Ken Loach on Labour’s anti-Semitism “witchhunt”, the Corbyn opportunity and lessons from 1968

The Jeremy Corbyn-supporting director on austerity, the paradox of revolutions and a debate convulsing the Labour party. 

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Ken Loach’s last feature film I, Daniel Blake - the story of a man’s struggle navigating Britain’s alienating benefits system - was released almost two years ago in May 2016. Since then, British politics has been upended – from Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise surge in the 2017 snap election, to the disastrous roll out of Universal Credit and the NHS crisis. And yet the socialist ideas running through all the director’s films seem more relevant than ever in light of the resurgence of the British left.

When the New Statesman meets the director in London, he is about to speak at the French Institute’s Night of Ideas about France’s student rebellion of May 1968. He is here in part to call for the left to channel the spirit of that time and unite around the “opportunity” presented by the Labour leader to build “a strong social movement to support Corbyn’s programme and to hold the Labour party to it”. 

But while in many ways the director now finds himself very much in tune with those who currently lead the Labour party, his newfound relevance has been overshadowed by his interventions on one of the party's most divisive topics - anti-Semitism. 

In April 2017, Loach lept to the defence of another Ken - Livingstone, the former Mayor of London, who was suspended by the Labour party in 2016 after declaring that Hitler “was supporting Zionism. This before he went mad and ended up killing 6 million Jews” (he made similar declarations in May 2017 and January 2018). Further claims of anti-Semitism among party activists have accumulated, leading to several inquiries, as well as the Jewish MP Ruth Smeeth being reduced to tears at the launch of an anti-Semitism report, after being accused of “colluding with the right-wing media

Loach kicked up a further storm during an interview at the 2017 Labour conference when he said that across decades of attending party meetings and other left-wing events he had “never, in that whole time, heard a single anti-Semitic word or racist word”. He went on to deny the existence of hate speech within Labour and later talked about false stories of anti-Semitism”.

While he has since taken pains to clarify his remarks, Loach tells The New Statesman that some Labour members were victimised by “false claims of anti-Semitism” and “there are other kinds of witch hunts as well in the party”.

“I’m not saying there has never been some anti-Semitism,” Loach says. “Anti-Semitism is a form of racism, and all forms of racism are horrible.” Quoting a statement from the Jewish Socialist group, he adds: “[They] said, and rightly, that claims of anti-Semitism were used to undermine Jeremy Corbyn. That’s the Jewish Socialist group, not me. And that seems to be pretty much the case.” 

He gives the example of the Tel Aviv-born socialist Moshé Machover, who was suspended from Labour shortly after he wrote a piece on anti-Zionism. He was later re-admitted. The case was reported as hinging on a technical question of party allegiances, but was widely perceived to be connected to Machover’s article. “They had to backtrack, because when you look at it, there’s no anti-Semitism there,” he says. “But it was used, that’s the kind of story that has been used. When you actually look at the allegations, it almost invariably disappears.”

Other Labour activists accused of anti-Semitism, though, remain suspended. One of them, Jackie Walker, a former vice-chair of Momentum, claimed Jewish people were “financiers of the sugar and slave trade”

Allegations of anti-Semitism within Labour are an issue, Loach says, but a “minor” one. “The big issue are the ideas that people need implemented.”

However, the Jewish Labour Movement, the largest group of Jewish Labour members, raised concerns in 2018 about the failure of the party leadership to deal with a “vast backlog” of complaints about anti-Semitism, and to let a second inquiry into Ken Livingstone get “stuck in limbo”. 

In 2017, a local Labour party shortlisted a candidate who had previously claimed that Jews “have reaped the rewards of playing victims”.  A Labour member who shared anti-Semitic conspiracy theories was seen at an exhibition stall at the party conference in September. Another Labour member was suspended in late 2017 after sharing anti-Semitic posts. The founder of the pro-Corbyn grassroots organisation Momentum, Jon Lansman, said in late 2017 that Labour must do more to tackle anti-Semitism in the Labour party.

At the French Institute, Loach spoke about the “ideas that people need implemented”, drawing parallels with the student protests in France at the tailend of the 1960s. 

The 1968 student revolts in Paris originated as protests against university closures, but escalated after mass arrests by the authorities, and extended to workers outside the capital. There were demonstrations and general strikes, occupations of factories and universities. The movement, heavily repressed by the police, halted the French economy for weeks.

Loach notes that the revolutionary zeitgeist should, in theory, be stronger today: “Inequalities have gone through the roof, people are exploited in a far more ruthless way in terms of their work, [there is] no job security, no security for housing, the health services collapsing, private companies infiltrating everything, and people are desperate for the security.”

Half a century after the French revolt, “capitalism is on its knees, and yet the idea of capitalism is very strong in people’s minds.” To Loach, the fear and growing desperation among the working classes in an ever-powerful capitalist society creates a paradox that makes a revolution improbable. In 1968, he says, workers felt confident, because they hadn’t experienced an economic collapse. In 2018, “people are more fearful, therefore less willing to take the risk”, although their situation is getting worse. “It’s a paradox: you need both together [for a revolt to foment], but one militates against the other.”

Loach also expresses regret that modern students are “less fiery now” – like everyone else “less interested in political ideas and more interested in finding a job”.

Yet, Loach believes that Britain in 2018 has something even 1968 France didn’t have - Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. The director has been a strong supporter of Corbyn since day one. He endorsed him in both the 2015 and 2016 leadership contests, and released a documentary, In Conversation with Jeremy Corbyn. For the 2017 election, he filmed a profile of the Labour leader.

Like many on the party's left, Loach believes Corbyn's supporters should solidify their power by reshaping the parliamentary Labour party, a sensitive topic among moderate MPs who fear a grassroots challenge. “At the moment, [the PLP] is basically Blairite”, he says. “Unless there are big changes in the PLP so that they do reflect the membership and reflect the ideas Corbyn and [John] McDonnell want to put forward, Labour is going to struggle.”

This article was updated on 1 February 2018 to include additional examples of anti-Semitism in the Labour party. 

Pauline Bock writes about France, the Macron presidency, Brexit and EU citizens in the UK. She also happens to be French.