29 October 2020

After today’s report, Starmer should expel Jeremy Corbyn from the Labour Party

By

The Labour Party has committed unlawful acts of harassment and discrimination. It breached equality legislation through the acts of its agents. These acts included the use of antisemitic tropes and suggesting that complaints of anti-Semitism were smears. 

This is not merely my opinion. These are conclusions of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), the non-departmental public watchdog, in its report today into the party’s handling of anti-Semitism complaints. 

For a party of the constitutional left, committed to an open society and to combating racism, these findings could scarcely be bleaker or more scandalous. Labour has deep historic roots in Anglo-Jewry and strong links with Labour Zionism. Its past leaders have included such staunch supporters of Israel as Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Wilson, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

The ECHR’s dismal litany of Labour failings speaks for itself. The party broke the law by politically interfering in anti-Semitism complaints, failing to give adequate training to those conducting the investigations, and harassing those who complained. Underlying the party’s failures, however, is a question that is beyond the ECHR’s remit, and that needs to be answered by Labour’s leadership. How could it possibly have happened? After all, no serious commentator, of any political stripe, would have accused Labour of such failings before 2015. 

Well, I know the answer: Jeremy Corbyn and his politics. Let me illustrate why, and count the ways. 

The EHRC report is explicit about Corbyn’s personal responsibility for Labour’s anti-Semitism. Its investigation found 23 instances of political interference by his office into the complaints. But the failure is not only personal. It’s political. There is a historic strain of anti-Semitism in left-wing politics, against which Labour has almost always inoculated itself. But some parts of the left, especially though not uniquely on the far left, are susceptible to fantastical notions that Jews wield unaccountable political and economic power. And this wellspring of prejudice is amply represented not only among Corbyn’s comrades but in his own politics.

When Corbyn emerged as the unlikely frontrunner for the Labour leadership in 2015, newspapers and broadcasters unsurprisingly began looking into a political record that, in 32 years as an obscure backbencher, he’d made no attempt to conceal. It embraced a history of alliances with unabashed anti-Semites, such as a Holocaust denier called Paul Eisen and a vicar, Stephen Sizer, who’d spread baseless conspiracy theories about 9/11.

Corbyn must at last have realised that he was vulnerable on the issue and approached the Jewish Chronicle, Britain’s biggest Jewish newspaper, to offer an interview. What his motivations were I cannot say, but I assume he wished to utter warm words about community relations without giving specifics about his own record. In any event, the interview never took place. The JC’s editor, Stephen Pollard, asked me to do the interview. On being told that I’d be the one asking the questions, Corbyn pulled out.

I don’t flatter myself that a politician must necessarily wish to be interviewed by me, but I do believe it would have been in Corbyn’s interest to go ahead. Above all, I would have been able to tell him that he would certainly consign the party to obloquy on this issue unless he showed genuine contrition. I know his politics and inspiration. They include indigenous strains of left-wing anti-Semitism, as evinced in the work of the Edwardian economist JA Hobson. My Times colleague Daniel Finkelstein revealed that Corbyn wrote a foreword to a new edition of Hobson’s Imperialism (1902), apparently without noticing the anti-Semitic bits. There is no serious historical dispute that Hobson considered Jews to be an obstacle to social progress. In his book The War in South Africa: Its Causes and Effects (1900), he explicitly blames Britain’s participation in the Boer War on the nefarious influence of a cabal of Jews. 

Corbyn’s failure to recognise anti-Semitism is now notorious, from such incidents as his defence of an infamous mural depicting hook-nosed Jewish financiers and his failure to root out rank bigotry from his allies in the party. But it’s worse even than a misplaced anti-capitalism. His long hostility to Zionism is not, as his apologists maintain, a mere criticism of policies of Israeli governments: it rests on the notion that the Jewish national cause is somehow an alien force. His defence of comments made in 2013, when he said that a group of pro-Israel protesters had “no sense of English irony”, was that he had been criticising Zionism as a political project rather than making a slur against Jews. He evidently didn’t realise that his insinuation remains ugly. 

For longstanding Labour voters like me, this was all too much. I voted Labour under Michael Foot, let alone Blair and Brown. I voted for a moderate, pro-European Labour MP even in 2017. But Corbyn’s politics are not mine, and not Labour’s, and I withheld my vote in 2019. 

Corbyn’s response to the EHRC report today is a model of obtuseness and gracelessness. He does not accept the report, claiming it is politically motivated. He was, throughout his titular leadership, patently intellectually not up to the job of being a potential prime minister.

He has demonstrated today that he does not merit even a membership card for a democratic and anti-racist party. Labour has far to go, under a capable and decent new leader, in restoring its moral authority let alone winning public support. He has done the right thing by suspending Corbyn from the party: now he should go a step further, expel Corbyn from membership and purge all who were associated with his calamitous tenure.

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Oliver Kamm is a columnist and leader writer for The Times.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.