So many and unusual are the ways in which the anti-Semitic disease has contorted the modern Labour party that I probably shouldn’t be surprised. Nevertheless, it still feels odd to learn that, in the eyes of the party, I – a gentile from Wolverhampton – can offer a perspective about anti-Semitism that carries the same weight as 68 leading rabbis, or indeed any one of Britain’s 270,000 Jews.
For once the semantic pin-dancing is stripped away, Labour’s decision to reject the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism boils down to this. Jews, Labour seems to think, should no longer be in control of their own experience of racism.
Now, perhaps there is a point to be made about the surrender of viewpoint legitimacy to identity. Perhaps too there is a debate to be had about where a liberal society draws its lines on questions of free speech and offence. But please: this is the Labour Party! Such considerations have long been subordinated to a demonstration of solidarity with marginalised communities. Nor is that wrong either – this is an important part of British multiculturalism. Yes, we want free speech, but whether its Holocaust denial or depicting the Prophet, if a minority tells us something deeply offends them, by and large we listen.
But now Labour, in distinction to all other minorities, has placed Jews outside of this tradition. It is a momentous moment for party, country and of course the blameless Jewish community. Yet without denying the moral tragedy aspect to this, vulgar political questions must also be asked about how this came to pass.
Not in an ideological sense – the way that anti-imperialist and anti-Israel currents have brought racism into the Labour river is well documented.
Rather, that rejecting the IHRA definition was clearly a deliberate political act – a wilful decision to take the road of most resistance. Indeed, that a party with a well-known and – one hopes – politically damaging anti-Semitism problem should choose to ignore a legal definition accepted by almost the entirety of the Jewish community seems such an obvious act of self-harm that is difficult to resist conspiratorial thinking.
So yes, once more – and, given the history of anti-Semitism, with bitter irony – Corbyn has made conspiracy theorists of us all. But given the intention and sheer effort that Labour’s stance has taken it is sadly worth exploring what on earth he and his fellow travellers thought they stood to gain.
One theory is that this is about protecting Corbyn politically and even legally from his own political history. But this hypothesis seems at best half-baked. Yes, Corbyn seems blind to spotting anti-Semitism and yes, curiously content in the company of racists. But there is still scant evidence of him having legally violated the IHRA code himself. And while this hardly inures himself from political damage, neither did associations with the likes of Hezbollah stop him amassing some 13 million votes at last year’s general election.
But maybe that is just it? Maybe, Corbyn feels so politically untouchable he simply sees no reason to disavow any of his loyalists, irrespective of how low they sink? There is surely some truth to this — I have written before about how Corbyn views the Stop the War left as a crucial vanguard for his online political strategy.
But typically, on issues such as Russia, Labour also deploys a deliberate “constructive ambiguity” to appeal to such ideologues whilst still keeping the rest of the party on board. This has not happened here – Corbyn is not openly courting his extreme supporters, if anything he is in hiding. That shows something else could be afoot and it is, if anything, even darker.
The summer is when Labour usually carries out its internal elections. And with a “democracy review” of selection processes due to report this year, it is a particularly crucial set of NEC elections.
The prize for the left is enduring control of the party. But deprived, for the first time during Corbyn’s tenure, of a leadership challenge or general election, a rallying point for the faithful has required a little more contrivance. Therefore, the idea that the Labour leadership may have deliberately ignored the IHRA definition – that is to say, actively courted a racist controversy – for factional purposes, must be seriously considered. Because not only does the anti-Semitism debate whip up a factional frenzy, it is also the surest way of pushing moderate members out the party altogether.
On Tuesday, a Jewish “leftist” posted a heart-breaking Tweet about how she felt “defeated” enough to leave the party. But having also “campaigned for Labour for years” perhaps that’s precisely the point: the purer the cult, the more the new left controls the party. And perhaps this, more even than Labour’s principles of anti-racism, is what Corbyn currently cares about.