Over the past two months the Conservative establishment in Britain has managed to convince itself that a left-wing government under Jeremy Corbyn would be illegitimate; that it has to be stopped; and that – even if they don’t want to do the dirty work themselves – someone has to.
That’s the bigger story behind wave after wave of smears unleashed against Jeremy Corbyn – even if you accept, as I do, that he is an imperfect politician and that Labour has specific challenges with anti-Semitism, which it has handled badly.
First, Corbyn was supposed to be a Czech spy; next a Russian stooge, “betraying our country,” as the defence secretary Gavin Williamson alleged; then he was smeared as an anti-Semite, his support group Momentum described as “neofascist” by Communities Secretary Sajid Javid.
In each round of anti-Corbyn mania, the players were the same: the Guido Fawkes website; the Murdoch newspapers – their agenda enthusiastically followed by senior decision-makers inside BBC News – and a group of up to 30 Labour MPs who just cannot reconcile themselves to the idea of a socialist party that fights for socialism.
The Czech story was pure fake news: a story without evidence, amplified by frenzied demands for answers to questions that did not exist – as with Corbyn’s supposed “Stasi dossier”.
The Russia story was the product of political opportunism and Corbyn’s incomplete control of the party. His question to Theresa May on 26 March was laser-accurate: “Has high-resolution trace analysis been run on a sample of the nerve agent, and has that revealed any evidence as to the location of its production or the identity of its perpetrators?”
May dodged the question – now answered in the negative by Porton Down scientists – but the PLP could have got us here much sooner if they had pursued her with conviction. Defence, security and foreign policy are outside the comfort zone of many pro-Corbyn Labour MPs, and it showed.
The anti-Semitism fiasco is partly of the party’s own making. Having accepted Shami Chakrabarti’s proposals for cracking down on the small number of people using anti-Semitic language and behaviour in Labour’s ranks, the war between party HQ and the leader’s office meant nobody had ownership of doing it.
Meanwhile, Christine Shawcroft’s bungled attempt to save Alan Bull, who had shared Holocaust denial messages with his friends, lifted the lid on an unpleasant truth about Labour that predates Corbyn’s leadership. In a riven party, with a dysfunctional head office, things that should happen on principle too easily become politically negotiable. From compliance issues to the mechanisms for selecting candidates, there is a culture of horse-trading that has to stop.
Corbyn himself made a mistake in 2012, failing to notice clear signifiers of the “Jewish-Masonic conspiracy” in the Mear One mural. His bigger mistake was not to recognise and mitigate the risks arising out of increasingly harsh clashes between the pro- and anti-Zionist wings of the party, and the possibility that they would spill over into wider civil society, as they have now done.
As it expanded, Labour began to attract people for whom the concept of being “left” was bound up – as has been pointed out by other contributors – with anti-imperialism and anti-elitism, rather than a coherent positive vision of socialism; people who simply did not have the levels of political education to recognise and fight anti-Semitism.
The racism, sexism and homophobia of newly-organised workers is a problem trade unions are used to dealing with, but which the Labour apparatus seems to have found difficult to manage. For me, there is no contradiction between identifying the anti-Semitism problem and labelling the right’s systemic attempts to use it against Labour as a smear.
From the right-wing of the PLP, through to the golf clubs of Tory-shire and the chatrooms of the alt-right, a shared mythology is being created. It says: Corbyn is too dangerous to run Britain, Labour cannot be allowed to govern with him in charge; better that it loses and loses badly; better that something is done to stop him.
If a second leadership coup is impossible, then there will have to be a slow drip-feed of opprobrium and pressure that makes ordinary Labour activists and voters feel like giving up and walking away. There will be one Zinoviev letter per week until we give in.
The motivations differ. The Tory party has been bought and sold to the Saudi monarchy and the Russian oligarchy, and when Corbyn comes to power, that sordid menage will be cleaned up.
The Brexiteers among the Tories want to destroy a multicultural Britain oriented to Europe – and Labour is the biggest obstacle to doing so.
For the far-right – such as the Leave.eu campaign, which marked “punish a Muslim day” on 3 April by labelling Sadiq Khan the mayor of “Londonistan” – the aim is equally clear. You only have to spend one minute reading the comments section of Guido Fawkes to understand how many of its followers blame Labour for creating the multi-ethnic Britain they want to destroy.
For the Blairite MPs it’s the same game as in May 2017: diss the leader, lose the election, normal service in the interests of neoliberalism shortly be will be resumed.
