“How did we get here?” That is the question is on the lips of Labour MPs, councillors, members, and voters this summer. As the party’s anti-Semitism crisis deepens, seemingly inexorably, it is asked with increasing anguish and despair.
How did an officially anti-racist party – a mantle which, despite the ignominy of recent months, its warring factions still cling to – come to be feared and loathed by swathes of Britain’s Jewish community?
How did it become the subject of anti-racism protests in Parliament Square, rather than their natural leader? How did Labour MPs reach the point where they are prepared to argue that their party is no longer an anti-racist one?
And how did the prospect of its return to government become so foreboding that it was labelled an “existential threat” to British Jews by the community’s three biggest newspapers?
Most commentators alight on a simple answer: Jeremy Corbyn. Since his implausible election in 2015, the Labour leader has developed a knack for defying political gravity, for confounding expectations, for taking his party where it has never gone before. So it is with anti-Semitism.
Under Corbyn, Labour has defied expectation in a singularly unedifying way.
Anti-Semitism has always found a happy home on the fringes of the left, where anti-imperialism meets conspiracy. Labour’s leftward tack after Corbyn was elected as leader saw its membership swell to over half a million. Almost overnight, those fringes were subsumed by the mainstream. It is often said that Labour’s transformation into a mass movement, inspired by Corbyn, has transformed its finances and campaigning power. But an influx of members whose prejudices for so long went unchecked in little-read pamphlets and poorly-attended meetings has been just as significant.
Even a non-exhaustive list of controversies makes for grim reading. The 2016 Chakrabarti Report into anti-Semitism within Labour merely gave critics more ammunition: it was dismissed as a whitewash and discredited when its “independent” author, the human rights activist Shami Chakrabarti, was handed a peerage by Labour soon after.
In 2017, Ken Livingstone, the former London Mayor, avoided expulsion for comments in which he suggested that Adolf Hitler “had been a Zionist before he went mad and killed six million Jews”. This March, it was discovered that Corbyn, before his election as leader, had defended the existence of a mural depicting hook-nosed bankers playing Monopoly on the backs of the world’s poor (he has since expressed his regret for doing so; a spokesperson said he had initially objected to its removal on the grounds of free speech).
In attempting to mitigate the impact of these controversies and the individual cases of grassroots anti-Semitism that have punctuated them, Labour has merely sunk deeper into a toxic mire. There is no visible escape. Its well-intentioned but misjudged attempts to find a way to draw out the poison have made things worse, like its failure to adopt the full International Holocaust Remembrance Association definition of anti-Semitism in its new code of conduct. Far from repairing its relationship with the Jewish community, it has merely pushed the party close to the point of no return.
Indeed, British Jewry – whose internal divisions, diversity, and differences of cultural, political and religious opinion are far more numerous and significant than the divided left’s – has been united to a degree that would have once been dismissed as impossible. Their community is not, and has never been, a homogenous bloc (although on some issues, like the right of Israel to exist, they are overwhelmingly united). Last month, 68 rabbis overcame such small differences, such as not believing one another to be rabbis, to accuse Labour of ignoring the community over the IHRA definition. Britain’s three biggest Jewish newspapers followed with an unprecedented joint front-page editorial, which spoke of “the existential threat to Jewish life in this country that would be posed by a Jeremy Corbyn-led government”.
At Westminster, the impact has been just as corrosive. The uneasy truce between the leadership and the vast majority of MPs – tacitly brokered in the wake of last year’s election – has broken down. The Parliamentary Labour Party has voted, in defiance of the party’s ruling national executive, to adopt the full IHRA definition.
Some of them have almost literally come to blows with the party leadership. One row, first reported in the New Statesman, saw arch-Corbynsceptic Ian Austin allegedly brand Ian Lavery, Labour’s chair, a “fucking bastard” and “wanker” over the party’s handling of anti-Semitism in the division lobby. Corbyn himself was accused of being an “anti-Semite and a racist” behind the Speaker’s chair in the Commons chamber by Margaret Hodge, the veteran Jewish MP. Both are now subject to internal party investigations.
