The current pitiful state of mainstream political debate within the UK is hardly news – one has to look no further than the machinations over Brexit to realise that sad fact. Yet, rivalling even that debacle, is the way in which various politicians and interested parties have sought to utilise allegations of antisemitism within the Labour Party, and the ways in which almost all of the mainstream media have involved themselves. Especially depressing is the way in which an internationally increasingly important issue has become mired in muddled thinking.
At the time of writing, (February 22, 2019) some nine Labour MPs have decided to quit Labour with claims that the leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has presided over a culture of antisemitism in the party. They are simply the latest voices among many since Spring 2018 who have claimed extensive antisemitism within Labour, even as the Jewish Chronicle has suggested, saying that Corbyn presents a potential ‘existential threat’ to the UK Jewish community. In Summer 2018 the main attack on Labour centered on it’s refusal to adopt a definition and explication of antisemitism adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA), preferring to use its own modification that was not only more nuanced but most importantly was explicit that antisemitism should not be conflated with legitimate criticism of the actions of the Israeli Government in its treatment of Palestinians and its policies concerning its occupied territories; an issue that the IHRA examples appeared to fudge. After initially maintaining its stance, sadly the National Executive Committee of the Party gave in and agreed to adopt the IHRA definition, with the apparent support of Corbyn, albeit with the caveat that they would still retain the right to be critical of the Israeli Government. Needless to say, many of those who were alleging Labour antisemitism continued to press their claims, with some of the nine MPs referring to ‘the scourge of antisemitism’ and ‘institutional racism’.
Remarkably, or perhaps not so remarkably, there happens to be little sound evidence to back any of these claims. Indeed, it must be said that despite some limited polling evidence
(see for example https://yougov.co.uk/opi/search/?q=antisemitism )
that antisemitism is in fact rather more prevalent among conservative supporters than Labour ones, there has been almost no attempt within the media to make this rather obvious point. It must also be said that even that part of the media that regards itself as principled and ‘liberal’ such as the Guardian newspaper fares badly by presenting a heavily biased view in both its news stories and opinion pieces, although it will from time to time, publish letters defending the Labour position. The BBC is certainly no better and has not sought to present any real balance or indeed check any relevant facts.
The demeaning effect on rational democratic debate is obvious, but it does not have to be like this. Thus, if the Labour Party wishes to make a sensible response , instead of effectively accepting that they have antisemitism and protesting that they are doing all they can to deal with it (which may actually be true) they should seriously consider employing an independent polling agency to survey their members with a suitable questionnaire designed to elicit the real extent of anti-semitic and other racist attitudes – such instruments do exist. Other parties could usefully follow suit and if they didn’t could be fairly accused of cowardice. This would I believe help to properly contextualise the debate but also illustrate that there are better ways to conduct politics.
And a final note about Corbyn. When he was elected it was an important moment that inspired many to support his project with a welcome change within the Labour party that presaged an opposition that did pose a set of important alternatives to the previous neo-liberal consensus. Leaving aside Brexit, Corbyn has hardly covered himself with glory over the antisemitism episode. He has made a series of apologies for certain inept remarks in the past, and attempted to meet his critics, but has singularly failed to take a robust stand on the issue. It is clear that antisemitism has been used as a weapon against him personally, by his enemies, yet he has not had the courage to say so, preferring it seems to try and placate his critics. This policy was always likely to fail given the interests lined up against him, including the powerful interests of those who would wish to conflate antisemitism with criticism of Israel. He and his colleagues have also failed to grasp the importance of criticising those who accuse him, of lacking good evidence.
I can only hope that people will learn from this episode. Indeed, for students of contemporary politics it does provide a subject that is well worth studying in depth since it contains most of the elements of what is currently of concern in our democratic system.