17 August 2018

Jeremy Corbyn and the moral debasement of British politics


Believe me, it would be lovely to move on from the grim issue of Jeremy Corbyn and his relationship, or lack thereof, with Britain’s Jews. Lovelier still, of course, if this had never been an issue that needed to be addressed. Prevention is better than cure but once Corbyn was elected leader of the people’s party this storm became something close to inevitable. It stems, after all, from the man himself.

But the Labour leadership and its allies won’t allow that. They seem determined to prolong the agony of Labour’s glorious summer festival of anti-Semitism. The latest to enter the fray is Len McCluskey, Britain’s most influential and sinister trade union boss. According to McCluskey, the problem is that all these uppity Jews just won’t take yes for an answer.

McCluskey is “at a loss to understand the motives of the leadership of the Jewish community” who, despite raising what even McCluskey deems “entirely proper concerns”, will not now do the decent thing and shut-up and cease embarrassing and causing trouble for Jeremy. I must say, this did leave me to wonder if McCluskey really believe these concerns are actually “entirely proper”.

The Jews should know their place. It is time for them to “abandon their truculent hostility”. They should “engage in dialogue and dial down the rhetoric” otherwise they risk entrenching the “political estrangement between them and the Labour party”.

Well, would you look at that. McCluskey reveals a deep, and to my mind disturbing, aspect of the hard-left worldview: because Jeremy is a saintly man — who has, after all, moved heaven and earth and everything else to meet the truculent Jews half way — and because the goodness of his intentions for the country are beyond dispute, no criticism of him can be an honest criticism. It must instead be part of someone else’s agenda; there is always an ulterior motive. Conspiracy abounds and must always be rooted out. In this instance, it is apparently those Labour MPs who are pondering the possibility of setting up a new party.

Doubtless some people are happy to exploit Corbyn’s difficulties for their own ends. But it takes quite some chutzpah to suggest this must be true of everyone. The substance of the complaints made against Corbyn and his pals matters vastly more than the identity of the complainers.

Meanwhile, loyalist Corbynistas look at the polls and then chuckle when, for now at least, those polls suggest Labour’s support is remaining firm. See all these smears? A complete waste of time. Typically — for they are not, as a rule, a supple-minded group — they fail to note that, far from undermining their criticism of the complainers this actually bolsters the validity of the complaints made against Corbyn: they are not necessarily made for immediate political advantage. They are about something more important than that. They are about decency in public life.

Many people who deplore Corbyn’s views on the future of the railways and much else besides know, deep within themselves, that however misguided Corbyn’s policy on transport or taxation or just about anything else might be these are still disagreements of a familiar and ordinary kind. Politics as normal. Sometimes the wrong team wins and gets the chance to do its thing. Those are the rules of the game and there is no advantage in whining about them. Prime minister Corbyn has certain prerogatives.

But this is different. This is a disagreement on a higher plane. It is a question of morality. That sounds a big and old-fashioned word but it’s the appropriate term for this issue.

Frankly I don’t much care whether anyone is out to get Corbyn. Not when he’s done so much to show he deserves to be got. I never much cared for Ed Miliband and I don’t admire the cut of Chuka Umunna’s jib nearly as much as he does but whatever disagreements I might have had with them, I don’t recall ever thinking them revolting. And these are but minor stars in the Labour constellation when compared to Attlee, Blair, Healey, Crossman, Castle, Brown and so many others. Serious people whose seriousness was rarely in doubt. Changed times, comrades.

John McDonnell, helpfully, demonstrated as much. According to the shadow chancellor, “For anybody to use the issue of anti-Semitism as a cover for launching a new political party they had been planning for nearly two years would rightly be seen as an act of appalling cynicism, basely exploiting a genuine concern that people of goodwill are working hard to address”.

Note, please, how on one level McDonnell, like McCluskey, acknowledges that the concerns are “genuine” before implying that because people “of goodwill” are working to address them they should now be put aside. Because, look, they are also being used to undermine the leadership and that means that they cannot really be genuine concerns after all.

They might look genuine to you but that’s because you don’t have a sniffer’s nose for conspiracy.

What is true does not matter. Call it a “smear” and you can carry on as though nothing had happened. Shoot the messenger and bin the message. Truly, in this respect Corbynism is Trumpism. If you think this leads anywhere good you should rethink everything you presently think about politics.

But, again, I don’t really care if anyone changes their mind about Jeremy Corbyn because he was happy to attend a wreath-laying ceremony at the graves of some of the leaders of Black September. I do care, however, that those who don’t change their mind about him in the light of this know that other people may judge them accordingly. Enough is enough.

Throughout this episode Corbyn has, plainly, publicly, and repeatedly, told untruth after untruth about his involvement. That other politicians are also sometimes only on nodding terms with veracity is both deplorable and not the issue here. You wouldn’t allow a six year-old to get away with “I was present but not involved” so why should the leader of her majesty’s loyal opposition be held to a standard lower than that you’d demand from primary school pupils?

Observe how this works, however. First the allegations are a vile lie. When that line cannot hold, they are admitted to be kinda true but only sort of. When the truth comes out it must be ignored because the project demands it. The Labour leadership admits the essence of the charges against it and then smirks: so what? How naive you are to think this matters. Besides, who is really going to believe it? The project marches on, comrades. Four wreaths good; two wreaths bad.

Britain’s Jews are told their complaints are justified — “entirely proper” in McCluskey’s words — and then told to drop them and “grasp the hand extended towards them”. There is something to see here and then, miraculously, there is not. A problem denied is a problem solved.

In the end, however, this is not about the definition of anti-Semitism accepted by the Labour party. It is about something rather greater than that. It is about whether Jeremy Corbyn can be trusted. It is not just about the result of Labour’s internal arguments, it is about the reasoning used to get to that result.

As in a mathematics paper, you must show your working to demonstrate you reached the right answer for the right reasons. The suspicion must be that Labour might fluke upon the right result but for all the wrong reasons. In a better climate, political expediency won’t cut it any more.

Because when you boil it all down it really does become quite simple. You can be a friend to British Jews or you can be a friend to Black September. It is very difficult to see how you can really be both.

Alex Massie is a political commentator.