Members of the shadow cabinet and Labour staff are exasperated. Most strikingly, the leader and his closest and oldest political ally, John McDonnell, are singing from different hymn sheets – this week, the shadow chancellor has been markedly more forthcoming and trenchant in his criticism of Labour’s handling of the saga than his leader (he has denied they are anything but united). Some fear the damage has already been done: several council seats, most notably in Barnet, North London, have fallen amid the controversy.
Pessimistic party sources predict whatever Labour does on anti-Semitism will be too little, too late. Those tasked with defending the party do so with increasing resignation. For many, anti-Semitism is as the front page of this week’s Jewish News describes it: “The nightmare that never ends.”
Labour’s running sore is festering. Corbyn has failed to cauterise it. But to argue that he inflicted the wound would be to indulge a consoling fiction. The story of how Labour’s relationship with the Jewish community deteriorated to the point of collapse does not start with Corbyn. It is longer, and its dramatis personae broader, than the factional imagination or headlines often let on. So how just how did Labour get here?
Arguably, Labour’s current malaise began not with Corbyn, but his predecessor, Ed Miliband. Though he was the party’s first Jewish leader, and expressed a desire to become the “first Jewish prime minister”, his relationship with the community was neither warm nor easy.
That Labour has historically been the “natural home” for British Jews is often invoked when expressing disbelief over anti-Semitism in its ranks. Less frequent are acknowledgements of the community’s support for Thatcher, or even – shock horror – that British Jews do not think or vote as one.
Under Miliband, however, something changed: under his leadership, support for Labour among the Jewish community began to crater. The last poll of Jewish voters that gave the party a lead over the Conservatives was taken in the early days of his tenure. By its end, in 2015, polling showed just 14 per cent of Jewish voters were willing to back Labour (just one per cent more than its poll rating under Corbyn ahead of the 2017 election).
As with Corbyn, the roots of the problem can be traced to the Middle East. Miliband, the son of Holocaust refugees, did not grow up in the Jewish community but nonetheless made a concerted attempt to connect with it. His first overseas visit as leader was to Israel. Its conflict with Palestine would prove to be the issue that rendered his efforts pointless. His decision to whip Labour MPs to vote for a backbench motion in favour of recognising the state in October 2014 proved toxic.
This decision also compounded damage done during Operation Protective Edge three months previously, which saw Miliband direct fierce criticism at the Israeli government over its conduct in Gaza. “I defend Israel’s right to defend itself against rocket attacks,” he told Labour’s National Policy Forum. “But I cannot explain, justify, or defend the horrifying deaths of hundreds of Palestinians, including children and innocent civilians. And as a party we oppose the further escalation of violence we have seen with Israel’s invasion of Gaza.”
His rhetoric was criticised by Jewish community leaders. The Jewish Chronicle accused him of “knee-jerk criticism of a nation defending itself from terrorism”, while Kate Bearman, a former director of Labour Friends of Israel, quit the party in protest. The backlash presaged a bigger headache caused by the vote to recognise Palestine’s statehood in October, when the actress Maureen Lipman – a Labour supporter of several decades’ vintage – denounced Miliband in a headline-grabbing protest.
“Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse,” Lipman wrote in a polemic for Standpoint magazine that November. “Just when the anti-Semitism in France, Denmark, Norway, Hungary is mounting savagely, just when our cemeteries and synagogues and shops are once again under threat. Just when the virulence against a country defending itself, against 4,000 rockets and 32 tunnels inside its borders, as it has every right to do under the Geneva Convention, had been swept aside by the real pestilence of IS, in steps Mr Miliband to demand that the government recognise the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel.”
Revealing she would not vote for Labour, she added: “I’m an actress, Ed, and I am often commended for my timing. Frankly, my dear, yours sucks.” So did the timing of her attack, as far as Labour’s electoral prospects were concerned. Several Jewish donors deserted the party. At the general election the following May, several north London marginals with large Jewish populations stayed stubbornly blue: Harrow East, Hendon, Finchley and Golders Green.
