Corbyn shamed but the damage has been done

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (Via Jewish News)
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (Via Jewish News)

There’s no great triumph to be had in the shaming of Jeremy Corbyn, the former leader of the UK’s Labour Party. Yes, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has found that the Labour Party that he led until earlier this year responsible for unlawful harassment and discrimination against Jews. And yes, Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour Party’s current leader, has suspended him from the Party after Corbyn yet again, minimised the scale of the issue in his response to the EHRC report. But there’s little cause to rejoice here. The damage has already been done.

Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party in 2015. Among those who nominated him was Margaret Beckett, a former Foreign Secretary and acting leader of the Party. She did so not because she ever intended to vote for him, but to ensure that candidates for the position represented the broad spectrum of the political left. She subsequently admitted to being a “moron.”

She wasn’t alone. Twelve Labour Members of Parliament nominated him in the names of inclusivity and fair contest, even though they personally supported other more moderate candidates. In what can only be seen as their naivety in retrospect, their support was critical. In the end, Corbyn secured 36 nominations from Members of Parliament, just one more than required to qualify for the contest.

Among the thirty-six were others who clearly either rejected the notion that Corbyn was an antisemitism enabler, or presumably were ignorant or dismissive of his longstanding support for antisemitic terrorists. In the former camp was Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, home to the largest strictly Orthodox Jewish population in Europe. In the latter was Tulip Siddiq, MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, another constituency with a sizeable Jewish population.

The result of their misjudgments – whether their desire for inclusivity, their inability to understand the nature of antisemitism, or their simple ignorance – can not only be found in the 130 pages of the EHRC report. It is written all over the results of the Brexit referendum, the 2019 General Election, the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and perhaps even contemporary global politics as a whole.

Corbyn wasn’t simply a nightmare for most British Jews. Nor was he simply the worst Labour Party leader for almost a century, judging him by the 2019 election results. His ideological dogmatism and his inability or unwillingness to accurately analyse a wide range of political issues or dynamics rendered him a disaster to the country as a whole, not to mention an exemplar of contemporary populism that appears to have inspired many others elsewhere.

Whether one supports the results of the Brexit referendum or not, one thing is clear. Corbyn’s Labour Party failed to engage seriously in a national debate that continues to have enormous ramifications for the future of the country. His ambivalence on the issue meant that the anti-Brexit view was inadequately represented in public discourse. Previous Labour leaders – particularly Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – would have fought tooth and nail for the ‘Remain’ campaign, helping not only to engender much greater understanding of the many issues involved, but also forcing the ‘Leave’ campaign to better articulate its arguments too. Corbyn’s incongruity, or perhaps ineptitude, helped the country drift towards the now infamous victory for the ‘Leave’ campaign. Whether one supports that result or not, the voice of the Labour Party – the official opposition – was blundering and incomprehensible throughout one of the most important political debates the UK has had for decades. That’s part of Corbyn’s Labour legacy.

The 2019 election result was shocking too. After doing rather well in his first general election in 2017 – which arguably had much more to do with a reaction to Brexit and Conservative Party incompetence than anything else – Corbyn went on to lose about 20% of the votes he won in 2017, ironically handing the Conservatives their largest share of the national vote since Margaret Thatcher first came to power in 1979. He was punished for his antisemitism certainly, but arguably far more for his unpalatable positions on foreign and economic policy. Yet a more competent and measured Labour Party leader could have won the elections in both 2017 and 2019 – neither the uncharismatic Theresa May nor the flamboyant but untrustworthy Boris Johnson should have been much competition to a strong, dynamic and competent alternative. That’s also part of Corbyn’s Labour legacy.

Yet Corbyn somehow captured the spirit of the age – a desire for political simplicity and certainty, a wish for ideological purity, when politics is rarely, if ever, simple, certain or pure. But he’s not alone – the election of Donald Trump in the United States, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, all of whom on paper are Corbyn’s ideological nemeses, similarly prey on populist desires for easy answers to complex questions. In this respect at least, the only real difference between Corbyn and these characters lies in his competence, or lack thereof – unlike them, he never managed to win an election. But that populist spirit, and the Labour Party falling prey to it, is part of Corbyn’s Labour legacy too.

Which brings us to today, and to COVID-19. To be fair to all political leaders, managing a pandemic of this type is immensely complicated and challenging. Yet quite clearly, some political leaders have done rather better than others, despite all having access to very similar medical and scientific expertise. Few would put Boris Johnson anywhere near the top of that list, even though the UK has both the wealth and the medical and scientific infrastructures to have navigated the crisis considerably more effectively. In spite of the enormous difficulties, this should have been handled better, and whilst the Conservative government will ultimately stand or fall on its performance, it was the Labour Party’s failure to field an electable candidate that helped to hand them the keys to power.

So I feel no real satisfaction in learning that the EHRC has found Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party guilty. I simply look back and see a small handful of well-meaning MPs giving a leg-up to someone who was patently unfit to lead a major political party, and who has ultimately left nothing but chaos in his wake. His enabling of antisemitism was clearly evident long before that, if anyone had taken the trouble to look, yet in the interests of inclusivity and ‘broad debate’ they failed to do so, naively assuming that he wouldn’t win anyway.

Antisemitism often enters politics through the back door. Few vote for it, particularly in the UK which, according to numerous surveys conducted over decades, has one of the least antisemitic populations in the world. It finds its way in when people ignore it or downplay it, choosing to focus instead on other more attractive components of a politician’s programme: national pride, economic revival, free health care or education, overthrowing the elites, giving power back to the people, inclusivity. That’s what happened in the case of Jeremy Corbyn, and whilst a clear verdict has now been cast on his term in office several months after he was removed, the damage has long been done.

About the Author
Jonathan Boyd is the Executive Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, an independent research organisation based in the UK specialising in the study of contemporary European Jewish life. He holds a PhD in education and MA and BA in Modern Jewish History, and is the author of numerous sociological and demographic studies of Jews in the UK and across Europe. A former Jerusalem Fellow at the Mandel Institute in Israel, he is a Board member of the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry (ASSJ) and a regular columnist for the Jewish Chronicle.
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