Labour’s anti-Semitism problem is the story of a forgotten people: the estimated 60,000 British Jews who voted for Labour in 2015, most of whom did not do so in 2019.
Jeremy Corbyn’s allies are fond of pointing out that even in the epochal defeat of 2019, he polled more votes than Ed Miliband in 2015 and did better still than Gordon Brown in 2010. The vagaries of the first-past-the-post system and the changing nature of Labour support meant that in 2019 a greater vote share than 2010 or 2015 yielded a Labour defeat of a scale not seen since 1935. This is true, and Corbyn’s electoral success, particularly in 2017, cannot simply be wished away or ignored.
But neither can the fact that in elections in which the Labour Party was gaining votes, if not seats, it was losing votes among British Jews.
Many of the explanations Labour has given as to why its support among British Jews slumped from 22 per cent in 2015 to 6 per cent in 2019 – according to a series of Survation polls for the Jewish Chronicle – are themselves rooted in anti-Semitism. One is to see the row as a proxy for Labour’s position on the Israel-Palestine conflict. That ignores the reality that the party’s stance had not changed from the pro-Palestine attitude adopted by Ed Miliband.
Another is to pin the loss of Jewish voters on the community’s growing affluence. Aside from alluding to the anti-Semitic stereotype that all Jews are rich, this fails to pass the credibility test. Corbyn’s central electoral success was in appealing to affluent voters who had hitherto been inclined to give Labour a miss, in seats such as Canterbury and Kensington, both of which he won from the Conservatives in 2017.
The United Kingdom’s Jewish community, which voted to remain in the European Union by a two-to-one margin, is largely concentrated in England’s great cities, London in particular. It strongly resembles the group of voters that Corbyn’s Labour won over most effectively.
Yet instead of gaining ground, the Corbyn-era Labour Party shed not only Jewish voters but Jewish parliamentarians. Luciana Berger, the then chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, led a breakaway faction to form a new party. Louise Ellman opted to stand down as an MP rather than go into an election calling for a Corbyn victory. In the Lords, two Labour peers, Leslie Turnberg and David Triesman, quit the party whip. (Both men have since rejoined under Keir Starmer; Berger and Ellman have not.)
The exodus of Jewish voters and politicians has a simple explanation: the failure to tackle anti-Semitism within Labour, a problem that was confirmed by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) on 29 October. The EHRC found that the party’s processes for tackling anti-Semitism fell short of the standards Labour set for dealing with harassment, and that under Corbyn’s leadership his office interfered in the management of cases on at least 23 occasions.
One of these interventions was to quash a complaint made against Corbyn personally. On another occasion, referencing Ken Livingstone’s suspension following remarks about Hitler and Zionism in 2016, a member of the leader’s office argued that “we have let the Ken [Livingstone] case drag on for far too long already and, if GLU [the Governance and Legal Unit, responsible for the management of complaints within Labour] leak to the press that we have held up this investigation of him, it will look beyond awful”.
Corbyn’s takeover of the party’s structures did not help the problem. By 2019 he had a large majority on the National Executive Committee (NEC). In June of that year the NEC disputes committee rebuffed the GLU’s recommendation that the Labour MP Chris Williamson – who said the party had been “too apologetic” over anti-Semitism – should be referred to the National Constitutional Committee (the body that can ultimately suspend party members), and instead issued him with a formal warning.
Labour’s rule book gives the general secretary and the ruling NEC broad powers of suspension or expulsion thanks to the “bringing the party into disrepute” clause. Given that Corbyn’s Labour was found by the EHRC to have broken equalities law, the suspension of Corbyn’s membership, pending investigation, by the party’s new general secretary David Evans, is justified by the rules. Corbyn’s response to the report – in which he suggested that the scale of anti-Semitism had been exaggerated for political gain – could itself be said to have brought the party into disrepute. You could go further still and say there are around 45,000 arguments to be made that Corbyn had brought the party into disrepute, one for each Jewish voter estimated to have abandoned Labour between 2015 and 2019.
But that would require the 45,000 to have been given a greater voice in political discourse than they have ever been afforded. That speaks to a problem in British public life that goes far beyond the Labour Party: the failure of the media, particularly the BBC, to convey accurately political divides when there are not “two sides” of equivalent size or worth. Despite what some have claimed, pro-Corbyn Jewish voices have not been erased from the debate. In fact, the opposite was true: they have been amplified by a media desperate for conflict.
This phenomenon leads to false equivalence: for the sake of “balance”, we must entertain pro-austerity arguments despite the economic consensus that it does not work, or listen to those who deny the scientific consensus that climate change is a real and imminent threat. The same process, then, that concealed the extent of British Jewish opposition to Corbyn has also hindered the spread of his (anti-austerity, pro-green) politics. You might call that an example of English irony.
This article appears in the 04 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, American chaos