The lacklustre term of the party’s first Jewish leader – who has maintained a studious silence on the current crisis (aside from a single tweet calling for Labour to adopt the full IHRA definition) – ended with support among the Jewish community at its lowest for two decades. His rhetoric and shift in policy on the Israel-Palestine conflict was nonetheless welcomed by some British Jews – who, as commentary on Labour’s woes often neglects, are by no means universally supportive of the Israeli government. A 2015 poll found that 73 per cent thought Israel’s approach to peace was damaging its standing in the world, with 71 per cent backing a two-state solution.
Around the time of Operation Protective Edge, Miliband’s criticism of Israel was accompanied by an unequivocal condemnation of anti-Semitism. Calling for a “zero-tolerance approach”, he said: “The recent spate of incidents should serve as a wake-up call for anyone who thought the scourge of anti-Semitism had been defeated and that the idea of Jewish families fearful of living here in Britain was unthinkable.
“Some have told me how, for the first time in their lifetime, they are scared for their children’s future in our country. Others have expressed a general unease that this rise in anti-Semitism could signal that something has changed – or is changing – in Britain.”
As parlous as Labour’s standing in the Jewish community was by the end of Miliband’s tenure, none could have predicted that, within the space of three years, it would be using eerily similar language to describe his successor – and that that successor would be Jeremy Corbyn.
On a gloomy election night for Labour in 2015, Naz Shah’s victory was one of precious few silver linings. A survivor of a forced marriage, she had beaten George Galloway after a bitter, grubby and arguably sexist campaign in Bradford West and arrived in Westminster a hero. As one of the stars of her Labour’s new intake, she was lauded by the party’s great and good and promotion was swift: just nine months after her election, she was appointed parliamentary private secretary to John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor.
She soon fell abruptly to earth. In April 2016 it emerged that, the year before her election, she had shared a Facebook post that called for the “transportation” of all Israelis to America. In another, she warned friends: “The Jews are rallying”. Shah, who later issued a full apology, was suspended from the whip, and Jeremy Corbyn criticised her remarks as “offensive and unacceptable”.
Shah, who was appointed shadow equalities minister last month, atoned for her sins. She made public apologies in the Commons and to her constituency’s Jewish community (the party had to deny it had edited a statement issued by Shah to remove the term “anti-Semitic”, as well as references to issues around anti-Semitism on the left). In 2017, Jonathan Arkush, then president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said she was “one of the only people involved in Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis who has sought to make amends for her actions, and for this we commend her and now regard Naz as a sincere friend of our community.”
For Labour, however, the controversy would only escalate. The events that followed Shah’s suspension led the party to where it is today – to the point where some in the Jewish community believe it is institutionally incapable of making amends for its failings.
Ken Livingstone is no stranger to accusations of anti-Semitism. A veteran of Labour’s hard left, the former London mayor’s career is peppered with controversies sparked by comments on Israel, the Nazis, and Jewish people (and sometimes all three at once). In 1982, while leader of the Greater London Council, he wrote in a piece for the left-wing Labour Herald weekly newspaper on Palestine that Jewish MPs were a “distortion running right the way through British politics”. In comments the following year, he compared the conduct of British troops in Northern Ireland to the Nazis, while in 1984 he was labelled “very dangerous” by Colin Shindler, the Jewish academic, for suggesting Jews were “a tribe of Arabs”.
Two decades on in 2005, he was suspended for four weeks from his role of Mayor of London after he accused Oliver Finegold, a Jewish Evening Standard journalist, of behaving like a “German war criminal” and “concentration camp guard”. His unsuccessful campaign for re-election in 2012 was similarly marred when he used a BBC Newsnight interview to claim that the Jewish community voted Tory because it was predominantly rich. “As the Jewish community got richer, it moved over to voting for Mrs Thatcher as they did in Finchley,” he said.
