Labour campaigners in Finchley. The party went down to a heavy defeat. Photo: Getty Images
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Labour's relationship with Britain's Jews is at a low ebb. Can it be rebuilt?

Labour's bond with the Jewish community is at breaking point. What's to be done about it?

Now is not a good time to be in my particular demographic. Actually for ‘Labour-supporting Jewish Zionist trade unionists’, it could be described as a pulsating silent scream of the soul.

Before the general election, we had to contend with the growth of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions Movement through the trade union movement, that threatens the viability of the Jewish community in this country.

Now we have to deal with Labour’s relationship having gone so disastrously wrong with the community, that a bank of three marginal seats with high Jewish populations in allegedly pro-Miliband London, returned comfortable Conservative majorities.

Let’s start with the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement of Israel. BDS is fired by a belief that Israel is unjustifiably oppressing the Palestinians, and applying the BDS treatment to Israel will help change its behaviour.

Its stronghold is in the trade union movement, where it is currently the official policy of Unite, Unison and GMB. It has escalated over the years. I first heard of it being directed to products made in the West Bank, then to shops that stocked products in the West Bank, and then to Israeli academics and cultural institutions that took money from the Israeli government.

There are Jews who see no conflict between their Jewish identity and supporting BDS. But it is also true that BDS, if left unchecked, may destroy Jewish communal life in this country. The reason is simple: Maths. There are around 300,000 Jews in this country. Meanwhile six out of the 18 million Jews worldwide live in Israel. Our institutions almost by necessity revolve round it. Our kosher products are made there, our Rabbis are trained there, our Hebrew textbooks are printed there.

Many of us have mothers, fathers, siblings and children there. For many families BDS makes it a moral offense to take a grandchild to see their grandparent. For all of those items and activities to be liable to pickets is intolerable. Many who wish to live a full Jewish communal life – or more crucially help organise one – at some point will decide that it’s not worth the hassle of living in a country where BDS is in full swing. The fact that it is the Left that has incubated it, is even more tortuous for those who share my faith and my political values. Although we are some way off that point of no return, BDS has been continually strengthening in the UK since it was launched, and there is no reason to suppose it will not continue to do so.

Meanwhile, as a Labour adherent, the pain of election night was all too obvious. What was particularly difficult was watching the Tory vote in three “Jewish” seats push near or go past half –Hendon 49 per cent (previous Tory majority: 106), Finchley and Golders Green: 51 per cent, Harrow East: 50 per cent.

Anecdotal evidence – and after the poll fiasco, it’s as good as any – from campaigners tell me that the effect of the Ed Miliband leadership on our Jewish vote has been disastrous. As Luke Akehurst pointed out on LabourList, harsh criticism of Israel over the Gaza war and pushing for Palestinian statehood in the Commons has come to hurt Labour. Those vying for the Labour candidacy for mayor have certainly noticed.

Things look like they aren’t going to get any better. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Natenyahu has announced arguably the most right wing government in Israel’s history. Bibi has appointed as Justice Minister a politician who has risen to power partly by launching broadsides against the country’s Supreme Court – one of the few institutions that is holding back Israel’s slide from democracy, and that stands up for Palestinian land rights. It’s hard to see how this does anything other than get worse.

However there is a possible way out. But, like a lot concerning Labour politics at the moment, it requires a radical rethink. It should start by slaying the greatest sacred cow of them all – the two state solution.

This is allegedly what we in the liberal pro-Israel community are campaigning for. But it’s problematic at the very least. At best, it forces us into a running commentary of ‘who has damaged the two-statesolution more this week’, indirectly by Palestinians using inflammatory language, preparing for war or launching unilateral initiatives, or Israelis directly by continuing to build settlements on the West Bank, making any proposed Palestinian state increasingly unviable. At worst, it actually fuels BDS. Since Israeli governments of all political stripes have expanded the settlements which threaten the two state solution (building settlements is how Israeli administrations earn public consent for peace negotiations), something must be done to change Israel’s mind, and BDS is, well, something.