To resist this onslaught, we need to come up with political, not just organisational solutions on the issues that make Labour vulnerable to attack.
Daniel Finkelstein, Tory peer and journalist, argues there is something necessarily anti-Semitic in the left’s support for anti-colonial struggles, its critique of financial capitalism and its critique of Zionism. His argument relies on tortuous elisions (John McDonnell was influenced by Malcolm X etc) and ignores decades of actual practice by the left in Britain dedicated to fighting anti-Semites, both ideologically and with half-bricks in our hands.
But he misses a more obvious problem: the hangover from Stalinism inside the British left. Stalinism not only suppressed evidence of the Holocaust, and of some Soviet citizens’ role in it – it tried to suppress the narrative that there had been a specific anti-Jewish element to Nazi mass murder, and unleashed anti-Semitic purges such as the Doctors’ Plot of 1953.
There are very few supporters of hard Stalinism in the UK but there is a soft nostalgia which assumes that because Soviet tanks crushed Hitler, the left cannot be prone to anti-Semitism. I can guarantee there will be people reading this, who count themselves left-wing, who do not know the facts contained in the above paragraph. Why?
Frederick Harry Pitts and Matt Bolton in the New Statesman make a different point: the left’s obsession with elites rather than the “structure of capitalism” leads to a search for individual villains, not a systemic critique, and thus in the direction of anti-Semitism.
The problem is, the modern structure of capitalism makes everything personal: it etches the pain of poverty, depression, isolation and humiliation onto the bodies and brain of individuals. At the same time it destroys the culture of working class solidarity that used to oxygenate anti-racism and anti-fascism in working class communities.
As I argued, both in Postcapitalism and Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, the ethos of the old, manual working class will not be revived: we fight for progress with the human beings who surround us at the time.
And it is precisely because many of them are atomised, resentful and confused – and lack access to the kind of political education you received in the old trade union movement – that the establishment’s project to destroy Corbyn’s Labour is a very bad idea.
If, amidst rising xenophobia and intolerance, an organisation – half a million-strong – is prepared to go out on rainy Saturdays and set up stalls arguing for migrants’ rights, or more generous welfare benefits, risking the ridicule of Guido Fawkes and Breitbart – what would be the logic of trying to smash it?
If it had a leader who had faced arrest, harassment and continual state surveillance for opposing states based on policies of ethnic exclusion then why, even despite his occasional errors, would you want to destroy him as a human being?
Yet that is what the British establishment is trying to do. It is impossible to pick up a newspaper, or listen to a phone-in, without hearing some person earning six figures say the left is the main enemy of decent people, and should be debarred from governing Britain until it becomes more like the right.
But here is where that’s going to lead. For the 30-plus hardcore Blairite rebels, it will be the justification for forming a new party – or for a systematic rebellion that prevents a Corbyn-led government enacting its manifesto.
For the Tory right, it will be an excuse to use overtly at the next election what they used covertly in the Brexit campaign: the full Monty of digital dirty tricks. For companies that specialise in rigging elections and destabilising governments, there will be a queue of clients.
As the vilification campaign has mounted over the past two months, I’ve become more and more convinced that Labour will get to govern under Corbyn, and that the delegitimisation campaign now is preparation for a destabilisation campaign in that eventuality.
So Labour needs a step change on three fronts. First, streamline the internal discipline: we need a mechanism to punish those guilty of racism, anti-Semitism or transphobia, to exonerate those subject to malicious accusations and to educate people in how to express differences respectfully. That is new general secretary Jennie Formby’s job.
Second, spread the load. There are numerous highly-talented centrist politicians sitting on Labour’s backbenches who could and should be in the shadow cabinet. Give them big positions and create a resilient alliance of necessity between the left and centre of the party, isolating the Blairite rump. Demand excellence from shadow cabinet members and replace those who can’t deliver it, regardless of past allegiances and reputations. That is Corbyn’s job.
Third, build a vibrant political culture where anti-Semitism is combated, where any illusions about Vladimir Putin’s Russia are punctured and the truth is told about the crimes of Stalinism; a culture where people are educated in the values of the Labour movement and its diverse traditions – social democracy, syndicalism and democratic Marxism – not just given a manifesto, a rulebook and a list of doors to knock.
We need a movement that helps people develop a belief in their own agency – not the agency of states, religions, autocrats or, for that matter, iconic Labour leaders. That part is up to us.