Antisemitism, and the battle for the soul of Britain’s Labour Party

Britain’s Labour Party has always promoted itself as “a broad church.”

A man runs past a Labour Party sign with pictures of both Jeremy Corbyn and Britain’s new prime minister, Boris Johnson, in north London (photo credit: HANNAH MCKAY/ REUTERS)
A man runs past a Labour Party sign with pictures of both Jeremy Corbyn and Britain’s new prime minister, Boris Johnson, in north London
(photo credit: HANNAH MCKAY/ REUTERS)
Discount the scenes of wild enthusiasm for Jeremy Corbyn, leader of Britain’s Labour Party, by the party faithful.
Discount the 2017 general election, in which Prime Minister Theresa May lost her majority and Labour won an additional 30 seats. The truth is that now, in mid-2019, the Labour Party is in the midst of a life-and-death internal struggle for its continued existence. Brexit and the split between Leavers and Remainers has nothing to do with it. Antisemitism has become the proxy issue masking the deep-seated malaise that affects the party.
The battle is between the social democratic wing and the hard-left tendency represented by a movement called Momentum, set up in 2015 to support Jeremy Corbyn’s bid for the leadership.
Britain’s Labour Party has always promoted itself as “a broad church.” Founded at the turn of the 20th century by a trade union movement based on Marxist principles, Labour also embraced from the start much gentler social democratic concepts inherited from the Christian and philanthropic impulses of the Victorian Liberal Party.
It was the burgeoning trade union movement, based strongly on Marxist principles, which gave birth to Britain’s Labour Party in 1906. In 1918 the party incorporated into its constitution, as Clause 4, the out-and-out socialist objective of securing “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.”
In practical terms that meant that a future Labour government would be obligated to nationalize as much of the state’s economic infrastructure as possible, and indeed when Labour came into power after the 1945 general election, it proceeded to enact this program. It brought into public ownership the coal and steel industries, Britain’s railway system, road transportation, the electricity and gas industries, and, of course, by establishing the National Health Service, the provision of health care.
Although at first there was general acceptance of this great socialist experiment, disillusionment soon crept in. When inadequate services, soaring prices and strikes began to affect the public, their mood changed. Within the Labour movement the social democratic leadership began to see that electoral success depended on softening, if not abandoning, Clause 4. After losing the 1959 general election, Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell made a courageous attempt to have Clause 4 amended. The harder left-wing fought back, and defeated him.
It was a Pyrrhic victory, since it was followed by the brilliant electoral successes of Tony Blair and his “New Labour.” Blair was an unapologetic social democrat, and for a time he succeeded beyond all expectations in gaining the confidence of the British electorate.
Before Blair’s edifice came tumbling down in the debacle of the Iraqi war, he managed to have Clause 4 and all references to nationalization radically revised. After Blair’s departure the Labour Party was in disarray. When a leadership election was held, three of the four candidates could reasonably be described as social democrats. The fourth was a wild card, a long-standing rebel within the parliamentary Labour Party. Prominent figures in the party urged members not to vote for him. But Momentum had enthused thousands of young people to join the Labour Party and support Jeremy Corbyn, and he was elected in a landslide.
A member of parliament since 1983, Corbyn had been a rebel before entering parliament, and remained a rebel after taking his seat. During the 1970s, a Trotskyite hard-left group called the Militant Tendency embarked upon a long-term, calculated effort to infiltrate and eventually take over the Labour Party. Corbyn supported Militant and opposed its expulsion from the party. Eventually Militant Tendency defied the Labour establishment once too often, decisive action was taken, and the party was cleansed.
The hard Left, with its anti-colonialist traditions, sometimes includes support for a so-called world Zionist conspiracy. Representing the establishment of Israel as a colonialist enterprise, the extreme Left aligns itself with rejectionist Palestinian opinion, and condones the policies of extremist bodies like Hamas and Hezbollah that are condemned as terrorists by much of the world. Anti-Zionism morphs easily enough into antisemitism, and from the moment Corbyn became leader, antisemitism within the Labour Party – never previously an issue of importance – became a major bone of contention. The principles of the hard Left had become the principles dominating the party.
“From a journalist’s point of view, Labour’s antisemitism crisis is the gift that keeps on giving,” journalist Matt Seaton wrote a year ago. His observation has repeatedly proved itself over the past 12 months. In February, nine Labour MPs even resigned from the party, citing as their reason the leadership’s handling of antisemitism.
Now the party is yet again in the throes of a divisive issue centered on antisemitism.
Chris Williamson, a longtime friend and supporter of Corbyn, has been a Labour Party member for over 40 years and an MP since 2017. He was suspended from the party in February after video footage showed him telling a meeting of the Momentum group that Labour’s reaction to antisemitism allegations had been “too apologetic,” and had led to the party being “demonized.”
On June 26, his case was considered by an antisemitism panel of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC), and he was issued a formal warning and readmitted to the party.
A furious backlash followed. More than 120 Labour MPs and peers led by the deputy leader, Tom Watson, demanded that Corbyn step in to expel him from the parliamentary party. Almost 70 Labour staff members wrote to express their anger at Williamson’s readmission.
The furor lasted 24 hours. Then one of the three-member NEC panel, MP Keith Vaz, wrote to Labour’s general secretary proposing that a new panel should be convened. As a result, Williamson has had his suspension from the party reimposed while his case is re-examined. Meanwhile, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has launched an official inquiry into whether the Labour Party has unlawfully discriminated against, harassed or victimized people because they are Jewish.
Subsequently, three Labour peers – lords Triesman, Darzi and Turnberg – resigned the whip over the party’s handling of antisemitism. Following the move, Labour launched a website to combat antisemitism, featuring a video from Corbyn saying that the phenomenon is marginal in the party.  The site, titled “No Place for Antisemitism,” says its aim is to provide Labour members and supporters with basic tools to counter antisemitism.
The parliamentary Labour Party is now openly split. Social democrat MPs, who oppose Corbyn and much of what he stands for, use the failure of the leadership to tackle the festering wound of antisemitism to represent their far broader frustrations. There is even talk of a leadership challenge to Corbyn from more moderate quarters within the party. Meanwhile, the hard Left, having gained power within the party, is not going to relinquish it without a fight. With the emergence on July 23 of Boris Johnson as Britain’s new prime minister, a general election sooner rather than later is widely predicted. Johnson has two main priorities: to achieve Brexit by October 31, and to prevent Corbyn from ever becoming prime minister.
A recent UK-wide poll of voters found that 42% of voters believed antisemitism is a “genuine and serious issue” in the Labour Party. In rejecting antisemitism, the British electorate would be rejecting the hard-left political philosophy that nurtures it. ■
The writer is Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. His latest book is: The Chaos in the Middle East: 2014-2016. He blogs at: