Labour is close to the point of no return on anti-Semitism

Thursday’s unprecedented joint editorial by Britain’s three biggest Jewish newspapers underlines the scale of revulsion to its handling of the issue. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Labour under Jeremy Corbyn has made a habit of defying expectation. Of late, however, it has done so in a singularly unedifying way.

The row over anti-Semitism within its ranks and its decision to amend the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of the prejudice rather than adopt it in full have united the leaders of British Jewry to a degree that most would have dismissed as impossible.

So it is with the joint editorial run on the front pages of Britain’s three biggest Jewish newspapers today. The Jewish Chronicle, Jewish News and Jewish Telegraph have, the leader says, taken “the unprecedented step of speaking as one...because of the existential threat to Jewish life in this country that would be posed by a Jeremy Corbyn-led government”.

There has, and will be, some debate in the wider Jewish community over whether such language is proportionate. More obstinate quarters of the left have sought to dismiss it. Billy Bragg, the left-wing singer-songwriter, has accused the three newspapers of “pouring petrol on the fire”. But that they in particular believe the situation to be so serious reflects the depth and toxicity of the mire the party is trapped in.

Editorials condemning the leader of the Labour Party on the front page of Jewish newspapers are not, as difficult as it would have been to imagine writing this sentence before the summer of 2015, necessarily new or uncommon. Their decision to do so together is.

One wouldn’t assume that the Mirror, Mail and Telegraph all spoke to the same audiences or held the same world views because each masthead contains the word Daily, and the same is true of the Jewish Chronicle, Jewish News (which interviewed Corbyn in March, at the height of the last anti-Semitism controversy) and Jewish Telegraph. Beyond “Jewish”, the three weeklies do not have all that much in common.

They serve different purposes and audiences. The JC is a paid-for journal of record with national circulation, the JN a lighter freesheet covering the synagogues and high streets of north and north-west London, while the Jewish Telegraph publishes local editions in the great cities of the North and Glasgow.

They are also rivals. My first job in journalism was on the website of the upstart Jewish News. Its existence was seldom, if ever, acknowledged by the haughty JC. Think Manchester United and Manchester City, before the petrodollars started to flow. The Jewish Telegraph, meanwhile, was maybe Accrington Stanley: small, doughty, likeable, but ultimately provincial, and never in the same league.

It takes a lot to get any set of commercial competitors to work together. That reluctance is naturally greater in a fragile print media ecosystem and greater still here. The strength of cross-community revulsion to Labour’s failure to adopt the full IHRA definition has overridden it. “Something in our minds clicked,” says JN editor Richard Ferrer. “Newspapers reflect the feelings of their readership, and this reflects conversations that are being had at dinner tables, schools and shuls.”

During Corbyn’s near three-year tenure as leader, the mood music has never been good, and often dire. The editorial describes it as “deeply painful”. But no controversy ever had this effect, or moved 68 rabbis to overcome small differences such as not believing each other to be rabbis to write to Labour and accuse it of ignoring the Jewish community. No individual leader or organisation has a monopoly on what the community thinks or feels but events like today’s editorial are unprecedented – as its text says – for a reason.

There is a clear escape route for Labour, if not Corbyn. The editorial puts it thus: “Implement IHRA in full, or be seen by all decent people as an institutionally racist, anti-Semitic party.”

Members of the shadow cabinet, including Keir Starmer, Jon Ashworth and Barry Gardiner, have urged the same course of action. Andrew Gwynne, its elections coordinator, has acknowledged that the anti-Semitism row harmed the Labour party’s performance in May’s local elections. Nobody is in any doubt as to the urgent need to do something. As long as that something isn't adopting the full IHRA definition, however, it will make the problem much worse.

Where next? MPs will almost certainly vote for it in September but it is far from certain that the party’s national executive will heed the call. But one prediction can be made with more certainty today: even if Labour does adopt the IHRA definition, it will be too late to repair much of the damage. 

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.