How well can British Labour candidates tackle antisemitism in the party?

Corbyn remains highly popular among the membership; a recent YouGov poll found him to be the members’ most popular Labour leader in the last century.

Jeremy Corbyn (photo credit: REUTERS)
Jeremy Corbyn
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Since the Labour leadership race began early this year, issues of antisemitism within the party have become a major issue for debate among the candidates.
Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour Party became engulfed in an antisemitism crisis which led the Equalities and Human Rights Commission to launch an (ongoing) investigation into it. According to a Survation poll for the Jewish Leadership Council, 87% of British Jews find Corbyn to be personally antisemitic.
Yet a significant shift seems to have taken place in the discourse around antisemitism at the top of the Labour Party. Retreating from the denial which had so often characterized Labour statements on the issue – until Corbyn’s belated apology to the Jewish community in early December – all four of the remaining leadership candidates now accept that the party has had a specific problem with anti-Jewish racism, and that it played a role in the party’s biggest electoral failure since 1935.
Encouragingly, the leadership hopefuls have all signed up to the 10 recommendations made to the party by the Board of Deputies of British Jews. These include a commitment to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism without qualification. This became a contentious issue when Corbyn resisted calls to adopt it at the height of his party’s antisemitism crisis, ultimately accepting it only with a number of caveats.
Another key pledge is to make the party’s disciplinary process independent. Under Corbyn, numerous journalistic investigations – including a high-profile documentary from the BBC – revealed that the leadership had regularly interfered in antisemitism complaints against members.
By signing up to the pledges of the Board of Deputies, the candidates have side-lined those backers of the party who smeared the main representative of the British Jewish community as a “right-wing” pressure group. To the more optimistic observers, there are hopeful signs of a frank and soul-searching version of the “period of reflection” which Corbyn called for after the general election result.
Yet three of the four candidates are constrained by their association with the previous leadership. Rebecca Long-Bailey, Keir Starmer, and Emily Thornberry all served in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet and supported a leadership which they now deem to have made serious errors in tackling racism. While their close relationships with the previous leadership undermines their claims to be presenting a radical new approach to antisemitism, it also makes their campaigns more appealing to many Labour members.
Corbyn remains highly popular among the membership; a recent YouGov poll found him to be the members’ most popular Labour leader in the last century.
Long-Bailey was widely seen as Corbyn’s protégée and has sought to cast herself as heir to the Corbynite tradition. She is understood to be the most left-wing of the candidates and has secured the backing of the influential Labour-affiliated Momentum group, which campaigned for Corbyn in the 2015 contest. Starmer, presenting himself as the party’s unity candidate, has also tried to keep the substantial Corbyn wing of the party onside by refusing to criticize the former leader.
ACCORDINGLY, BOTH Long-Bailey and Starmer’s criticisms of antisemitism in the party have not focused on the previous leadership. In a hustings event in Liverpool, Starmer said, “The Labour Party’s handling of antisemitism has been completely unacceptable,” while Long-Bailey remarked that rebuilding trust with Britain’s Jews “requires looking within and seeing what went wrong. And we weren’t dealing with the issue effectively – we weren’t responding to complaints quickly enough.” Despite their many differences on other issues, for both Long-Bailey and Starmer, the problem was one of process, never of leadership.
Thornberry has tended to echo the frequent remarks of Corbyn in referring to antisemitism in more general terms as “a problem for society as a whole,” only conceding that it was a particular problem for Labour because “we hold ourselves to a higher standard.” At the hustings, this answer was greeted with the loudest applause by far. If this audience is reflective of the party at large, then the “period of reflection” risks reinforcing a narrative according to which the party’s antisemitism problem amounted only ever to specific isolated cases.
By contrast, Lisa Nandy’s distance from the Corbyn leadership makes her condemnations of antisemitism in the party more credible. She was one of the many who quit Corbyn’s shadow cabinet in June 2016 in protest at the leader. Nandy has been critical of him not only on antisemitism but also on the major political issue of the day, opposing the party’s promise to hold a second referendum on Brexit.
In the leadership race, she has been the most candid about Corbyn’s responsibility for the problem. When the issue of antisemitism was raised at the Liverpool leadership hustings, Nandy said, “The collective failure of the leadership at the top of the party has let us all down. It’s let the Jewish communities in this country down. This is existential for the Labour Party.”
Appealing to a rallying point for the party membership, she went on to point to her historic solidarity with Palestinians but argued it was “not complicated” to argue for a two-state solution and support the Palestinian cause without descending into antisemitism.
Jess Phillips, the most open and consistent critic of the previous leadership, had to pull out of the race on January 21 after failing to gain sufficient trade union backing. She had offered the frankest analysis of Labour’s failings, recognizing that “Jewish people were scared of the Labour Party winning the election.”
In her absence, Lisa Nandy could well be the most convincing and effective leader in rebuilding the historic relationship between the Labour Party and Britain’s Jewish communities. In any case, the process of regaining trust will be long and difficult. Above all, it will require strong and principled leadership.
The writer is a freelance journalist from the UK who has covered British, French and Mediterranean politics.