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Taking action against antisemitism will ultimately be for the many, not the few

The party's conference showed there's still a long way to go.

Only 15 months after Labour’s Chakrabarti inquiry, a response to accusations of institutional apathy to antisemitism, Labour is once again having to deny that it is now the ‘nasty party’ when it comes to Jews.

So what happened? There were anecdotal incidents aplenty. For example, John Mann MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism, was accosted by a party member alleging Mann was an agent of MI5 because he had tried to tackle the “antisemitism nonsense”. There were calls to ban the affiliated Jewish Labour Movement and suggestions its officers colluded with right-wing media. On at least two occasions, it was proposed that debate should occur on whether the Holocaust happened. Meanwhile in the conference surroundings, a Marxist newspaper was handed out which quoted Reinhard Heydrich, using the top Nazi official as a supposedly reliable source of information about the Holocaust. To compound all of this, ex-London Mayor Ken Livingstone and current trade union boss Len McCluskey were amongst those suggesting accusations of antisemitism were overstated or weaponised to attack the party leadership. The list does not end there.

The conference passed a motion to strengthen the party rules and enable more effective action against antisemitism and other forms of prejudice. But, in truth, what started as a sore has become a major infection and without clearer, more direct condemnation of this type of language, there is little chance of proper healing.

Understanding the problem requires some context and analysis. Racism tends to treat its victims as primitive, lowly, inhumane or worthless; however, antisemitism portrays Jews as cunning, manipulative, and all-powerful liars. For some on the left, racism is purely structural, built into society through its systems, be it in housing, education or any other sectors "the system" discriminates. When Jews, a well-integrated community, are stereotyped as wealthy, successful and so on, those that think racism is structural believe Jews are not able to be victims of racism. Worse, the Jews are thought by some of these people to be manipulating the various systems to persecute others. Presumably, those people also think the protocols of the elders of zion, the notorious antisemitic forgery about a Jewish conspiracy controlling banks, media and so on, wasn’t antisemitic.

The conspiracy theory discourse has been cross-pollinated from the far-right to elements of the left. It is not uncommon to see talk of Jewish and right-wing media plotting, and suggestions of Jewish and Nazi collaboration during the second world war. Of course, any discussion of the Holocaust should start and end with the fact that six million Jews and others were murdered by the Nazis. For the record, the one document cited by conspiracists online is universally agreed by history experts to have been a specific tool which aided the Nazis and related to currency export matters – but explaining that isn’t quite as catchy as saying Hitler supported Zionism.

Regrettably, and judging by some of the behaviour at Labour’s annual conference, rather than be concerned about antisemitism, some have embraced the issue as a partisan challenge or some kind of game seen through the prism of the different "sides" of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The aim of the game is to get one over your opponent, to prove that antisemitism doesn’t exist, to show that it’s all really about what Israel is doing, and when you "win" you get a rush: it’s emotionally uplifting. What it results in, however, is what one visibly Jewish man at the conference experienced: walking by some people leafletting against the aforementioned rule change, he found they turned their backs on him as he passed. This is clear racial and religious profiling and discrimination.

In such a polarised, angry environment, allegations of antisemitism aren’t given the serious consideration they deserve. Those that perceive themselves as victims are not offered the sensitivity and respect they should have. That is a failure to abide by the terms of the Chakrabarti report and that is a problem for the party. Put simply, it needs to abide by its own Terms of Service.

So where does Labour go from here? The starting point has to be a change to the norms of the discourse in the party. Suggestions that antisemitism has been weaponised or doesn’t exist should be angrily and vocally protested from all quarters in the party, and specifically by the shadow cabinet. Explanations should be offered to the membership about the dangers of Holocaust revisionism and, as above, debate should begin and end with the indisputable fact that it happened and that 6 million Jews and others were murdered. Finally, the terms of Labour’s own Chakrabarti inquiry should be applied for debate of the Middle East conflict. Civil, rational, calm and informed debate is at risk of being eroded; angry, racist discourse will be all that is left. Antisemitism on the left is having an impact on the Jewish community, but failing to change the discourse surrounding it will have an impact on our whole political debate. Taking action against antisemitism will ultimately be for the many, not the few.

