What’s next for the UK’s Labour Party?

In December, the British people delivered their verdict: a devastating rejection of Corbyn, his hard-left agenda and antisemitism.

Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn reacts after the General Election results of the Islington North constituency were announced (photo credit: REUTERS / HANNAH MCKAY)
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn reacts after the General Election results of the Islington North constituency were announced
(photo credit: REUTERS / HANNAH MCKAY)
One year ago this month I left the Labour Party, after four decades of membership. I did so because I didn’t believe that Jeremy Corbyn was fit to be Britain’s prime minister, and I didn’t want to campaign to help elect a party that on his watch has become institutionally antisemitic.
In December, the British people delivered their verdict: a devastating rejection of Corbyn, his hard-left agenda and antisemitism.
With his departure from the leadership in April, Labour now has an opportunity to rid itself of the anti-Jewish racism which has infested and tarnished the party over the past four years.
But that opportunity will be missed if Labour does not confront some hard truths.
The first and most obvious is that while he bears the greatest responsibility for it, the antisemitism scandal is not simply about Corbyn, and it won’t simply disappear with his departure.
It’s true, of course, that Corbyn had a long record of associating with Holocaust-deniers, Jew-haters and terrorists. It’s also true that he seems consumed by an obsessive hatred of Israel which sometimes manifests itself in a willingness to peddle bizarre and dangerous antisemitic conspiracy theories.
I always believed that given his record, his stubbornness and sense of his own moral superiority, Corbyn would struggle to understand, let alone, tackle antisemitism within the Labour Party.
I also always feared that his record and his behavior would attract into the Labour Party Jew-haters and that the cult-like aura which surrounded his leadership would lead many others to dismiss, belittle and ignore the fears, concerns and pleas of the Jewish community.
We have to recognise that – within Labour’s ranks – there remain many members who continue to believe that Corbyn did nothing wrong, and that the charges of antisemitism levelled against the party were nothing more than a concoction of lies, half-truths and smears peddled by the media and the Labour leader’s opponents.
Corbyn’s departure won’t change that reality. Nor will his departure rid Labour of the utterly toxic culture – of bullying, abuse, racism and sexism – which now pervades many party meetings and online discussions.
Equally, Corbyn’s hard-left ideology and worldview has now developed deep roots, and a loyal following, within Labour’s ranks. Its perverted anti-imperialist mindset – one that places all of the world’s ills at the feet of the West – is at the heart of the Jew-hatred in the party. Its view of Israel – as a Western, colonial implant in the Middle East, and a staunch ally of the US, to boot – is intertwined with its refusal to accept the Jewish people’s right to self-determination.
The desire to delegitimise and demonize Zionism by branding it racist has a long history on the Left. It is indeed very telling how hard Corbyn fought in the summer of 2018 against Labour adopting in full the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism precisely because he wished to maintain the right of party members to label Zionism a racist endeavor.
Only when the issues of ideology and culture are addressed can Labour begin to rid the party of antisemitism, as well as having the intellectual space and capacity to begin the process of developing a policy program that might enable it to once again assemble a winning electoral coalition.
AT PRESENT, I fear the Labour leadership contest is failing to address these two twin vital problems.
I welcome the fact that all of the remaining leadership candidates – though not, shamefully, all of those standing for deputy leader – have signed up to the pledges issued by the Board of Deputies. This is an important start.
It is also clear from their statements that some of those standing for leader are genuinely horrified by antisemitism within the party. I don’t doubt the sincerity of their desire and their intention to root it out. I do, however, doubt their ability to do so until members are forced to confront the huge moral catastrophe that has befallen Labour over the past four years.
If you had told me in May 2015 when I was re-elected to the House of Commons that within four years Labour would become – aside from the fascist British National party – the only political party ever to have been investigated by the UK’s anti-racism watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, I simply would not have believed you, nor, do I believe, a single Labour party member would have.
This simple fact should be the principal topic in the leadership debate: How did Labour sink to this and how are we going to ensure it never, ever happens again?
That debate won’t be the honest, frank and open one that Labour needs to have unless and until those who are vying to lead the party speak with honesty and clarity about Corbyn’s pernicious legacy. It certainly will not enable Labour to regain its moral authority – as an unwavering foe of racism and advocate of equality – while his radicalism is lauded, his leadership applauded and the criticisms leveled against him dismissed as nothing more than the Conservative-backing media up to its old tricks.
This will be, for many Labour Party members, an uncomfortable message. It may come at a political cost for the candidates. Many of the diehard Corbynites who joined Labour because they shared his far-left politics will instinctively dismiss it.
But I hope that many other Labour Party members – those who were, perhaps, initially attracted by Corbyn’s outsider status and his message of a different kind of politics, rather than his worldview – will listen. Many are decent, caring and principled people. Deep down they know that something has gone terribly wrong when Jews fear their party. I believe that they will reward the honesty and integrity of a candidate who shows them a path back.
And, of course, the leadership election has also seen many thousands of people join or rejoin Labour now that Corbyn is leaving. They don’t want to be in a party sullied by anti-Jewish racism and they will want a new leader to scrub this stain clean with alacrity.
Although it now seems hard to believe, Labour was once the Jewish community’s closest ally in Britain and one of Israel’s warmest friends overseas. There is a small window of opportunity – a glimmer of a hope – that one day it might become so once again. That hope requires some straight-talking, honest politics from those who aspire to lead Labour.
The author is a former Labour Party MP in the UK and remains chair of the Labour Friends of Israel