A couple of weeks ago a few of my fellow politicos and I were discussing the merits of an Internet campaign backing the veteran left wing candidate Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour Leadership. It seemed simple enough: pay £3 and sign up to be a Labour Member and you could help keep the party out of government for another ten years, electing the hard left candidate. It all seemed a bit of a joke. In fact, Corbyn only found himself on the ballot paper in an episode some now see as ‘moronic’ whereby MPs who were not his natural supporters nominated him in order to create a debate within the party.
However, what has occurred since that conversation has been extraordinary and deeply troubling. Corbyn, popular within the anti-War movements and a patron of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign has stormed to the top of the polls. A recent poll found him 22 points ahead on First Preferences and he would clinch the party’s nomination in a narrow victory over Yvette Cooper in the Second Round. The betting agencies are starting to place Corbyn as their favorite for the leadership.
How, might you ask, has this happened? In part, Mr Corbyn has tapped into the despondency among Labour party activists and members regarding their recent General Election defeat to the Conservatives, which saw the re-election of Prime Minister David Cameron. His anti-austerity rhetoric has fired up the trade unions to sign up their members to support his candidacy. Town Hall meetings, such as one last night in Camden, are packed to the rafters with people queuing outside in large crowds. The phenomenon ‘Corbynmania’ is sweeping Britain.
The impact of a likely Corbyn led opposition party in the UK Parliament is hard to foresee, given the potential of a Labour party backlash among more moderate MPs and supporters. It is also hard to imagine a Corbyn led Labour Party picking up the necessary marginal seats in England to reverse the defeat of May 2015 at the next election in five years time.
The major impact may be with the left and the Jewish voters, especially those that define as Zionists and are supporters of the State of Israel. This goes beyond the much-documented comments Corbyn has made about Hamas and Hezbollah being his ‘friends’. Alan Johnson, editor of Fathom in a Left Foot Forward article brilliantly takes apart the rationale for Corbyn’s support of the two terrorist organisations proscribed by the UK. ‘And why are Hezbollah your friends? They are an anti-Semitic Islamist goose-stepping ‘Party of God’ who persecute (and assassinate) liberals and democrats in Lebanon whenever they can. The Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said, ‘If Jews all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide.’
The problem is that such arguments are not cutting through when it comes to stemming the Corbyn juggernaut. Many activists on the left are willing to overlook Corbyn’s fondness for radical Islamic movements and individuals such as Raed Salah, a well-known hate preacher. This is because when it comes to domestic affairs and the toxic legacy of Tony Blair’s Iraq war, Corbyn provides clarity in a Leadership contest devoid of personality and principled ideas. The other candidates, Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and to the right of the party, Liz Kendall have failed to spark the same excitement or effectively challenged some of Corbyn’s more extreme positions on a number of issues.
Beyond his rhetoric of the need to engage with Hamas and even Hezbollah in order to solve the Middle East conflict, Corbyn has spoke in depth on boycotts in the past. The darling of the pro-Palestinian movement recently gave an interview to the ‘Electronic Intifada’ endorsing some major tenants of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. He said that he would impose an arms embargo on Israel if elected Prime Minister in 2020. His rise to the top of a major political party is very real and his rhetoric must now be taken seriously as a dangerous trend within British politics towards efforts to de-legitimise Israel. It is no coincidence that infamous anti-Israel figures such as George Galloway have welcomed Corbyn’s rise and declared their support. Mr Galloway has even indicated that he may rejoin the Labour Party having left and set up his own Respect Party situated to the left of Labour on a variety of issues.
In the longer term, a Labour shift to the left under Jeremy Corbyn will further fracture the Party’s relationship with the majority of the Jewish Community. A shock poll by the Jewish Chronicle in the lead up to this year’s election saw 67% supporting the Conservatives which was seen as a damning indictment of Ed Miliband’s leadership of Labour and his handling of the events of last summer during Operation Protective Edge. Mr Miliband described Israel’s actions in Gaza as ‘disproportionate’ and further alienated members of the community by backing a parliamentary vote on the recognition of a Palestinian State. A Corbyn victory will accelerate this process, making it harder for the party to regain the seats it failed to win in large Jewish areas such as Hendon, Finchley and Golders Green and Harrow East at the last election.
How would the Jewish community react to a Corbyn victory? Will radical movements like ‘Jewdas’ become the main Jewish supporters of Labour as mainstream centre-left Jews desert the Party? At a recent Board of Deputies meeting, President Jonathan Arkush said that the Board will strive for a working relationship with whoever is elected leader. However, given some of Corbyn’s own views and those of his supporters this can easily alienate the Board and other Communal bodies from the Labour Party.
The risk is that important rebuilding work done with the party, including with a number of Labour Mayoral Candidates for the 2016 London election, will be undone. At a recent Labour Leadership hustings, Corbyn courted controversy when there was some debate over whether he said Jews in the Cabinet had forced through the 1917 Balfour Declaration. Whether he meant this or not, his past comments and recent interviews on the Middle East reveal the dangerous consequences of a Corbyn victory. The Palestinian Solidarity Campaign will have a patron at the heart of the governing process as the Queen’s official Opposition with all that entails. No longer will the movement or be seen as a radical fringe of left wing activism, it will have become mainstream within the Labour Party. Many of us laughed at the inclusion of the ‘loony left’ candidate in the leadership contest, the threat this now poses is very real indeed.