His comments as Mayor sparked a backlash from Jewish community leaders but, ultimately, did not fatally damage his party. That would come later, with Livingstone deep into his retirement from frontline politics but nonetheless still heavily involved in Labour’s internal affairs. On the day of Shah’s suspension, he was still serving on the party’s ruling national executive and was helping lead a review into its defence policy. He took to the airwaves to defend her, telling BBC Radio London that he had never seen anti-Semitism inside Labour (a sentiment recently echoed to much opprobrium by Peter Willsman).
Then, in comments that ultimately led to a two-year suspension from the party, he added: “When Hitler won his election in 1932 his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.”
Livingstone denied he had claimed Hitler was a Zionist, and would go on to repeatedly defend his comments as mere historical fact. But the damage was done. In surreal scenes, the surprisingly serene 70-year-old was chased by the press into Milbank Studios, just down the Thames from the Houses of Parliament, as the backbencher John Mann turned puce with rage and accused him of being a “disgusting Nazi apologist”. Livingstone then sought refuge in a disabled toilet, as a bemused media scrum twiddled its collective thumbs outside.
The episode was so bizarre that it was almost treated as light relief in Westminster. But for Labour, it was anything but. Livingstone was suspended (he was not expelled for the comments but has since resigned his membership). “We are not tolerating anti-Semitism in any form whatsoever in our party,” Corbyn, his long-time friend and comrade, said. The following day – 29 April – the human rights activist and barrister Shami Chakrabarti was commissioned by the Labour leader to conduct an inquiry into accusations of anti-Semitism within the party’s ranks.
It was a swift response, but ultimately it would only exacerbate Labour’s woes. Chakrabarti found, to the incredulity of Jewish community organisations, that anti-Semitism was not endemic inside the party (she did, however, acknowledge an “occasionally toxic atmosphere” and “ignorant attitudes”). In June, the launch of the report was overshadowed when Marc Wadsworth, a veteran left-wing activist and anti-racist campaigner, accused Ruth Smeeth, a Jewish Labour MP, of “working hand in hand” with the Daily Telegraph.
Smeeth accused Wadsworth of anti-Semitism, an accusation he fiercely denies. “It is beyond belief that someone could come to the launch of a report on anti-Semitism in the Labour Party and espouse such vile conspiracy theories about Jewish people,” she said. He was suspended from Labour after the incident, and expelled for bringing the party into disrepute (he continues to deny his comments were anti-Semitic).
Ephraim Mirvis, the chief rabbi, also criticised comments made by Corbyn at the launch. The Labour leader had said “our Jewish friends are no more responsible for the actions of Israel or the Netanyahu government than our Muslim friends are for those various self-styled Islamic states or organisations”, which some interpreted as a comparison between Israel and Isis.
His spokesman clarified that Corbyn was in fact stating that “people should not be held responsible for the actions of states or organisations around the world on the basis of religion or ethnicity”, but Mirvis nonetheless complained: “Rather than rebuilding trust among the Jewish community, [his comments] are likely to cause even greater concern.”
Mirvis might as well have been talking about Chakrabarti’s report. Two months later, in August, things went bad from worse. In ordinary times, the appointment of Chakrabarti as a Labour peer – she was, after all, a liberal icon so revered by the public that she served as one of only six Olympic flagbearers at the London 2012 opening ceremony – would have been a shrewd PR move. That it came after her anti-Semitism probe made it a disaster.
Her ennoblement was met with disbelief and disgust from Labour MPs and Jewish community organisations. Tom Watson, Corbyn’s deputy, said it was badly-timed and wrong. Marie van der Zyl, vice president of the Board of Deputies, argued that it fatally undermined Chakrabarti’s “whitewash” inquiry.
“It is beyond disappointing that Shami Chakrabarti has been offered, and accepted, a peerage from Labour following her so-called ‘independent’ inquiry,” she said. “The report, which was weak in several areas, now seems to have been rewarded with an honour. This ‘whitewash for peerages’ is a scandal that surely raises serious questions about the integrity of Ms Chakrabarti, her inquiry and the Labour leadership.”