Even worse, since the settlements are inextricably linked to Israeli society, most parts of Israeli civil society – from trade unions to theatre groups, have some link to them. So BDS justifies a boycott not just of the Israeli government, but Israeli civil society, and therefore, Israelis.

Even if this was acceptable, BDS doesn’t change Israel’s mind. The Israeli Right say ‘ look, same old world, always against us. No point listening to them anyway’. What it does do very effectively is harden the hearts of the Jewish community against the Left in this country. The attitude is that Western countries like Britain and America have wrestled with problems of power and security for years and not done such a great job – exhibit A being the Iraq misadaventure that cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Who are they to judge a country facing, in many Jewish minds, an existential threat? If the British and American Left want to boycott anybody, it should be their own countries.

Furthermore, given the growth of settlements, it is hard to see whether two-state solution, can be achieved, without creating a non-viable Palestinian state, or expecting Israel to voluntarily inflict a national trauma of settlement evacuation on itself that it is hard to see a democracy voting for.

It’s also, arguably, deeply patronising. Campaigning for a two-state solution from the UK actually means, from the safety of more than 1,000 miles away, telling Palestinians to give up dreams they have held dear through more than 60 years of pain and Israelis to sacrifice their security for our consciences.

A two-state solution has become shorthand for the best way we can envisage respecting the national and individual rights of Israelis and Palestinians. But it’s imperfect, and really we should leave it to them to work out how to reconcile what may be irreconcilable, and what needs to be sacrificed in the process.

Our stance should be to campaign for ‘ a peace of mutual consent’. This could be seen as a step to the right, as settlements – or at least some connection to them - are no longer beyond the pale of acceptability, Or a step to the left, as a unitary or federative state could be put on the table as well as the two state solution, at least, theoretically. But it is, in fact, a step to the sensible. In practice, it would mean assisting those institutions in both Israel and Palestine that are building majorities for peace on either side, whatever that peace looks like, and building trust between the sides, rather than evangelising for a given proposal.

Campaigning for a ‘Peace of Mutual Consent’ automatically precludes BDS, as BDS creates suspicion between the partners and reduces the trust needed for peace. However, such a campaign would also be liberated to work with those parts of the Israeli left not wedded to the two-state solution but more interested in a bi-national solution.  Actions under this mantra could include initiatives as disparate as: Supporting efforts to increase Arab turnout in Israeli elections; Creating Venture capital funds for joint Israeli-Palestinian start up companies; helping to build any Palestinian organisation that wished to engage with dialogue with the Israeli side. Crucially it would directly counterpose BDS’s implied boycott of Israeli civil society.

BDS’s great strength is that it gives a ‘something’ to fill the vacuum created when ‘something must be done’. A campaign to create a peace of mutual consent provides a different something, and shows BDS to be the counter-productive strategy that it is. It is time that the very hardworking anti-BDS activists in the unions were for something they can practically build towards – and a peace of mutual consent can be that.

Such a campaign would give the Leader of the Labour Party something to support. Since BDS is really the only game in town in terms of practical campaigning on the Left, an attack on BDS is currently an implicit acceptance of the status quo, which the Left cannot accept.

The likes of Robert Philpot and Lord Finkelstein have written in the Jewish Chronicle, that Labour must return to the uncomplicated pro-Israel ways of Tony Blair. But the Israel of 1994 was implementing affirmative action for its Arab citizens. In 2015, its Prime Minister whips up votes by demonizing Arabs. That is an impossible position for the political leader of the British Left to be in.

However, by supporting a peace of mutual consent, the Labour leader could both oppose BDS, and credibly claim that they were adopting the position most likely to lead to peace,

Once a Labour leader took an active interest in such a campaign – and the Jewish community understood that it was a direct counterpoint to BDS, then some of the damage of recent years could be prepared.

