18 July 2019
Labour and anti-Semitism.
By John Watson
When I sat down to watch Panorama’s programme on anti-Semitism in the Labour Party I was sceptical. I did not believe that Mr Corbyn, who has always had an excellent reputation in Islington for helping all his constituents, had suddenly turned into a racist. Of course he hadn’t. Perhaps he had made a mess of dealing with racism in his party but that was no more than incompetence. The extension from a certain slackness of discipline into allegations of deep-seated anti-Semitism within the party were surely just smears by Labour’s critics and Panorama being, well, Panorama.
By the end of the programme I had change my mind. Not on Mr Corbyn personally. He is surely just a decent man who has been promoted way out of his depth. But the evidence presented does point to something ugly lying deep-seated within Labour and it is necessary to put it together to see what that something is.
The first point to note is that it is a new problem which arrived with Mr Corbyn or to be more exact with the arrival of the many new members who joined shortly after he had become leader. That is not to say that the party did not have racist or anti-Semitic members before that. Of course it did, as do the other political parties. It is just that they were not in sufficient numbers to cause alarm and did not exercise a great deal of influence. Like the other parties, Labour could deal with racism with the occasional disciplinary hearing.
The problem arose with the increase in membership. The new members were attracted by the fact that Mr Corbyn came from outside the political system and promised something new. They were, of course, a mixed bag and many of them were from the far left, as natural a home for intolerance, racism and viciousness as the extreme right. Still, to Corbyn it must have seemed like Christmas. Not only was he the leader of a great party but he had new members with which to reinvigorate it.
At first it probably did not occur to him that his new cohorts included racists whose values were very different to his own and that they were beginning to push into the party hierarchy. It should have done, of course, but then he was flying high and the incidents of anti-Semitism probably struck him as something isolated, regrettable but minor in the scheme of things. Still, lack of action encouraged the racists, his Jewish members were not prepared to take it lying down, MPs and Peers resigned the whip and the press had a field day. For what happened next we have to return to Panorama.
Actually Mr Corbyn was in something of a jam. If Labour expelled all its anti-Semites he would be turning on many of his key supporters. These were, after all, the very people on whom he could rely. They might not be very pleasant but they were his and he needed them to push back the Blairites who would love to replace him. If, on the other hand, nothing was done the party would gradually become more racist but his own position would be preserved. If the evidence produced by Panorama is to be believed, he or perhaps his advisers took the second course but, rather than just doing nothing, decided to go further and impede the work of the disciplinary committee, something in which Seamus Milne and Jennie Formby are alleged to have been personally involved. That would not make them racists of course; just people who were prepared to allow racists to establish themselves in the party as a way of moving towards power.
Perhaps they will come up with a convincing alternative explanation of their roles and I really hope they do so, but for the moment the party has jumped the gun with the assertion that eight former party officials joined in some sort of conspiracy of the disaffected, causing two of them to contemplate libel proceedings. That would up the ante with a vengeance and would leave Labour with a very difficult risk to handle. They could hardly roll over and pay damages without admitting that they had dishonestly traduced their own people and, worse still, that what was said on Panorama was true. They may therefore have to fight. Ok if they win, of course but, oh dear, to lose in the courts on this sort of stuff. Oops!
This is a sad tale which in the end will benefit nobody, or at least nobody who believes that democracy requires two properly functioning parties. And before the more fat-headed Tory MPs start celebrating Labour’s discomfiture they should remember how they whooped with joy when Mr Corbyn became the Labour leader. The risk now is that nothing much is done and in due course Labour, as one day it surely will, returns to power. If by then the racists are sitting pretty in its bloodstream, a general election victory will inject them directly into the corridors of power. That is not a pleasant prospect.