading figures like John McDonnell and Momentum founder Jon Lansman for diplomacy and calm. Left figures outside the party put up more resistance. This follows a familiar pattern of the last five years: nominal leaders of the Labour left urging capitulation to the right, and the left membership demanding firmer action and a refutation of the scurrilous accusations. Par for the course, the members supportive of Corbyn were patronised by Lansman on Twitter who dismissed them for their “war cries” and urged them to allow the SCG and senior left figures to negotiate a path back for Corbyn.
At the time of writing, Corbyn’s suspension from party membership has been lifted, but the parliamentary whip has not been restored. The reason given for the latter is that Corbyn has ‘undermined the fight against antisemitism’. This statement only makes sense in the alternative universe of Corbyn’s enemies. Yet it is a narrative that too many of his erstwhile allies have not refuted, and at times, bizarrely indulged under the doomed hope that this would allow Labour to ‘move on’ from the attacks on the left. But there will be no ‘moving on’ until the Labour left is encased back in the tomb, and the Palestinian movement is cowed into silence. The ‘victory lap’ senior figures on the left took after Corbyn’s suspension was lifted indicates that lessons have not been learned. A wave of statements from constituency Labour parties attacking the suspension of Corbyn from the whip points to a desire for resistance in the grassroots – but this has typically been squandered by Labour left leaders when it has emerged in the past.
The tradition of deference, calm and compromise must finally be broken if we are not to endlessly recycle the tragic history of the left in the Labour party. Socialists, whether in that party or outside of it must take seriously the nature and extent of the fight we are involved in, and recognise that no reconciliation with the right is either possible or desirable, and act accordingly.