Some political choreography will also be needed. A big set-piece speech at a large London synagogue at the next Israeli Independence day would not go amiss. And I’m not supposing that all those Jewish votes could be won back. Some Jews are very hawkish on Israel, and many would never share a Labour Leader’s economics. But some do just need the permission to vote Labour again.

If the new Labour leadership and anti-BDS activists adopted this approach, the Labour party wouldn’t just have the opportunity to win back three seats in outer London. They also might just save my way of life, and that of Britain’s 300,000 Jews.

Daniel Elton writes in a personal capacity. He tweets as @danielelton

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How Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership election

The revolt against the leader transformed him from an incumbent back into an insurgent. 

On the evening of 12 July, after six hours of talks, Jeremy Corbyn emerged triumphantly from Labour’s headquarters. “I’m on the ballot paper!” he told supporters gathered outside. “We will be campaigning on all the things that matter.”

The contest that Corbyn’s opponents had sought desperately to avoid had begun. Neither a vote of no confidence by 81 per cent of Labour MPs, nor 65 frontbench resignations had persuaded him to stand down. Days of negotiations led by Tom Watson had failed (“For years I’ve been told that I’m a fixer. Well, I tried to fix this and I couldn’t,” Labour’s deputy leader sorrowfully told the parliamentary party). The rebels’ last hope was that the National Executive Committee would force Corbyn to reseek nominations. After being backed by just 40 colleagues in the confidence vote, both sides knew that the leader would struggle to achieve 51 signatures.

But by 18-14, the NEC ruled that Corbyn would be automatically on the ballot (“Watson, Watson, what’s the score?” chanted jubilant aides in the leader’s office). After withstanding a 16-day revolt, Corbyn appeared liberated by the prospect of a summer of campaigning. His confidence prefigured the outcome two months later.

Corbyn did not merely retain the leadership - he won by a greater margin than last time (with 61.8 per cent of the vote to last year's 59.5 per cent) and triumphed among all three sections: party members, affiliated supporters and registered supporters. The rebels had hoped to narrow his mandate and win among at least one group: they did neither. Far from being a curse for Corbyn, the contest proved to be a blessing. 

***

The day before the pivotal NEC meeting, Angela Eagle, who had been preparing to stand for months, launched her leadership bid. The former shadow business secretary was admired by MPs for her experience, tenacity, and economic acumen. Her trade union links and soft left background were further cited in favour of her candidacy.

But after an underwhelming launch, which clashed with Andrea Leadsom’s withdrawal from the Conservative contest (leaving Eagle calling questions from absent journalists), MPs gravitated towards Owen Smith.

Like Eagle, Smith hailed from the party’s soft left and had initially served under Corbyn (two prerequisites in the rebels’ eyes). But unlike her, the former shadow and work pensions secretary did not vote for the Iraq war (having entered parliament in 2010) or the 2015 Syria intervention. “It looks like the war party,” a senior Corbynite said of Eagle’s campaign launch with Hilary Benn. Many Labour MPs feared the same. With the left-leaning Lisa Nandy having ruled herself out, only the ambitious Smith met the criteria.

“I’d been in hospital for two days with my brother, who was unwell, in south Wales,” he recalled when I interviewed him.  “I came out having literally been in A&E at Cardiff Heath hospital for 29 hours, looking after him, to have my phone light up with 30, 40, 50 colleagues, MPs and members, ringing up saying ‘there’s going to be a contest, Angela Eagle has thrown her hat into the ring, you should do likewise.’ And at that point, on the Wednesday night, I started ringing people to test opinion and found that there was a huge amount of support for me.”

On 19 July, after Smith won 90 MP/MEP nominations to Eagle’s 72, the latter withdrew in favour of the Welshman. A week after the Conservatives achieved their second female prime minister, Labour’s 116-year record of all-male leaders endured. Though Smith vowed that Eagle would be “at my right hand throughout this contest”, she went on to appear at just one campaign event.