Chakrabarti denied the award had been a quid pro quo, but few were willing to give her a hearing. The vice-chairman of her own inquiry, David Feldman, said it had damaged her report’s credibility “among large sections of the public, not only among Jews but among non-Jews as well”. Howard Jacobson, the eminent Jewish author, said the peerage was tantamount to “showing the middle finger” to those in the Jewish community who had complained about anti-Semitism.
More damagingly, it crystallised a feeling that the party’s disciplinary procedures were unfit to deal with such complaints (there is a backlog of cases, which the party has pledged to expedite, while Christine Shawcroft, had to quit from her role as chair of the panel examining disciplinary complaints in March, after she was revealed to have opposed the suspension of a Labour council candidate who was accused of Holocaust denial).
Set against an already gloomy backdrop of unease with Corbyn himself, these episodes further damaged the relationship between Labour and the Jewish community. His record as a pro-Palestine campaigner in the years before he ascended to the leadership have returned to bring negative publicity almost relentlessly: his reference to Hamas as “friends” at a parliamentary event; his description of Raed Salah, an anti-Israel preacher convicted of blood libel, as an “honoured citizen”; his defence of an allegedly anti-Semitic mural; his appearances on Iranian state television. All have returned to haunt Corbyn throughout his leadership (he said this week that he had often shared platforms with people whose views he entirely disagrees with).
The Labour leader has always denied that he himself is an anti-Semite. A majority of those in Labour accept this. Indeed, he has repeatedly deplored anti-Semitism (though his habit of sometimes adding “and all forms of racism” has been criticised). But his party is finding it almost impossible to convert its uniform opposition to anti-Semitism in theory into practice. Though it retains a considerable number of Jewish members – including leading Corbynites like National Executive Committee member Rhea Wolfson and Momentum founder Jon Lansman, and the largely Corbynsceptic Jewish Labour Movement – trust across the community as a whole is arguably at an all-time low.
Where should Labour go next? Where can it go next? Those two questions are distinct from one another and their answers possibly irreconcilable. “Something must be done,” is a familiar refrain from all wings of the party. Ask a Labour MP – even one serving on Corbyn’s frontbench – what they make of the party’s current predicament and you are just as likely to get silence, a shaken head or one thrown into the hands as you are a suggestion.
It is not hard to see why. Arcane elements of Labour’s byzantine internal governance structures, obscure figures from its fringes and grassroots members now regularly make headline news. Of late, the row has loomed over almost everything else the party is trying to achieve. Attempts to use the summer recess to launch new policy have been hindered by the party’s need to firefight on other issues. “Brexit and anti-Semitism overshadow everything,” says one frontbencher. “This is not why I came into politics.” Privately, some in its press operation despair at the amount of ammunition it has handed to hostile sections of the media through its mishandling of the row.
The received wisdom – often recited as a grim silver lining for MPs – is that the crisis will have no electoral impact nationally. But some, frustrated by the extent to which the row obscures the party’s work on other, more popular fronts, like economic policy, have begun to doubt it. “The drip-drip-drip is definitely having an effect,” says one MP of the reaction on the doorsteps in a Northern marginal. “People are citing it as a reason why they can’t vote for us.”
Several shadow cabinet ministers – Barry Gardiner, Keir Starmer, Jonathan Ashworth and Andrew Gwynne – have all urged the party’s ruling national executive to adopt the full IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. But even then, some speculate that doing so after weeks of criticism and pressure would be too little, too late. “At this stage, the Jewish community won’t accept gestures,” a Labour source said. The party had a rude reminder of that this week. Corbyn offered to give a speech at Camden’s Jewish Museum in a direct appeal to the Jewish community, but abortive talks to organise it failed. For now, it is a question of mitigating, rather than repairing, the damage. The latter process will arguably only begin once Corbyn has departed.