Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser

Article

Labour
La Stampa - April 6, 2018

Across Europe, left-wing, social-democratic parties are in disarray, unable to find a coherent answer to the global financial crisis and to high public debts Ė in France, in Germany, in Spain, in Italy. Last year, there was one exception, Britainís Labour Party, which prospered in our 2017 general election and seemed destined to bring soon to 10 Downing Street the countryís most left-wing, most anti-American prime minister in history: Jeremy Corbyn. Yet now Labour too looks in trouble. The main reason is surprising: anti-Semitism.

 

            For months now, Labour has been surrounded by a series of scandals and arguments about whether the party is harbouring groups that are hostile to Jewish people in general or to Israel and Zionism in particular, as well as individual officials and members of Parliament who show anti-Semitic prejudices. This was important, in terms of party management, but until now did not look likely to pose a serious threat to Labourís prospects of regaining power.

 

            This has changed, because the scandals and arguments now directly concern the party leader, Mr Corbyn. Previously, he just looked as if he was somewhat incompetent at dealing with anti-Semitic groups within the party. Now, he has allowed himself to become linked to such groups, in such a way as to do fresh damage to his credibility as a potential prime minister. And it is lack of credibility at a time of economic stress and security fears that has done so much harm already to Franceís Parti Socialiste, Germanyís SPD, Spainís PSOE socialists and of course the Partito Democratico.

 

            This set of rows over anti-Semitism has coincided with Britainís battle with Russia over the attempted killing of a former Russian spy in a provincial English city by using a nerve agent, Novichok, developed according to British intelligence agencies only by the Soviet Union. At a time when the prime minister, Theresa May, was able to look strong and patriotic when confronting Vladimir Putin, Mr Corbyn looked weak and unpatriotic when he chose to say he did not approve of accusing Russia without definite proof that Russian agents were the perpetrators.

 

            Whatever the merits or demerits of this argument, it did not make Britons feel that Mr Corbyn would be a good man to be running the country at moments when chemical weapons attacks might be taking place on British streets. After all, Mrs May was not declaring war on Russia, she was just expelling some Russian spies masquerading as diplomats. Mr Corbyn apparently would have done nothing. At a time of tension and security fears, that is not a vote-winning stance.

 

            We do not know how the Russian nerve agent story will unfold; Mr Corbynís position might come to look better than it does now. Alongside, however, came a resurgence of the internal party rows about anti-Semitism, including evidence that three years before he became party leader Mr Corbyn had voiced support for protecting a mural painted in a London street that depicted Jewish capitalists in a hook-nosed style strongly reminiscent of Nazi-era depictions. 

 

            So Mr Corbyn has come to look simultaneously weak, ignorant of history and of symbolism, and somewhat uncomprehending of why anti-Semitism might be offensive to many, and not just to Jews.

 

            It is no surprise that he is a critic of Israel. Mr Corbyn has never, in his 35 years as an MP, made any secret of his sympathy for the Palestinians and his criticisms of the actions of many Israeli governments in that period. So while he has not been known as anti-Semitic, he has clearly and openly been critical of Zionist views of Israel as a Jewish state rather than one in which Arabs and Jews live as equal citizens. That has made him a natural magnet for others with views more overtly hostile than his, and has even encouraged a small number of outright Holocaust deniers to become more vocal inside the Labour Party.

 

            The reason why this matters is not because of the issue of Israel itself, nor the strength of Jewish votes in British elections, as it might be in the United States, for example. In fact, only about 270,000 people identify themselves as Jewish to the British census, whereas there are more than 3 million Muslims. Indeed, many of those Muslims live in cities in old industrial areas of the Midlands and the north of England, making Labour keen on their votes and arguably less sensitive than in the past to Jewish issues.

 

            Rather, the potential damage is threefold. First, it makes Labour look a nastier, more prejudiced party, subverting Mr Corbynís previously cultivated image of a kind of grandfatherly sincerity and generosity of spirit. Secondly, it reinforces the partyís biggest weakness under Corbyn and his far-left supporters, namely of being not just critical of business and finance but rabidly and unreasonably anti-capitalist.

 

            At a time when a message against fiscal austerity is popular, it is not wise also to look rabidly hostile to the source of most votersí jobs, namely private enterprise. Labourís stance on Brexit has been one of claiming to want whatever form of new agreement with the European Union will do most to preserve jobs. Going too far towards a Marxist idea of a centrally planned economy is to contradict this position.

 

            Finally, it risks forcing voters to ask themselves whether they really think Labour is a credible alternative government to the Tories. For most of the time since Mr Corbyn was elected party leader in 2015, voters answer has been no, except for a brief few months around the June 2017 general election when they suddenly warmed to him, out of dislike of Theresa May. Now, thanks to anti-Semitism and weakness over Russia, the answer looks likely to revert to where it was: no.


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