Corbyn’s going, but will Labour kick its antisemitism habit?

The choice will likely come down to a candidate backed by the hard-left “Corbynite” wing of the party or a softer-left or centrist candidate backed by Labour’s more moderate wing

Britain's opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn listens to speeches during the Labour party Conference in Brighton, Britain, September 24, 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Britain's opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn listens to speeches during the Labour party Conference in Brighton, Britain, September 24, 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The heavy defeat suffered by the UK Labour Party and its leader Jeremy Corbyn in last week’s general election there was greeted with great relief by British Jewry which had feared that a party infested with antisemitism could take over the reins of power.
But although Labour suffered a crushing electoral defeat which led Corbyn to immediately announce his intention to step down as leader, three questions remain: who will be the new leader, in which direction will he take Labour, and will the party finally deal with its antisemitism crisis?
The leadership race is informally underway already, although a date for the election will not be given until Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) meets on January 6.
Multiple candidates are vying for the position but the choice will likely come down to a candidate backed by the hard-left “Corbynite” wing of the party or a softer-left or centrist candidate backed by Labour’s more moderate wing.
The two front-runners right now are Rebecca Long-Bailey, from the Corbynite wing, and Keir Starmer, a centrist who would have the backing of party moderates.
Corbyn’s direct acolyte and slated heir to his far-left crown was Laura Pidcock, but she was defenestrated from her once-safe Labour seat in the party’s heartlands in north-east England, a result which exemplified the scale of the British electorate’s rejection of the Corbyn-led Labour Party.
Long-Bailey is on the hard-left of the party but is the protegé not of Corbyn but of John McDonnel, who was Labour’s shadow chancellor and the most senior party figure under Corbyn’s tenure as leader.
Although still hard-line on many issues of domestic policy, McDonnel is more pragmatic than Corbyn and has been more open to dealing with the antisemitism crisis that has gripped the party, says Luke Akehurst, a former member of the Labour NEC.
Starmer is more of a centrist. He opposes Brexit and advocated for Labour to call for a second referendum on a final Brexit deal, a policy adopted in Labour’s election campaign.
He has also called for the immediate expulsion of anyone in the party involved in “a clear case of antisemitism” and for Labour to be completely transparent in the investigation currently underway by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), a statutory body, into whether the party has discriminated against or harassed Jewish members.
How the party tackles its antisemitism crisis after Corbyn largely depends on which candidate gets elected leader, or more broadly from which camp within Labour the leader comes.
According to Akehurst, a moderate such as Starmer would likely take drastic steps to expel antisemites swiftly from the party and take radical action to ensure that Labour recovers from the blight that has infested it ever since Corbyn took over in 2015, and possibly earlier.
Should a Corbynite such as Long-Bailey take over however, the party’s efforts to effectively deal with its antisemitism problem would likely be less rigorous.
The Labour hard-left is the very source of the antisemitism crisis, and its candidate would therefore be constrained as to how thoroughly they could go about rooting out antisemitism, especially when it could be cloaked behind “mere” claims of anti-Zionism, says Akehurst.
David Hirsh, a senior lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London and author of Contemporary Left Antisemitism, argues that “political antisemitism” in which Israel is seen as “a unique and symbolic evil in the world” has become deeply rooted inside the party’s institutions, and that it will be extremely difficult to root out.
He also notes that the Labour far-left will inevitably blame “Zionists,” often a euphemism for Jews, of responsibility for the party’s defeat because of the widespread attention brought to its antisemitism problem, which will further deepen the antagonism of the antisemites already in the party’s midst.
The deep ideological fervor of the Corbynites for the socialism Corbyn advocated in the election and during his time as leader, and its decisive rejection, will further heighten their bitterness.
“They’ve been working day and night for the greatest chance for socialism in a generation, and they will not be able to understand their defeat and they will blame the Jews,” said Hirsh.
He says that the Corbynite and hard left wing of the party fundamentally does not believe that Labour has an antisemitism problem and that it has been weaponized to hurt the Labour Party electorally.
There are however some mitigating factors that could yet mean that even a leader from the Corbynite wing would tackle Labour’s antisemitism problem in a more sincere manner.
The first is that the EHRC is scheduled to publish its report into Labour antisemitism in early 2020. Should it find that the party has discriminated against Jewish members, then its recommendations for resolving the problem would be legally binding.
In addition, the far-left, and even Communist figures who served as senior advisers to Corbyn, such as Seamus Milne and Andrew Murray, who until 2016 was a member of the pro-Soviet Communist Party of Britain, will likely loose influence now that Corbyn is stepping down.
Their radical agenda, especially regarding pro-Palestinian positions and the antisemitism that has infiltrated Labour under that guise, will have fewer and less powerful proponents under a new leader, whether it is a moderate or Long Bailey, who now looks to be the only viable Corbynite candidate, Akehurst argues.
And someone such as Long-Bailey, just 40 years old, is also less rooted in the far-left anti-Westernism and antipathy for Israel and the decades-long struggle against it, than the veteran radicals are.
“Even if Long-Bailey wins, she’ll want to do something to show they have learned lessons,” says Akehurst, noting also that her Salford constituency in Manchester is home to a large Jewish community meaning that she may understand the antisemitism problem more clearly.
He says that he is optimistic action will be taken, firstly because the EHRC will demand action, and secondly because Labour needs to become electable again, something that rampant antisemitism mitigates against.
Eventually, the unrepentant, hardcore antisemites who have become part of the party at several levels could be ousted, life made easier for Labour’s Jewish members, and enforcement of anti-discrimination rules tightened.
Akehurst warns, however, that even if the antisemites leave Labour they will not be leaving the UK, and that the antisemitism that has infected Labour could continue to affect broader society after they’ve quit the party.
“Corbyn has left us with a legacy in which antisemitic discourse is much more widespread than before 2015 and the wider community will be dealing with that for long time,” he says.