Jeremy Corbyn and the Ghosts of 1935

Labour’s crushing defeat in last Thursday’s election is the party’s worst performance since 1935. It is undoubtedly an ideological watershed, a political upheaval on a par with the 1945 Labour victory of the reforming post-war party under Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 victory marking the ascendency of hard-nosed Conservatives.

Commentators were forced to consult the history books to seek comparisons and context. Boris Johnson’s Conservatives won constituencies that have been solidly Labour for generations. To take just one example: Blyth Valley, a former mining area in the northeast, swung ten percent away from Labour to elect its first Conservative representative since the constituency was created in 1950.

Undoubtedly one major factor was Labour’s ambivalence on Brexit, despite the public’s desire for clarity and an end to uncertainly – and this was certainly the Labour party line in post-election interviews.

But a significant and widely cited poll challenges this: for 43 percent of the electorate, Corbyn’s leadership was their main reason not to vote Labour with Brexit trailing at 17 percent, and Labour’s economic policies at 12 percent.

Even deep within Labour’s “red wall” of what were believed to be eternally loyal constituencies, Corbyn was widely regarded as unsuitable to be prime minister. What partly contributed to that belief was the perception that he was both unwilling and incapable of resolving the party’s entanglement with anti-Semitism

The Jewish community itself has fought an astute campaign against the spreading racism on the Left, fuelled by Jeremy Corbyn‘s political baggage over the last 40 years.

Unearthing his embarrassing utterances in the past has become a veritable cottage industry for bloggers and pundits – and there was certainly an unending supply. Some of the comments and assertions were indeed crude at times, flavored by propaganda, but then again, such campaigns are never aimed at providing intellectual satisfaction.

For British Jews on the Left who don’t disavow any attachment to Israel (according to surveys, at least 90 percent of the community identify at some level with Israel), this is a bittersweet moment – jubilation that the hostile Corbyn will go, but anguish that Labour’s failure will pull the poor and the voiceless deeper into the pit of hopelessness. It is not an occasion for celebration.

The struggle within Labour has been apparent ever since 2010, when the hapless Ed Miliband unexpectedly triumphed with powerful trade union support over his brother, David. A change in voting rules for the leadership in 2013 produced the accidental election of Corbyn, a lacklustre and uncharismatic figure on the far Left whom few took seriously.

Once ensconced in the leader’s chair, Corbyn constructed his inner circle from trusted ideological associates of many years standing. Several had been members of one faction of the Communist party, Straight Left, who understood that their own party was impotent politically, and that it was imperative to turn Labour into a true party of the working class.

Within the Communist party, they were accused by their opponents of ‘Labourphilia’ – obsessed with breaching the walls of the Labour party, control it and thereby overcome the isolationism of the Communist party. Corbyn had no reservations about working with them, and began to write regularly in the Communist daily, the Morning Star.

On the issue of Israel-Palestine, their politics were colored by contorted ideological gymnastics. One the one hand, the Soviet Union had recognized Israel in 1948. Following Stalin’s lead, Corbyn’s inner circle could support a two-state solution – but also bitterly oppose Zionism as “a racist endeavour.”

Thus Corbynistas could support ‘a state of Israel’, but not specifically a Zionist one, and such a state did not necessarily have to have a Jewish majority. Many identified with the rejectionist wing of the PLO and condemned the Oslo Accords in 1993. No distinction was made between Palestinian nationalists and Palestinian Islamists.

What mattered was Palestinian resistance to Israel and not the political coloring of those who resisted – even if they were reactionary and anti-Semitic. And many easily trod the path from anti-Zionism to anti-Semitism as a result of Corbyn’s silence, inaction and lack of awareness.

Corbyn and his camp, both for decades before this election and during the 2019 campaign itself, constantly sought out peripheral anti-Zionist Jews as ideological bedfellows rather than engaging with the vast majority of Jewish organisations and individuals who would not renounce Zionism. This was an ironic reversal of the Corbyn Labour party’s slogan, “For the Many and not the Few.”

The 2019 election decimated the center-Right and the center-Left. The Conservative party has since its inception 300 years ago been ruthless in ensuring its survival. Hence its turn to flag-waving populism today in the Brexit debate, its promotion of silver-tongued Boris Johnson and its repeated exploitative raising of the spectre of Jews leaving the UK due to Labour anti-Semitism.

The irony and fragility of the Conservatives’ attack line is perhaps most easily exposed by Johnson’s 2004 novel, “Seventy Two Virgins,” revealed some time-honored anti-Jewish tropes to add to his back catalogue of disparaging comments about people of color and Muslims.

The tidal wave of Conservative support, aided by the Labour leader’s highly negative image, meant those parliamentarians and public figures who left both main parties this year in the hope of establishing a strong centrist political force have been swept away. They included Jewish MPs such as Luciana Berger, who was hounded out of Labour due to anti-Semitism, and those who were unable to stomach the all-pervading atmosphere of intimidation in the party.

Labour today has been virtually stripped of its Jewish voices; 50 years ago, Jews were disproportionately represented among its ranks. In Harold Wilson’s Labour party of 1974, there were 35 Jewish MPs. Today, there is less than a handful. As Dame Margaret Hodge noted on election night: “A year ago I was one of four strong, hardworking Jewish women serving in the Labour Party as MPs,” who confronted the party over anti-Semitism. Today, she said, “I’m the last one standing.” 

For many, there has always been an inevitability that Labour would go down to a catastrophic defeat – a necessity in order to lance the boil of self-delusion. Even so, those trapped in the Corbynista far Left bubble have never envisaged that defeat could simply be attributed to a completely misplaced understanding of the needs of ordinary working people.

The Corbynistas are already looking for explanations for Labour’s implosion, but ideology is never one of them. Ken Livingstone has already raised ‘the Jewish factor’ as an ingredient in Labour’s downfall. Other, saner voices may start wondering what was gained by allowing anti-Semitism to fester and then attacking the Jewish Left, and more broadly the Jewish community, for having the temerity to call it out.

Corbyn in retirement will no doubt be reinvented as a tragic hero who tried to overcome reactionary forces without success. However, a much better analogy is with George Lansbury, the Labour leader responsible for the even worse electoral disaster of 1935.

Lansbury, who like Corbyn accidentally became party leader, resigned just a few weeks before the election, when the party conference rejected his appeal to disarmament in the face of rising fascism. A Christian pacifist who had met Hitler, Lansbury believed that reasonable debate would produce solutions to global strife. Lansbury left a weakened party to face an electorate that wanted answers to unemployment, poverty, inequality and the rise of the fascist right.

This 2019 election result marks the end of the beginning of the Brexit debate. Johnson’s majority may allow him to move to the center ground and a softer Brexit with closer ties to Europe.

Labour, on the other hand, now has to reinvent itself. It has to work out how to reconnect to what was always its most solid support base – the Labour heartlands that it has lost – and also to the Jews it has alienated. The road back will be long and tortuous.  

Ha’aretz 15 December 2019

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