I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt — including when it comes to Jeremy Corbyn.
But recent actions – culminating in peer-gate – make it seem like Team Corbyn are bent on proving right all those who had written him off on day one.
Within weeks of his overwhelming victory in the leadership election, I sat down with a member of his media team, determined to reach out despite the inevitable challenges ahead. It was a few days after Corbyn had got through his debut speech to Labour Friends of Israel without mentioning that country’s name.
I made it clear during that meeting that should a similar speech be delivered a year later at the next party conference, once he’d been exposed to a perspective he probably never had been before, then we’d know the problem was terminal. Until then, I said, he should be given a chance to show he is capable of moving beyond his one-sided record on Israel and the Palestinians.
In recent months Corbyn has said – albeit often belatedly – things that should be welcomed. His expression of regret, during a grilling by the home affairs select committee, at labelling Hamas and Hezbollah ‘friends’ was long overdue. As was his eventual recognition that the Hamas charter is anti-Semitic. We may have started with an incredibly low bar but there have been faint signs of progress.
Facing an anti-Semitism scandal in his own ranks, he suspended party members, councillors, an MP – most of whose offences had occurred before his time in office – and even his close ally Ken Livingstone, the latter within a few hours of his disgraceful comments on Hitler.
At the launch of the party’s inquiry into anti-Semitism – itself overshadowed by the abuse of a Jewish Labour MP by a hard left activist — he spoke out against use of the epithet ‘zio’ and Nazi metaphors, and stressed that taking up the Palestinian cause with hateful language did no one any favours; seeming recognition that it’s precisely from such so-called activists that much of the new anti-Semitism emanates. That day, even John Mann, not known to be afraid to speak his mind, lauded the report and the potential impact of its recommendations.
But there’s no getting away from the fact that, in recent weeks, the actions of Corbyn’s Labour have done more to undermine than enforce his words of zero tolerance of anti-Semitism and his professed determination to make Jews feel welcome in his ranks.
First there was the readmission of Momentum activist Jackie Walker, no more than a few weeks after she was suspended over posts claiming Jews were the chief financiers of the slave trade. She was rushed back into the fold without so much as a note of contrition, and before Chakrabarti had even reported. The party had needlessly chosen to pile controversy upon controversy that sent a clear message to others who would indulge in such rhetoric: there could be room for you in Labour. Whoever took that decision decided that placating Walker and her vocal supporters was more important than starting to address communal fears. There is simply no other way of interpreting it.
Another troubling development was the failure to publish in full the Jan Royall report into allegations of anti-Semitism at the Oxford Labour Club. Instead, we were forced to wait for the baroness to become so frustrated that she made the report available of her own accord — confirming what she had written in a separate blog that there had been anti-Semitic incidents. A new source of tension between the party and British Jews was created; a sore exacerbated by the fact we still don’t know what, if any, disciplinary action has been meted out to those implicated.
But what has undermined confidence in Corbyn’s promises to decisively tackle anti-Semitism more than anything else is the peerage for the chair of Labour’s anti-Semitism inquiry. Not because her previous work doesn’t deserve it, or because she doesn’t have a wealth of experience to offer the Lords. Not even because of his previous commitment not to create new peers.
But because the timing – so close to a report seen as a strong platform for action by some but which others saw as a whitewash – severely undermined its credibility.
Because at a time when both the party and Chakrabarti were stressing the inquiry’s independence, it’s hard to imagine anything that would more effectively raise the whiff of something unsavoury.
And because at a time when the party is in dire need of fire fighting in the Jewish community, this was only ever going to inflame tensions. Even for the dwindling few ready to give the benefit of the doubt, it’s hard to escape the impression that, like with the Royall report and Walker, communal concerns have been cast aside.
Only a decision to re-admit Ken Livingstone into the party could now make things worse.
It is too easy to dismiss the situation as a lost cause. If Corbyn wins the upcoming leadership contest, as seems most likely, it will be down to him to implement the Chakrabarti report and he should not be let off that hook.
The current leader cannot be blamed for every party member who has trotted out an anti-Semitic trope over the past few years, but he is fully responsible for ensuring his pledge of zero tolerance to anti-Semitism is realised in practice and in appearance. Despite some nascent seeds of progress, on too many occasions that hasn’t been the case.