Corbyn’s challenger was embraced by MPs as a “clean skin”, untainted by service during the New Labour years. But Smith’s non-parliamentary past was swiftly - and ruthlessly - exploited by his opponents. His time at the US drugs firm Pfizer was cited as evidence of his closeness to big business. Corbyn’s supporters also seized on interviews given by Smith as a by-election candidate in 2006.

The man pitching to the left was found to have defended Tony Blair (suggesting that they differed only over the Iraq war), supported private sector involvement in the NHS and praised city academies. “I'm not someone, frankly, who gets terribly wound up about some of the ideological nuances,” he told Wales Online. Such lines were rapidly disseminated by Corbyn supporters through social media.

“Getting out early and framing Owen was crucial,” a Corbyn source told me. A Smith aide echoed this assessment: “It helped secure their base, it took a load of people out of contention.”

Throughout the campaign, Smith would struggle to reconcile his past stances with his increasingly left-wing programme: opposing private provision in the NHS, returning academy schools to local authority control, banning zero-hours contracts and imposing a wealth tax of 1 per cent. “It was easy for us to go for the jugular over his background when he portrayed himself as a left candidate,” a Corbyn source said.

Smith insisted that the charge of opportunism was unmerited. “To be honest, my opponents have extrapolated rather a lot in an attempt to brand me as a ‘Blairite wolf in sheep’s clothing,’” he told me in August. “Well, I’m nothing of the sort, I’ve always been a democratic socialist and I always will be.” He added: “I’m someone who’s been surrounded by people who’ve been on the left of the Labour movement all their lives. It should come as no surprise that I’ve come out of that background and I’m pretty red. Because I am.”

But a former shadow cabinet colleague said that Smith did not stand out as “a radical” in meetings. “The only time that I remember him becoming really animated was over further tax-raising powers for Scotland and the implications for Wales.”

As well as Smith’s ambiguous past, Corbyn’s allies believe the breadth of his political coalition hindered him from the start. “He was trying to bring together Blairites, Brownites and every other -ite in between,” a campaign source said. “That was never going to hold, we knew that and from the moment there were splits it was easy to point out.”

Jon Trickett, the shadow business secretary and one of Corbyn’s early supporters, told me: “They tried to pretend that there was no distinction between them and Jeremy on policy grounds, they tried to narrow down the areas of difference to electability. But, frankly, it didn’t seem credible since some of the people behind it were absolutely ideologically opposed to Jeremy. Peter Mandelson and people like that.”

A frequently expressed charge was that Smith’s left-wing pledges would be overturned by Blairite figures if he won. John McGeechan, a 22-year-old postgraduate student who joined Labour after “self-indulgent, self-serving MPs initiated their corridor coup”, told me of Smith: “He’s just another mealy-mouthed careerist who says whatever he thinks is going to get him elected. I don’t believe at all that he means what he says about creating a radical socialist government given that he’s got the backing of Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell and Tony Blair, people who’ve disagreed with Corbyn on pretty much all his socialist policies. I don’t believe that he’s going to stand up to these people.”

Whether believable or not, Smith’s programme showed how Corbyn had shifted Labour’s centre of gravity radically leftwards - his original aim in June 2015.

***

On the night Corbyn made the leadership ballot, the rebels still found cause for hope. Unlike in 2015, the NEC imposed a freeze date of six months on voting (excluding 130,000 new members) and increased the registered supporter fee from £3 to £25 (while reducing the sign-up period to two days). “It’s game on!” a senior figure told me. By narrowing the selectorate, Corbyn’s opponents hoped to achieve a path to victory. With fewer registered supporters (84 per cent of whom voted for Corbyn last year), they believed full party members and affiliated trade unionists could carry Smith over the line.

But when 183,000 paid £25 to vote, their expectations were confounded. Far from being “game on”, it looked to many rebels like game over. Once again, Corbyn’s opponents had underestimated the left’s recruiting capacity. Smith’s lack of name recognition and undistinctive pitch meant he could not compete.

