Jeremy Corbyn stepped into spring from a position of strength within his party. A fortnight ago his first choice, Jennie Formby, was selected as the new General Secretary – Labour’s most senior employee – thereby handing him the keys to the party machine. As she takes over from Iain McNicol, someone who has been in post since 2011 and has been able to hold the moderate line since Corbyn’s rise, Formby’s victory marks the leader’s capture of the final lever of power within the party.
Since the high point of Formby’s appointment, however, things have become more difficult as Jeremy Corbyn has become embroiled in a renewed wave of criticism towards his handling of the issue of antisemitism within the party, a problem that has flared up under his leadership. The far left of the party, where his support is strongest, has a long historic association with the Palestinian liberation movement and criticism of Israel from some within its ranks has been known to descend into blatant antisemitism and holocaust denial, while radical anti-capitalist views can feed odious theories of Zionist banking conspiracies.
A new chapter in this saga began with the resurfacing of a comment the Labour leader made while serving on the backbenches back in 2012, in which he objected to the removal of a piece of antisemitic street art from an East London neighbourhood on the grounds of freedom of expression.
Corbyn offered a public apology for failing to recognise the antisemitic imagery of the mural and acknowledged the problem of antisemitism “in pockets within the Labour party”. However, the slow response and the perceived weakness of his apology left much of the Jewish community within the party disappointed. His handling of the situation triggered an open letter to Corbyn from the Board of Deputies – the national elected body representing British Jews – as well as an unprecedented demonstration in Westminster, led by Jewish Labour members protesting against discrimination within their own party.
This is where a much-needed conversation about Labour’s approach to antisemitism became mired in factional squabbles, as many of his supporters claimed outrage against antisemitism is merely coded criticism of Corbyn from Conservatives and those on the right of the Labour party. In recent days, we have seen hardline Corbynistas argue the mural is not antisemitic – despite the leader himself making no attempt to defend the image, claiming rather that he did not look closely enough at the piece before voicing his opposition to its removal.
Corbyn’s apologists include a Jewish group within the party, who organised a small counter-protest to last week’s demonstration and accused the Board of Deputies of “cynical selective outrage”, suggesting their involvement in the row is less out of concern about antisemitism and more an attempt to influence the upcoming local elections. Labour’s hard left have also accused those raising the issue from within the party of attempting to undermine Corbyn’s leadership. The usual slurs of “Blairite” and “Red Tory” have been thrown around, even at Jewish MPs such as Luciana Berger, who has suffered antisemitic abuse herself and campaigned on the issue since her first election to parliament – long before Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the head of the party.
While Corbyn’s apology certainly showed signs of a desire to address any problems of discrimination and bigotry within the party, his overall response to the incident does little to instil faith among those who doubt his commitment to standing up to antisemitism when it comes from his allies. His choice to attend a Passover Seder hosted by the radical organisation Jewdas – one of the leftwing groups to claim outrage over antisemitism was just a coded attack on Corbyn’s leadership – prompted further displeasure from some in the Jewish community. To win the trust of those committed to fighting antisemitism, within the party and without, Jeremy Corbyn will have to demonstrate the ability to discuss the matter with those outside his comfortable echo chamber.
How far what started as an internal party dispute has penetrated the electorate’s consciousness will be put to the test in the local elections taking place in less than a month in parts of England. It is a slightly peculiar election, with only some local authorities holding votes and, in certain councils, only a third of seats being up for grabs.
However, after a surprisingly strong performance in last year’s snap general election, this is an important vote for Labour, with many expecting the party to put considerable pressure on the Conservatives – particularly in the capital, where every borough will elect a new council. But some of the London suburbs where Labour hopes to take council control off the Tories have significant Jewish populations.
On 3 May we will see how the public has digested Labour’s latest internal battle in town halls. Many eyes will be on suburban races like that of the north London borough of Barnet, which has the highest Jewish population in the country and currently sits on knife edge with Labour hoping to take control of the council from the Conservatives for the first time ever.
Realistically, it may be seen as too much of an insider issue to make too much difference to ordinary voters – particularly as the Prime Minister’s own unpopularity has led her party to base its campaign on local matters rather than comparing the party leaders’ positions on national issues. According to Conservative members, the party is insisting candidates run a “bins not Brexit” campaign.
However, as we move closer to the next general election, whenever that may be, faith in the Labour leader will undoubtedly be a key factor in the result. This latest episode adds to mounting questions over Corbyn’s judgment, building on disapproval of his handling of the attempted assassination of a former Russian spy and his daughter in a town in England last month, when he refused to condemn Putin’s government as the clear culprits. With recent polls showing Labour lagging behind the Conservatives on general election voting intention, additional blows to the leader’s standing should give the party cause for concern.
While next month’s vote might provide an insight into the damage antisemitism is inflicting on Labour’s electoral prospects, only a concerted effort from the leadership can tackle the problem without deepening rifts within the party. Change will require more than sympathetic words. The leadership must be willing to take a hard line with some of his most ardent supporters if it hopes to clear the insidious antisemitic ideas embedded in the party, which have been tolerated for far too long.