Is Jeremy Corbyn’s Anti-Semitism Problem A Leadership Problem?

The Andrew Neil interview wasn’t a car crash, it was a multiple-lorry pile-up.

Race crash

At Labour’s ‘race and faith’ policy launch in Tottenham, there was much to be commended. Lots of the policies were a clear sign that a Jeremy Corbyn government would treat anti-racism seriously. The diverse set of candidates also underscored that the party has made more progress than other parties in looking more representative of modern Britain.

Some of those who spoke did so with real passion, from local MP David Lammy to barbershop owner and social entrepreneur Mark Mciver (perhaps the real star of the show), who helps local youths fill in forms, get apprenticeships or college help. As Corbyn pointed out, the Tories barely mentioned racism or discimination in their own manifesto.‌

But after the unprecedented overnight warning from the Chief Rabbi about Jewish voters’ fears of a Labour government, the unavoidable charge was that anti-Semitism is one form of racism that the party just doesn’t treat seriously. Alf Dubs, the Jewish former Labour MP and peer who has done so much for other refugees, gently defended his leader. He said he was “bitterly disappointed” in Ephraim Mirvis’ “unfair and unjustified” words, adding that Labour “should have acted a bit quicker” on cases of Jew hate.

Corbyn himself tried to be conciliatory, inviting the Chief Rabbi to “talk to me about it, but above all engage”. But for many in Britain’s Jewish community, that invitation rang hollow. When this issue resurfaced earlier this year, they didn’t want yet more talks, they wanted action. And many believe little action has been taken.

Seen as having ditched the Jewish Labour Movement (which used to run anti-racism education) in preference for Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL), Corbyn stands accused of ignoring mainstream Jewish opinion in favour of the cranky fringe. Only today, a member of JVL went on the radio to say “we cannot have one quarter of one percent of the population, which is Jewish, telling everyone how to vote”.

But the whole reason this issue has had ‘cut through’ is because it goes beyond the Jewish community. For many, it is a parable of how Jeremy Corbyn deals with a crisis. Three years since he commissioned Shami Chakrabarti to investigate the issue, the controversy is greater than ever. Critics believe that’s because he failed to diagnose the problem properly, failed to get a grip on its details, failed to ‘engage’ with the Jewish community inside and outside his party, and failed to lead from the top.‌

That’s why, when Andrew Neil presented him with concrete examples of anti-Semites who had not been expelled, it felt so damning that he still couldn’t come up with convincing answers. Refusing to apologise for the errors made just made his blind spot look even larger. Viewers may have found themselves asking: if he can’t handle a crisis within his own party, how would he cope with a national crisis as prime minister?‌

The Neil grilling was not so much a car crash of an interview as a multiple-lorry pile-up. On Brexit, Corbyn sounded shifty about his credible Leave-and-Remain referendum (there is a case, but he didn’t make it). Neil’s question “What would you do during the referendum campaign? Would you go on holiday?” was particularly withering.

On tax and spend, again Corbyn came across as evasive and not across the detail. His claim that “only those earning over £80,000 per year will see a tax increase” was swiftly proved untrue when he admitted minutes later that his government would be “taking away” £250 from those on modest incomes (two million in total) who currently have married couples tax relief.

His prevarication on the latest Labour pledge to spend £56bn on the ‘Waspi’ women was just as excruciating to watch. After several attempts, he finally admitted “we will pay for it through either government reserves or if necessary borrow for it”.

Labour’s Waspi offer certainly felt like panic. In the manifesto briefing last week, we were told by a senior aide “when we’ve found a just solution we will fully cost it”. Asked if that solution would be before the election, he added: “I think that’s very unlikely”. Two days later, a massive new policy was unveiled. For many, a party that can pluck such huge figures out of the air won’t feel like a party of government.

For a long time, Corbyn has prided himself on his message that he was a different kind of leader, more collegiate chair than corporate CEO. With just over two weeks to polling day, the difficulty is that on anti-Semitism, on tax and spend, and on Brexit, the public may prefer a captain leading from the front, not a referee struggling to keep up with the game.

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Tuesday’s Election Cheat Sheet

The Muslim Council of Britain accused the Tory party of “denial, dismissal and deceit” over the issue of Islamophobia.

Sajid Javid refused seven times to condemn Boris Johnson’s use of the terms “bank robber” and “letterbox” to describe Muslim women who wear a burqa.

Boris Johnson said that even if the Tories fail to win majority and need support of other parties to form a minority administration, “I certainly can rule out” referendums on either Brexit or Scottish independence.

DUP chief whip Sir Jeffrey Donaldson hinted his party could work with a Labour party led by someone other than Corbyn: “I’m not going to commit myself to something at this stage that is entirely hypothetical,” he said.

Michael Gove faced an online backlash after tweeting Stormzy lyrics, with some accusing the Cabinet minister of “sanctioning stereotypes” and others wondering whether it was possible to die of second-hand embarrassment.

Anti-Brexit campaigners have announced the 25 marginal constituencies which they will target to prevent Boris Johnson from winning a landslide majority in the election.

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