5 September 2018

A petty partisan like Corbyn cannot fix Labour anti-Semitism problem

By Tom Harris

Well, it was a difficult summer for Jeremy Corbyn and the party he leads. But now, at last, it’s all over. The decision by Labour’s ruling body, the National Executive Committee (NEC) finally, after months of resistance, to adopt the entirety of the IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism, draws a line under an undignified and damaging interlude. Now the party can unite and march forward to government with common purpose.

Well, that’s one version of reality. The other version, is that yesterday’s decision merely marks the end of round one. Or ten, depending on when you started keeping count.

There are two unavoidable reasons that yesterday will not and cannot draw that much sought after line underneath the row on Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis. The first is that, with a cynical inevitability that’s not even funny any more, the NEC added its own caveat to the IHRA definition today. Well, of course it did.

The additional text was intended to reassure Corbyn’s supporters, for whom criticism of Israel is the only thing that gets them out of bed in the afternoon, that nothing in the definition or the accompanying examples prevents criticism of Israel or impinges on the rights of the Palestinians.

Such a move will raise an eyebrow or two, or even a few objections, in the Jewish community, who were not consulted on this addition. It reinforces the impression, given repeatedly by the party in recent months, that it knows better than Jews what anti-Semitism is and what needs to be done to combat it. And it raises the suspicion that this caveat has been inserted in order to protect certain individuals from disciplinary procedure for stuff they’ve already said.

And the second reason? Why, Jeremy Corbyn, of course.

The Labour leader suffered a setback in yesterday’s wranglings when he was forced to withdraw a proposal to protect from disciplinary action those who claim that Israel itself is “a racist endeavour”. He did not withdraw this proposal because he was convinced it was wrong-headed or foolish; he withdrew it because he realised he didn’t have the votes.

This cack-handed, clumsy attempt at political manoeuvring has at least one thing going for it: it is an accurate reflection of Corbyn’s true and sincere beliefs.

It is also a true reflection of his complete inability to “do politics”; he’s spent so long attending meetings exclusively with people who agree with him that he’s never developed the basic political skills that come second nature to those who have navigated the broad range of Labour organisations, from party and trade union branches to General Management Committees to the NEC.

But it is the substance of his failed proposal that is important here, more important than Corbyn’s bizarre lack of understanding that its acceptance would have turbo-boosted the anti-Semitism row through to beyond the end of the conference season.

If Corbyn wishes to protect those who say that the very existence of Israel is a big racist insult on the map of the Middle East, then he has revealed himself, not as a trusted statesman, willing to talk to both sides, to seek consensus and compromise between Israeli and Palestinian, but as a partisan in the decades-long dispute.

This is not a new revelation and in some ways, there’s little wrong with supporting one side more than the other; most of us do. But by taking such a partial position, without reference to the many Jewish groups and leaders who have lost faith in Labour precisely because of this sort of language, Corbyn reveals himself to be anything but on the side of British Jews.

Not because he thinks it should be acceptable to describe the establishment of Israel as racist endeavour – some Jewish people probably agree with him – but because he doesn’t care how this kind of language makes British Jews feel. Their views, so forcefully represented by three Jewish newspapers over the summer and by an unprecedented united front of Rabbis, were not important enough to be sought before today’s meeting.

All of this – the caveat, the political amateurism, the failed attempt to protect Israel’s critics – has proved that the whole absurd exercise by the NEC in debating and finally (but not quite) accepting the IHRA definition was never intended to be anything other than a public relations exercise. A braver leader could have shaped today as a heartfelt apology, a humble acceptance that the party had got it wrong, that it had failed the Jewish community and that it was sorry, that it would try harder in future.

But all that would have been unacceptable to the Israel haters/Corbyn lovers demonstrating outside Labour’s headquarters. So instead, all we got from Corbyn was a petty and petulant “Well? Happy now…?”

No, Jeremy. No one is.

Tom Harris is a former Labour MP and the author of 'Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party'.