15 November 2019

Voting Labour is not just a mistake, it’s morally unconscionable

By

This is a miserable election. The least bad outcome would be another hung parliament, which is sadly not an option that exists on the ballot paper. I don’t wish Britain to embark on either the economic and diplomatic harm of the Conservative plans for Brexit or the delusions of state socialism.

The Tory rhetoric of “getting Brexit done” is a dishonest euphemism for avoiding hard choices; no economic nirvana awaits by throwing up barriers to the cross-border movement of goods, capital and people, or deregulating labour and product markets. The Liberal Democrats’ appeal meanwhile is simultaneously frivolous, as if a damaging referendum vote can simply be wished away, and dismayingly sectarian, and it is coupled with the party’s customarily hazy grasp of policy areas where its activists aren’t really interested (defence, for example).

But my subject here is Labour, because it’s personal. For all its idiosyncrasies, faults and failings, the Labour Party has historical achievements to its credit. Trusting in this legacy, and holding to centre-left ideals, I’ve almost always voted for the party. Not this time. I’m heartbroken to conclude that a Labour vote in next month’s general election would, for me at least, be not only a mistake but a morally unconscionable act. Under Jeremy Corbyn’s titular leadership, the party has abandoned progressive values and the national interest. The party hierarchy has been taken over by people whose ideology is not merely misguided but malevolent. Intellectual honesty requires that I in turn abandon the instincts of tribalism and acknowledge what’s happened.

There’s a huge literature of how activists and pundits have moved from the idealism of the left to the purported pragmatism of the right. The greatest of these volumes is, to this day, Witness (1952) by Whittaker Chambers, an American Communist and Soviet spy who abandoned those allegiances and embraced Christianity and conservatism.

I’ve read these accounts and in several cases admire them but they don’t at all describe my own ideological trajectory, which (not that it’s a virtue, but it is a fact) has scarcely shifted an inch since I came of voting age in the 1980s. Though I deeply disagreed with such policies as unilateral nuclear disarmament, extensive nationalisation and import controls, I voted Labour even under Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock, never mind when the party was in a more electorally serious state under Tony Blair. Labour wasn’t then fit for government, but I didn’t feel there was a viable route to a moderate, centre-left government in Britain through the SDP-Liberal alliance so just hoped for the best.

On personal rather than party grounds, I even voted Labour in 2017 for an excellent constituency MP and public servant, Meg Hillier in Hackney South and Shoreditch. (It’s a tribute to her, and not to Corbyn, that she won almost 80 per cent of the vote, with a majority just shy of 38,000.) I did so because the party has a noble history, created by many fine people, that has advanced reform and internationalism rather than social engineering. It remains the case that Labour has many capable and moderate MPs who I’d wish to see returned to parliament. I don’t criticise them for remaining under Labour’s banner; I hope they’ll take the party back, but I’m not hopeful that they can. (I’ll single out Stella Creasy, an immensely effective parliamentarian who is facing a noxious campaign of personal attacks in her constituency from religious zealots.)

The Nato alliance, on which Britain’s security has rested for 70 years, was the brainchild of a Labour foreign secretary. The NHS is a broadly efficient and equitable provider of healthcare. The crucial turn in postwar economic policymaking from an unaccountable system of corporatism and inflationary public financing came not with the Thatcher government but with the chancellorship of Denis Healey in the 1970s. Labour governments have presided over social reforms that over half a century have made Britain a more tolerant and civilised society on such issues as capital punishment, censorship, race relations, abortion and gay rights.

Labour under Corbyn is not like this. It’s not hyperbole but the literal truth that senior lieutenants in his circle believe that the wrong side won the Cold War. The party’s equivocations over Brexit make a mockery of its claim to advance collective goals such as workers’ rights and environmental protection.  Corbyn’s own rhetoric on issues of immigration (he’s condemned the “wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions, particularly in the construction industry”) and free speech (he addressed a rally in 2006 protesting against publication of the famed Danish cartoons of the prophet Mohammed) is deeply illiberal. It’s weird that a man like this should be counted a progressive politician. He’s not only unfit to hold public office but is far to the right of where, for example, Roy Jenkins stood when he was Labour Home Secretary.

One reason above all, however, makes a Labour vote impossible for me. Perhaps I can give a little personal background. I was once on a panel with Corbyn many years ago when the moderator cited some ferociously anti-Semitic invective by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then president of Iran and an overt Holocaust denier. Corbyn was directly in my line of sight and he showed not a flicker of emotion. In responding, he made no mention of these inflammatory remarks but simply carried on with his castigation of the supposed imperialist designs of the United States and its allies on the region. I realised at that moment that Corbyn lacked the visceral revulsion for anti-Semitism that he ought to possess. I attributed it to an incomprehensible lack of imagination.

That, I now believe, was an unduly charitable interpretation of his strangely bloodless response. Polling evidence suggests that the overwhelming majority of British Jews (more than 85%) believe that Corbyn is anti-Semitic. That’s a view held by Labour MPs who’ve watched him closely, notably Margaret Hodge. And it’s my view too.

My paternal family has been in this country for more than 200 years. They moved from Strelitz in Germany to Liverpool, where they settled – one brother was a jeweller and the other was a rabbi. In generations since, the extended family became completely assimilated. I’ve always counted myself a friend, but not a part, of Anglo-Jewry (my late mother, Anthea Bell, who translated seminal Jewish authors such as Kafka and Freud, was not herself Jewish). Yet I feel not just dismay but revulsion at how common the tropes of anti-Semitism have become on the left – the conspiracy theories, the insults, and the way that the Israel-Palestinian conflict is interpreted not as a conflict of competing and legitimate national claims but as a saga of malign oppression by sinister forces.

The outcome is not merely a few cases of bad behaviour but a civic culture in which British Jews feel their apprehensions are rubbished and in which anti-Semitism is normalised. It’s not very long ago (you need only read the novels of Agatha Christie, GK Chesterton or John Buchan for examples) that a sort of drawing-room anti-Semitism permeated polite society, where Jews were conceived as somehow representative of “otherness”. You can see an echo of this in Corbyn’s notorious remark about pro-Israel protestors who lacked a sense of “English irony”. I fear that the damage Corbyn’s Labour has inflicted on community relations will be enduring and hard to undo. It is tragic and deplorable, and I will have no part any longer in acquiescing in so debased a discourse.

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Oliver Kamm writes for the Times