On anti-Semitism, new and old Labour members are moving in the same direction

Two years ago, 36 per cent of new Labour members believed anti-Semitism is an issue. Today, 64 per cent do. 

NS

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Recent YouGov polling for The Times on Labour members’ attitudes to anti-Semitism, which found that eight out of ten believed concerns were exaggerated to damage Jeremy Corbyn, quite rightly created a splash. But we need to remember that different members have different views. We also need to look at how those views have changed over time. If we do that, there may be more room for optimism than first appears.

YouGov’s polling reveals some significant differences across the piece – and not just between those who supported Owen Smith in his spectacularly unsuccessful challenge to Corbyn, but also between those who were members before Corbyn stood for the leadership and those who presumably joined to support him.

True, it is Smith supporters who are, by some distance, most sceptical about Labour’s leader: only three out of ten of them believe Corbyn is likely to become PM, compared to eight out of ten of those who voted him in again in 2016. But the difference between those who were members before and after 2015 – namely 55 per cent compared to 70 per cent  – is stark too. 

Interestingly, however, that difference isn’t quite so big when it comes to members' views on anti-Semitism in the Labour party, the issue that garnered the biggest headlines in the YouGov poll. 

New and old members are fairly similarly split on this question. The proportion of both groups who believe that anti-Semitism isn’t a serious problem and is being hyped up to undermine Labour and Jeremy Corbyn or to stifle legitimate criticism of Israel amounts to 32 per cent of new members and 27 per cent for the old.

A larger proportion in both groups believe anti-Semitism is a genuine problem but is also being hyped up. They represent 48 per cent of the new group and 46 per cent of the old. 

That’s interesting because it reminds us that irritation with the way the issue has supposedly been “weaponised” by Corbyn’s opponents isn’t confined to those who were inspired by his leadership to join the party.

Most interesting of all, however, is the difference between the answers given by the post-2015 members a week or so back and the answers given to the same questions by “new” members when they were asked them back in May 2016 by the ESRC-funded Party Members Project run from Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University.

This suggests there has been a very substantial increase over time in the number of new members (ie those who joined Labour in 2015 and after) who believe anti-Semitism, irrespective of whether or not it's being “weaponised”, really is a genuine problem for the party – up from 36 per cent two years ago to 64 per cent today.

This one-third to two-thirds shift suggests that it’s wrong to portray Labour members, especially those who joined the party to support Jeremy Corbyn, as effectively sticking their fingers in their ears and shouting “La, La, La, I can’t hear you.” In fact, rather than doubling down on blinkered defiance, they have begun to realise that anti-Semitism is indeed a genuine problem for their party, even if they’re still rather defensive about it.

Whether that shift at Labour’s grassroots helps to produce more decisive and determined action on the issue at the very top of the party, however, we’ll have to wait and see.

 

Tim Bale is professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.  The second edition of his book, The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron, was published in September 2016 by Polity Press.