As Britain’s Tories decide who to elect as their next leader, the Labour Party has to address two urgent dilemmas of its own. One is the question of Brexit. Should Labour, as prominent figures like Owen Jones have argued, now abandon the idea of an alternative, “soft-Brexit” deal and campaign wholeheartedly for Britain to stay in the European Union?
Whatever view you take on that issue, it’s clearly a matter of huge importance, not just for Labour, but for the future course of British politics.
Labour’s second dilemma appears much more specific, and to a casual observer much harder to comprehend. How can it respond to allegations of pervasive, “institutional” antisemitism leveled by hostile critics?
This issue has flared up periodically since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader four years ago. Already in the first six months of 2019, there has been a whole series of controversies, the gaps between them narrowing from months to weeks or even days.
For Corbyn’s detractors, the explanation is simple: the Labour leadership’s supposed failure (or worse, deliberate refusal) to get to grips with the problem.
But the truth is very different. We are in fact dealing with a meta-controversy, based on a false narrative. Unless they challenge the underlying premises of that narrative, Corbyn and Labour will never be able to move on from this issue — hobbling their efforts to put forward a positive agenda.
Truth and Fiction
The latest controversy involves the Labour MP Chris Williamson, who was suspended, readmitted, then suspended again in the space of a few days, after facing allegations of antisemitism and “Jew-baiting.”
We’ll get to Williamson later. One of the mistakes many people have made is to get bogged down in discussion of individual cases at the expense of understanding the bigger picture.
A narrative can still be false even if it contains truthful elements: in fact, there are very few that don’t. Take the case of welfare fraud. One poll in 2013 found that the British public’s perceptions of that issue were completely at odds with reality. On average, people believed that welfare fraud cost the state thirty-four times more than it actually did (24 percent of the social-welfare budget, when the real figure was 0.7 percent).
That perception didn’t drop out of the sky, of course: it came after a concerted effort by large sections of the British media to hype up welfare fraud. Their disinformation campaign often relied upon atrocity stories about individual welfare claimants that were accurate, but completely untypical.
The dominant media narrative about antisemitism in the Labour Party is also profoundly misleading, drawing false general conclusions from unrepresentative individual cases. In formulating this indictment, Labour’s critics have employed several deceptive moves.
First of all, they hold the Labour leadership directly responsible for anything said by any party member — or even someone who claims to be a Labour supporter — on social media. Since there was never any chance that a party with half a million members would be entirely free of antisemitic attitudes, this move was enough to supply much of the initial fuel for the campaign. Labour’s critics indignantly shouted down any attempt to quantify the prevalence of such attitudes, knowing perfectly well that they were not representative of the wider membership.
The party leadership has put a lot of effort into revamping Labour’s disciplinary processes so that real cases of antisemitism can be dealt with more quickly. Much of this work has been done since Jennie Formby took over as Labour’s general secretary in April 2018, replacing Iain McNicol, who was bitterly hostile to Corbyn. Some of the party officials who departed with McNicol had been slowing down the handling of cases, whether through incompetence or malice, knowing that Corbyn’s team would get the blame from the British media.
The second move was to redefine the whole concept of antisemitism so that it no longer referred simply to prejudice against Jewish people. This theme was present from the very start, but it took center stage in the summer of 2018, when Labour came under intense pressure to adopt the IHRA “working definition of antisemitism” — part of a concerted effort to stigmatize all robust, hard-hitting criticism of Israel as being tainted by anti-Jewish prejudice.
The third move was inseparable from the second. Labour politicians have often said that their party needs to restore trust with Britain’s Jewish community. Expressed in that way, nobody could disagree. However, since it is clearly impossible for every member of that community to speak with one voice, somebody has to be recognized to speak on their behalf.
That is where the problem begins. In Britain, as in other countries like the United States, there is no straightforward dividing line separating groups whose stated purpose is to represent the Jewish community and oppose antisemitism, and groups whose stated purpose is to campaign in support of Israel. Indeed, organizations like the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC) and the Campaign Against Antisemitism deny that any such distinction can be made.
They follow the example of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, whose “list of global antisemitic incidents,” published every year, lumps together examples of violent prejudice against Jews with legitimate opposition to Israeli policy. Last year, Airbnb was included because of its temporary ban on listings from illegal West Bank settlements — as if that ban differed only in degree from the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, which topped the list of hate crimes.
Many Jews strongly dispute the claim that such groups accurately represent their opinions. But even if it could be shown that they spoke for a clear majority of Jewish people in Britain, it would still be wrong to grant the JLC and its allies the power of veto over Labour’s policy towards Israel. The people most affected by that policy are the Palestinians, and their democratic rights cannot be bargained away.
It is entirely fair to demand that criticism of Israel be expressed in a way that does not cross the line into antisemitism (for example, by holding Jewish people collectively responsible for what Israel does). It is a different thing entirely to demand that such criticism be toned down to the point where it becomes ineffectual. While groups like the JLC and the Board of Deputies know it would be counterproductive to state openly that their aim is to shield Israel from effective scrutiny, it is clearly what they want to achieve.
Unfortunately, this sometimes gives people an exaggerated picture of the influence pro-Israel campaigning groups exercise over British politics. It’s important to remember that those groups can only have such an impact because they’re swimming with the tide. Political players whose influence is much greater — the Conservative Party, Labour’s right-wing, anti-Corbyn faction, and the media outlets that support them — take up their attacks on the Labour leadership, and amplify them to a deafening volume.