Danny Stone MBE is the director of the Antisemitism Policy Trust.

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Can a “Momentum moment” revive the fortunes of Germany’s SPD?

Support for the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, behind the far right Alternative for Germany.

Germany has crossed a line: for the first time in the history of the federal republic, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, polling just 15.5 per cent – half a point behind the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The poll was published on the day the SPD membership received their postal ballots on whether to enter another grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and inflamed debate further.

For the grassroots coalition opposed to the so-called GroKo (Große Koalition) the poll is proof that the SPD needs a fundamental change of political direction. Within the two grand coalitions of recent years, the SPD has completely lost its political profile. The beneficiary each time has been the far right. Yet another GroKo seems likely to usher in the end of the SPD as a Volkspartei (people’s party). Taking its place would be the AfD, a deeply disturbing prospect.

For the SPD leadership, the results are proof that the party must enter a grand coalition. Failure to do so would likely mean new elections (though this is disputed, as a minority government is also a possibility) and an SPD wipeout. The SPD’s biggest problem, they argue, is not a bad political programme, but a failure to sell the SPD’s achievements to the public.

But is it? The richest 45 Germans now own as much as the bottom 50 per cent. According to French economist Thomas Piketty, German income inequality has now sunk to levels last seen in 1913. Perhaps most shockingly, the nominally left-wing SPD has been in government for 16 of the last 20 years. Whatever it has been doing in office, it hasn’t been nearly enough. And there’s nothing in the present coalition agreement that will change that. Indeed, throughout Europe, mainstream left parties such as the SPD have stuck to their economically centrist programmes and are facing electoral meltdown as a result.

The growing popular anger at the status quo is being channeled almost exclusively into the AfD, which presents itself as the alternative to the political mainstream. Rather than blame the massive redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top, however, the AfD points the finger at the weakest in society: immigrants and refugees.

So how can the SPD turn things around by the next federal election in 2021? 

The party leadership has promised a complete programme of political renewal, as it does after every disappointing result. But even if this promise were kept this time, how credible is political renewal within a government that stands for more of the same? The SPD would be given the finance ministry, but would be wedded to an austerity policy of no new public debt, and no increased tax rises on the rich. 

SPD members are repeatedly exhorted to separate questions of programmatic renewal from the debate about who leads the party. But these questions are fundamentally linked. The SPD’s problem is not its failure to make left-wing promises, but the failure of its leaders to actually keep them, once in office.

The clear counter-example for genuine political renewal and credibility is, of course, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. In spite of all dire warnings that a left-wing programme was a sure-fire vote-loser, Labour’s massively expanded membership – and later electorate – responded with an unprecedented and unforeseen enthusiasm. 

A radical democratic change on the lines of Labour would save the SPD party from oblivion, and save Germany from an ascendent AfD. But it would come at the cost of the careers of the SPD leadership. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, they are fighting it tooth and nail.

Having promised an “especially fair” debate, the conflict over the GroKo has suddenly surged to become Germany’s Momentum moment - and the SPD leadership is doing everything it can to quash the debate. Party communications and so-called “dialogue events” pump out a pro-GroKo line. The ballots sent out this week came accompanied by an authoritative three-page letter on why members should vote for the grand coalition.

Whether such desperate measures have worked or not will be revealed when the voting result is announced on 4 March 2018. Online, sentiment is overwhelmingly against the GroKo. But many SPD members (average age is 60) are not online, and are thought to be more conservative.

Whatever the outcome, the debate isn’t going away. If members can decide on a grand coalition, why not on the leadership itself? A direct election for the leadership would democratically reconnect the SPD with its grassroots.

Unless the growth in inequality is turned around, a fundamental reboot of the SPD is ultimately inevitable. Another grand coalition, however, will postpone this process even further. And what will be left of the SPD by then?

Steve Hudson is a Momentum activist and a member of both Labour and the SPD. He lives in Germany, where he chairs the NoGroKo eV campaign group.