We all know by now Jeremy Corbyn’s infamous support of a racist mural. Another antisemitic incident in Labour involving the leader, unsurprisingly. Antisemitism often incubated itself within radical far-left circles and Corbyn has been more than comfortable to dip his toes into these murky waters.
There is something sad that Labour went from having a Jewish leader to a leader who indulges holocaust-deniers. Almost as disconcerting has been the deluge of conspiracy-dripping left-wing counter protests (led by the delusional conspiracy blogs Skwawbox and Canary) that has dismissed these genuine concerns as political smears.
It’s difficult to stem this upsurge in racism without a universal political will and there are a few noticeable reasons for why Labour struggles with this so much. I should point out that as a British Bangladeshi Muslim, I can relate to hate crime, racism and prejudice but antisemitism isn’t my experience.
The first is many of Labour’s white members believe that their progressive values mean they are vaccinated from racism. Call them out on it, and many become immediately defensive. Some, like Chris Williamson, just don’t care. More than that they refuse to understand the effect racism can have psychologically on its perpetrators and its victims – which is why they won’t admit Corbyn’s complicity to whatever scale in the explosion of antisemitism within the party. There is a whiff of legitimacy in airing routinely offensive views about Jews in the party. This upsurge in racism did mutate in some sort of vacuum separate to Labour’s recent political upheavals. There is a link between Corbyn and the racists. They are emboldened enough to express their racism, to think the party belongs to them. And why not? The leader has demonstrated a willingness to indulge these views. The parallels between antisemitism and racism in post-Brexit Britain are terrifying.
There is secondly a sad argument to make that antisemitism isn’t taken seriously as a form of racism in Labour. This was made clear when a Jewish Labour member asked me whether he would count as BAME. More than malicious, most members are just not good at recognising it. Jews are blamed for the world’s failings, talks of “Zionist media” and “Israeli lobbies” that explain the problems left behind by old imperial institutions after the empires crumbled and global capitalism, which doesn’t tie itself to any country or culture but sucks all in. Try to mention antisemitism and the discussion will inevitably swing around to Palestine within seconds.
Lastly, the structure of the party has changed and with it how the membership behaves politically. And though left-wing antisemitism predates Corbyn his leadership has brought it closer to the centre, not just through his views but the reluctance of his closest supporters to condemn him for it. Many will insist these are smears designed to undermine his leadership, or too conveniently close to local elections. It leaves you with the sense that Labour’s socialists asked for a movement and got a cult instead. There is a reason why these people are called Corbynites, and not socialists. Of course some might come back with a rebuttal of Blairism, but does anyone really think they’re comparable?
For many local Momentum groups and Labour branches criticisms of their leader - even ones centred around something as serious as racism - are intolerable because they will derail his socialist utopia. It’s the reason why MPs like Wes Streeting, Jess Phillips and Stella Creasy are treated as the fifth column and continuously reminded that they ultimately campaign for Corbyn whenever they stand. It’s as though Labour isn’t a broad church, as if the party belongs to their leader. Incidentally, many of these MPs have been threatened with deselection, and that includes David Lammy, a black MP, for challenging racism.
Relying on a human face to spearhead an idea is a problem - and one that I found captured perfectly by the film Batman Begins when Bruce Wayne says, “As a man I’m flesh and blood. I can be destroyed. But as a symbol I can be incorruptible. I can be everlasting.” If you make the leader the centrepiece around which everything else is built then it all crumbles with him or her. And it means sometimes some people will fervently defend the leader unconditionally, as we are seeing here.
I don’t think Jeremy Corbyn is an anti-Semite but it’s also not my place to definitively qualify or disqualify him as one. All I can say is it’s extremely disheartening to see the party whose members were often at the forefront of battles against fascists and racists, fall horribly short of eliminating racism within its ranks.