Breaking Out of the Cage
The final move is the simplest and builds upon the first three. Anyone who disputes the conventional wisdom about the Labour Party is accused of “antisemitism denial.” By now, it is this kind of circular argument — which makes it impossible to question even the most egregious falsehoods — that probably accounts for the greater part of the ongoing controversy.
There is no way to break out of this cage without challenging all four premises. There will always be a Labour member who has made a questionable remark somewhere online (or a remark that can be presented as such, when it is ripped out of its original context). Even if there isn’t, a ready supply of fresh material is guaranteed so long as the stigma of “antisemitism” is maliciously attached to the view of Israel generally held in left-wing circles. Groups like the Board of Deputies and the JLC will never be reconciled to Labour as long as it has a left-wing leadership that supports Palestinian rights in both theory and practice. They will simply move the goalposts every time the party tries to address their previous demands. And any attempt to establish Labour’s innocence of the main charges against it will be taken as further proof of its guilt.
This is where the Chris Williamson row comes in. The case against the MP mainly rests on the people he has defended rather than the things he has said. On that count, the charge-sheet is very uneven: it is one thing to criticize Williamson for circulating a petition in support of Gilad Atzmon, a true example of a Jewish antisemite (Williamson said he was unaware of Atzmon’s antisemitic comments, deleted his post, and apologized); it is quite another to attack him for supporting Marc Wadsworth, a black Labour activist who was the victim of an unpleasant stitch-up.
Overall, I find the arguments for his expulsion unconvincing and tendentious, even if you accept — as many of Williamson’s defenders do — that his interventions on the “Labour antisemitism” controversy have often been clumsy, insensitive, and ill-judged. And to state a point that should be obvious: while some on the Labour left dislike Williamson and think he’s a liability who does more harm than good, disciplinary action has to be based on clear-cut principles, not political expediency. Unless he’s done something that clearly merits the harshest penalty, it should be up to Labour members in Williamson’s constituency party to decide whether he continues to be their representative.
But what really matters is how this case fits into the overall picture. If Chris Williamson had never been a Labour MP, the basic structure of the controversy would be exactly the same as it is today. And if Williamson is expelled from the party, retires from political life and never says a word in public again, the controversy will still grind on remorselessly, for all of the reasons stated above. Williamson himself would just become one more link in the chain of guilt-by-association (“X defended Y, who defended Z”) that has become wearingly familiar.
There is clearly a section of the Labour membership that looks to figures like Williamson. A online poll by the website LabourList, in which 10,000 people took part, showed 61 percent support for the MP’s reinstatement. Of course, that wasn’t a scientific survey of Labour members — but you don’t have to spend much time in the left-wing end of Twitter to see that Williamson has people in his corner. Dismissing them all as paranoid cranks just makes it harder to grasp why that is. His popularity is a symptom of something quite important.
Poor Old Phil
To begin with, his supporters can see the blatant double standards at work. Labour’s parliamentary group is stuffed to the gills with MPs who have made or defended comments far worse than anything Williamson can be accused of, even on the most uncharitable reading of his record.
Tom Watson, for example, has appointed himself as the scourge of antisemitism in Labour ranks. In 2010, Watson’s friend Phil Woolas ran an election campaign targeting Muslims in order to “get the white folk angry” (as one of his team put it). It was so brazen that the courts soon ejected Woolas from the House of Commons for lying in his campaign literature — the first time in a century that such a thing had happened. Watson composed a furious article, informing readers that he had “lost sleep thinking about poor old Phil Woolas and his leaflets,” making him feel “like a piano has been dropped on my head” at the thought that a “bright working-class lad done well” could be the victim of such glaring injustice.
From Rachel Reeves to Margaret Hodge, the Parliamentary Labour Party is full of MPs who have made disgraceful race-baiting comments without facing any disciplinary sanction, let alone expulsion. And many of those MPs have been to the fore in demanding Chris Williamson’s head. Unless you believe — as many of Corbyn’s opponents evidently do — that some forms of racism are perfectly acceptable, that hypocrisy is bound to rankle.
There’s another reason why a significant number of people have been rallying around Williamson, especially over the past year. The approach of the Labour leadership to the antisemitism controversy is visibly failing. More often than not, that approach has involved turning the other cheek — or even giving credence to the false narrative with careless remarks — instead of pushing back forcefully against the attacks.
It would be easier to hold people in line if this strategy was working and gradually defusing the issue. But that clearly isn’t the case. The smears just keep escalating: at one time, Corbyn was merely accused of having a blind spot about antisemitism, now he’s denounced as a hateful bigot who would pose an “existential threat” to Jewish communities in Britain if he ever became Prime Minister.
One shouldn’t underestimate how frustrating and demoralizing it must be for Labour members who got involved because they want to change society for the better, who see the British media slandering their party and its leaders week after week, and who just want someone to challenge that cynical frame-up in the strongest possible terms. Some are bound to think that a loose cannon is better than no cannon at all.
There will never be a time when Labour is allowed to move on from the controversy so it can prioritize other questions. Too many political actors are anxious to keep the pot on the boil. The problems Labour has faced over this issue aren’t really a distraction from the party’s wider agenda: in fact, the smear campaign encapsulates all the hostility of Britain’s ruling class to the Corbynite agenda (and especially its departures from a stifling foreign-policy consensus).
The Labour leadership can’t stop its political opponents from defaming the party with all the resources at their disposal. But it can still defend itself and its supporters by stating the facts: calmly, respectfully, but unequivocally. The longer it hesitates before doing so, the more damaging it will be.