25 April 2018

Jeremy Corbyn and the closing of the Labour mind


On Sunday, during an appearance on the Andrew Marr Show, Emily Thornberry made one of the year’s more remarkable political admissions. She was, she said, “fed up” with having to confront and deal with anti-Semitic views within the Labour movement. “I’m fed up with meeting people on the street as well. […] People feel it’s fine to come up and talk to you in the most appalling terms, quite frankly.” She continued, “I spoke to somebody last weekend and I was really shocked to suddenly see the way the conversation turned and she thought she was supportive of Labour and she thought she was supporting of me and I had to make it clear that actually that was not acceptable.”

I don’t blame Thornberry for this. But it remains notable, hair-raisingly so in fact, that the shadow foreign secretary cannot walk the streets of London without being accosted by anti-Semites who assume she is entirely on board with their views. This is not normal. No, not even by the standards of Hogarthian grotesqueness we have come to associate with British politics in 2018.

On Wednesday, as if to confirm that the abnormal is the new normal, 40 Labour MPs and peers formed a protective cordon around their colleague Ruth Smeeth as they accompanied her to a disciplinary hearing for Marc Wadsworth, the Labour activist accused of berating Smeeth at the launch of Shami Chakrabati’s now infamous report into anti-Semitism within the Labour party.

This report, it might be remembered, suggested the problem, such as it may be, had been made to seem worse than it really is. That was nearly two years ago. Smeeth’s colleagues said they felt she needed this support because the party could not guarantee her security and because, remarkably, groups of counter-protesters were on hand to berate her for, we must presume, aiding and abetting in the so-called “witch-hunt” that has, according to some, been deliberately created to destabilise Corbyn’s leadership.

Since the publication of Chakrabati’s report, however, the extent of anti-Semitic prejudice within the Labour party has become clear. So much so, in fact, that even the leadership concedes it is a real and troublesome issue. While deploring “all forms” of racism, even Jeremy Corbyn now concedes Labour has a problem with anti-Semitism. If this is, as his more devoted supporters insist, a “smear” against Jeremy and all he stands for then it is one with which the Labour leader himself concurs.

Writing in the Evening Standard this week, Corbyn allowed that “We have not done enough fully to get to grips with the problem, and for that the Jewish community and our own Jewish members deserve an apology.” As smears go, then, this one is true. “My party and I are sorry for the hurt and distress caused”.

But not sorry enough, frankly, to do very much about it. Corbyn’s meeting on Tuesday with representatives of Britain’s Jewish community cannot be said to have gone well. The Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council, the two bodies representing most of mainstream British Judaism, left the meeting frustrated by the lack of progress. Or, rather, they were dismayed by Corbyn’s insistence that “process” issues effectively tied his hands.

As one source present told the Jewish Chronicle, “Every time you ask him to do something he finds an excuse and relies on process”. The Labour party’s procedures must be followed, Corbyn insists. He is only the leader and if his supporters hold repellent views that’s not something for which he can be blamed. Equally, if his colleague Chris Williamson wishes to share platforms with disgraced Labour figures such as Jackie Walker — currently suspended from the party — then that is nothing to do with Corbyn and it would be unreasonable to expect him to express his disapproval. He is only a man, after all, standing in front of a country asking it to let him lead it.

It is by now obvious, I think, that Corbyn’s people do not accept the validity of the complaints made against his leadership. Ground may be conceded in terms of fine words in newspaper articles, but actual action is proving much more elusive. That is, in the end, a choice.

To an outsider unversed in the intricate school of loyalties at the upper echelons of the Labour party it all looks as extraordinary as it is dispiriting. There comes a point at which the only plausible answer to the question “Why can’t they see it?” is “Because they choose not to.”

It is all evidently a disagreeable distraction from the real issues of the day, whipped up by disgruntled Labour MPs who have never liked Corbyn and encouraged by a compliant — and biased — media. It is not Jeremy’s fault that Labour has become a cold house for British Jews. He is only the leader of the Labour party.

And yet at some point plausible deniability exhausts itself. The sheer number of incidents becomes overwhelming. Some of this may be attributed to media attention uncovering the extent to which anti-Semitic views have always been present — and, indeed, are more prevalent than any decent person can be comfortable with — amongst the general population. That is a chilling thought in itself. Worse still, though, is a Labour leadership that when confronted by the problem refuses to do anything substantive about it even after the leadership has accepted the reality, and the extent, of the problem. As profiles in political courage go, this one lacks a certain something.

Even Corbyn accepts this, allowing that pro-Palestinian Labour supporters “can stray into anti-Semitic views” as though this was merely an unfortunate misunderstanding during which good Labour people inadvertently wander into the thickets of prejudice during an afternoon stroll in the park: “How did we get here?” “No idea, comrade, but isn’t it nice?”

You need not be any kind of witch-finder general to notice, though, that even when he accepts the problem, Corbyn denies the agency of the people he accepts are “straying” into anti-Semitic prejudice. The root causes doubtless lie elsewhere and if some people go too far they are, you know, motivated by good intentions. Their hearts are in the right place and, this being so, they can never really, truly, be impure. Even when they are guilty they are, in a broader sense, innocent.

This reflects a certain closing of the Labour mind. Because Labour people are good people and because Corbyn’s people are even better people, it follows that there must be something suspect about those making accusations against them. At best it is a distraction, more probably it reflects a deliberate attempt — a conspiracy, no less — to damage the best Labour leader the party has ever enjoyed. As such, the problem lies with those who perceive a problem.

Life would, it is true, be easier if Labour did not have to deal with this and this, you feel, is the real message sent by the party leadership. It is all very aggravating and unfair and not at all Jeremy’s fault. He does not set the tone; his leadership is, uniquely, inspirational and disavowable. You can all but hear him asking, “Do we really have to go through with this, Seumas?” To which the answer, naturally, is “Yes, but it is only for show, you know”.

Alex Massie is a political commentator.