Alongside the main contest were increasingly fractious legal battles over voting rights. On 28 July, the high court rejected Labour donor Michael Foster’s challenge to Corbyn’s automatic inclusion on the ballot. Then on 8 August, a judge ruled that the party had wrongly excluded new members from voting, only for the decision to be overturned on appeal.

In the view of Corbyn’s allies, such legal manevoures unwittingly aided him. “They turned Jeremy, who was an incumbent, back into an insurgent,” Trickett told me. “The proponents of the challenge made it seem like he was the underdog being attacked by the establishment.”

Smith, who repeatedly framed himself as the “unity candidate”, struggled to escape the shadow of the “corridor coup”. That many of his supporters had never accepted Corbyn’s leadership rendered him guilty by association.

“The coup had an enormous galvanising effect and an enormous politicising effect,” a Corbyn source told me. “For a great number of people who supported Jeremy last year, there was a feeling, ‘well, we’ve done the work, that’s happened, now over to him.’ What the coup meant for a lot of people was that this isn’t about Jeremy Corbyn, this is a people’s movement, which we all need to lead.” The Corbyn campaign signed up 40,000 volunteers and raised £300,000 in small donations from 19,000 people (with an average donation of £16). Against this activist army, their rivals’ fledgling effort stood no chance.

“At the launch rally, we had 12 simultaneous events going on round the country, livestreamed to each other,” a Corbyn source said. “We had a lot of communication with people who were big in the Sanders campaign. In the UK context, it’s trailblazing.”

On 12 August, after previously equivocating, Smith ruled out returning to the shadow cabinet under Corbyn. “I've lost confidence in you. I will serve Labour on the backbenches,” he declared at a hustings in Gateshead. In the view of Corbyn’s team, it was a fatal error. “He shot apart his whole unity message,” a source said.

Smith, who initially offered Corbyn the post of party president, was rarely booed more than when he lamented Labour’s divisions. As one of the 172 MPs who voted against the leader, he was regarded as part of the problem, rather than the solution. By the end, Smith was reduced to insisting “I wasn’t in favour of there being a challenge” - a statement that appeared absurd to most.

As well as his leftist credentials and unifying abilities, Smith’s other main boast was his competence and articulacy. “HIs USP was that he was this media-savvy guy,” a Corbyn source said. “As a result, he threw himself up for any and every media opportunity and made tons of gaffes. We just made sure people were aware of them.”

The most enduring gaffe came early in the campaign, on 27 July, when he spoke of wanting mto “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”. Though Smith initially defended his “robust rhetoric” (“you’ll be getting that from me”), by the afternoon his campaign had apologised. What was explained as a “rugby reference” dogged them for weeks. “It played into the hands of how Corbyn wanted to depict us,” a Smith source told me. “It was really hard to shake off.”

More unforced errors followed. Smith suggested getting Isis “round the table”, in anticipation, many believed, of Corbyn agreeing. But the Labour leader baulked at the proposal: “No, they are not going to be round the table”. Corbyn’s communications team, more organised and agile than in 2015, denounced Smith’s remarks as “hasty and ill-considered”. As with “smashed”, the Labour challenger had achieved rare cut-through - but for the wrong reasons.

Smith’s rhetorical looseness became a recurring problem. At a rally on 23 August, he appeared to refer to Corbyn as a “lunatic”. In an interview with the Daily Mirror, he said of meeting his wife: “1,200 boys, three girls and I pulled Liz. So I must have something going on. That must be leadership.”

Earlier in the campaign, Smith’s team denied that the candidate referred to the size of his penis when he quipped of his height: "5ft 6. 29 inches - inside leg!” The guffaws from his supporters suggested otherwise.

We used to have a gaffe counter,” a Corbyn source told me. “I think it got up to 30 by the end.”

Smith’s team, meanwhile, despaired at how the Labour leader’s own missteps failed to dent him. The discovery that Corbyn had in fact secured a seat on a Virgin train, contrary to initial impressions, did little lasting damage. “It’s priced in, the bar is much lower for him,” a Smith source complained.

Incorrect claims, such as Labour being level in the polls before the coup attempt and Corbyn giving 122 speeches during the EU referendum campaign, were believed by many of his supporters. “How do you rebut bullshit?” a Smith aide asked. “If you respond, it becomes a story.”

So frequently had Labour MPs condemned their leader that extraordinary charges were soon forgotten. On 22 August, shadow business minister Chi Onwurah wrote in the New Statesman that Corbyn’s treatment of her and Thangam Debbonaire could constitute “racial discrimination”.

If this had been any of my previous employers in the public and private sectors Jeremy might well have found himself before an industrial tribunal for constructive dismissal, probably with racial discrimination thrown in,” she argued. But within a day, the story had moved on.  

For Smith, fleeting momentum was achieved through significant endorsements. On 10 August, the GMB backed his campaign after becoming the only trade union to ballot its members. The following week, Labour’s most senior elected politician, Sadiq Khan, endorsed Smith. Unlike Andy Burnham, the London mayor believed he could not remain neutral during this profound schism. Smith was subsequently also backed by the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale. Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband trumpeted his cause. Yet such declarations counted for little. “It’s like the Remain campaign and the Archbishop of Canterbury,” one Smith ally told me, suggesting that Labour members, like Leave voters, ”weren’t listening” to such grandees.

But in the view of Corbyn’s team, the rebels profoundly “underestimated” their opponent. “He’s a nice guy but he also has an inner steel and won't flinch from a challenge. The Obi-Wan Kenobi comparison is very accurate when you work up close with him. He’s also extremely intelligent and has a great grasp and retention of detail. It showed in the debates.”

“I have to say, I felt pretty sorry for Owen at several points,” another Corbyn source reflected. “Whatever it was, his ambition or being pushed into it, it didn’t seem like it was the right time for him. He hadn’t worked out what he was about and why that fitted with the times.”

***

Those Labour MPs who long warned that an early challenge to Corbyn would prove futile have been vindicated. “Party members are always loyal to the incumbent,” a senior source astutely noted. In the case of Corbyn, a lifelong campaigner, who many contended was “never given a chance”, this traditional fealty was intensified.

“Most of the people backing and funding him didn’t think Owen was going to win,” a Corbyn source said. “Their aim was, one, to reduce Jeremy’s mandate and, secondly, to map the selectorate.”

Having won a second leadership contest - an unprecedented achievement for the Labour left - the leader’s supporters insist their ambitions do not end here. “We’ve got to think incredibly seriously about how we win a general election in a totally changed landscape,” a Corbyn source told me. “This campaign has been showing how to do it.” But a Smith aide warned that it was a “massive strategic error” to make electability, rather than principle, the defining test of Corbyn. The leader, he suggested, could withstand a general election defeat provided he simply affirmed his values.

Beyond regarding a split as worthless, Labour MPs are divided on how to proceed. Some want another leadership challenge as early as next year. Rather than seeking to narrow the selectorate, they speak of recruiting hundreds of thousands of new members to overpower the left. “There are lots of people out there who want a credible, electable, centre-left proposition and we have not given them enough of a reason to sign up,” a former shadow cabinet minister told me. “Who has an offer and the charisma to be able to bring in new people? That has to be the question the next time round.”

Others believe that backbenchers should follow Thumper’s law: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”  A senior MP argued that MPs should “just shut up” and “let Jeremy crack on with it.” The imperative, he said, was to avoid MPs “taking the blame for us getting thumped in a snap election”. Some are prepared to move beyond neutrality to outright support by serving under Corbyn.

The Labour left and their most recalcitrant opponents both confront challenges of electability. The former must demonstrate a path to victory despite Corbyn’s subterranean poll ratings. The latter, who boast so often of their superior appeal, must face a remorseless truth. Until they are electable in the party, they will never be electable in the country.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.