Over the past two years I’ve heard many Jews both in America and elsewhere throwing their hands up and wondering aloud why Jeremy Corbyn, a politician that seems to have pyramids of skeletons to hide, seems almost untouchable and could be on track to be the next prime minister of the United Kingdom. In frustration they cite his long record of support for terror groups in both the Middle East and Ireland, anti-Jewish or anti-Israeli statements and his affiliations with other UK Labour figures with similar if not more extreme views on Jews or Israel like Momentum movement vice-chair Jackie Walker. A rock star to the global left and at once the bogeyman of his nation’s Jewish community, he had the UK Labour Party now sitting at between 38% and 41% in recent polls, just edging out the ruling Tories. Later as the impending Brexit decision has split the Labour faithful their numbers have plunged. Some say that his popularity has crested now that he is forced to give a coherent policy position on Brexit, which he no longer can do without alienating millions of young ruddy cheeked Corbynistas.
In this continuation from Part I, we will examine why the Labour Party moved away from the pragmatism of the Blair and Brown governments to the radicalism of today.
The Lean Period
Tony Blair addresses a 1997 conference as Leader of the Opposition for Labour. In this speech he committed the party to several policies that were anathema to Labour’s base such as privatization of state industries and tighter cooperation with the European Union (Associated Press)
But the Blair years would become a time of suffering for Corbyn and other hard-left activists like Skinner, Scottish firebrand George Galloway and London Mayor Ken Livingstone. In 2003 the government stunned party supporters by joining in President George Bush’s Operation Iraqi Freedom. This was a breaking point for many of them and several of them joined the Stop the War Coalition and in Galloway’s case left Labour to help found the Respect Party. In retrospect, it is possible to say that Galloway and Respect were the prototype to the Corbyn-era Labour Party.
Until the Iraq War broke out, most of Labour’s dissident faction tread lightly in confronting the compromising nature of his leadership. In 2002 it was The Economist, a pro-business British weekly, that took him and Deputy PM John Prescott to task for simultaneously expressing solidarity with firefighters while negotiating against them during a strike in which they demanded a 40% pay raise. At the time, political scientist Steven Fielding of Nottingham University wrote about the worrying meaning of New Labour’s policies:
“Thus, ‘New’ – in contrast to ‘Old’ – Labour was thought to have abandoned the trade unions in favour of big business; cast aside state intervention for the free market; and downgraded the pursuit of equality while promoting tax cuts for the wealthy.”
The “Third Way” politics of Blair was in reality a strategy of triangulation as practiced by former Bill Clinton spin doctor Dick Morris. Triangulation is the practice of campaigning for a left wing party while conceding to the policy demands of the right wing opponents. It was thanks to this tactic that Clinton won a thundering victory over Republican opponent Senator Bob Dole in 1996, but in order to do so he had to agree to a number of Republican demands such as Work for Welfare (1996) and the Defense of Marriage Act. Blair’s policies were economically, if not socially, consistent with Clinton’s and even provoked some of his grassroots critics to dub them “Blatcherism” as a dig at the similarities to Margaret Thatcher’s liberal anti-regulation economics of the 1980s.
The OTHER struggle within Labour
The class struggle cause of Labour remained an important element of the Respect Party as well as like-minded remnants within Labour. However, added to it was an increasing tendency to focus on a peripheral issue: The geopolitical conflicts in the Middle East and more specifically the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Galloway in particular has married his political fortunes to the regimes of Iraq, Libya, and Iran that have literally nothing in common apart from their confrontational policies against Israel. For example in the video above from Channel 4 Galloway harps on the issue of Zionist “cooperation” with Nazi Germany in the 1930s. This accusation omits the important detail that Zionist diplomats engaged with Germany during that period not in furtherance of Germany’s goals, but in the hopes of facilitating the exit of German Jews to the British Mandate of Palestine and away from persecution under the new Nuremberg Laws. This agreement, known as Ha’Avara (Passage) effectively liquidated the assets of those citizens and transferred them to the Anglo-Palestine Bank. This scheme was by no means popular among the broader Zionist movement of the time, and the Jewish Agency negotiator of the agreement Haim Arlozorov was murdered in 1933 under disputed circumstances.
To listen to the accusations of Galloway and Livingstone one would be led to believe that Zionism was complicit in the German invasions of neighbours like France and Denmark rather than understanding the nuance that in 1933 there were Jewish Zionists that saw the peril of the new Nazi government and attempted to broker a solution that was save some or all of its Jewish citizens. In their mind there is no anti-Jewish malice in their remarks about Zionism, just as there is none when they claim it is the Israel lobby that got Britain into the Iraq War. In 2010 Mehdi Hassan, then writing in The New Statesman, the most damning part of the Chilcot Inquiry against Blair was testimony that he gave claiming that discussions behind closed doors with Israelis were crucial to the decision to join the Iraq War effort. Hassan’s insinuations about the Israelis compelling the UK and US into the Iraq War cannot be conclusively proven, but they follow the pattern of his and other left-leaning journalists in promoting Israel as the great conductor of a worldwide war machine.
In 2016 Dave Rich, a researcher for the Jewish advocacy organization Community Security Trust, published The Left’s Jewish Problem, a compendium documenting the history of the British progressive politicians and their ambivalent history with the Jewish people of Britain. As late as the 1970s according to him UK Labour was not concerned with Israel criticism, but rather the Liberal Party’s youth wing was radicalizing. However, during the Thatcher era militant pro-Palestine activists like Galloway and Corbyn became the new core of the Labour Party and were elected to parliament in 1987 and 1983 respectively. Livingstone was by then a veteran councillor on the Greater London Council and would become the leader of the body in 1981. He along with Galloway was elected to Parliament in 1987. Some other such leaders took a different route: former Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) supporter Derek Simpson joined Labour in 1994 and by 2008 he became the Joint General Secretary of Unite!, Britain’s largest private sector trade union. His successor was current incumbent Len McCluskey, an even more ardent opponent of Israel.
Youth in Revolt . . . or just followers?
But trade unions organizers were hardly the only people that flocked to create the kernel of what would become the Corbynmania movement. In 2014 Malia Bouattia was elected to the National Union of Students, and later was elected its president in 2016. Under Bouattia the NUS would refuse categorically to condemn attacks by ISIS and would consistently condemn Israel. She also was an ardent supporter of UK Labour and Corbyn. As a campus activist in 2011 Bouattia had made the accusation that the University of Birmingham was “something of a Zionist outpost in British Higher Education” while alleging that the campus’s Jewish Society (JSoc) is “dominated by Zionist activists”. She later was toppled in her reelection effort in 2017 in part due to her polarizing and explicitly political leadership by the more centrist Shakira Martin. In 2016 Bouattia made an appearance with the BBC’s Cathy Newman in which she justified rejecting a motion condemning ISIS while also defending her statements attacking “Zionist-led media”. After questioning her stances, Newman pivoted to giving her a platform to attack as a victim what was portrayed as a smear campaign against her.
The shift in Labour on the Middle East is not only a result of left-oriented geopolitical thought, but also the demographic shift in the UK. In 2015, even prior to Corbyn’s ascension to the leadership, the party’s deputy leader Harriet Harman justified gender based segregation at meetings in Muslim-majority constituencies by saying it was better than men only meetings. Whereas in 1992 net migration had been negative in the UK, by 2013 according to the Office of National Statistics it had risen to almost 200 thousand, nearly equal to natural birth growth. According to the British Academy for the Humanities and Social Sciences study “British Religion in Numbers” 2.5% of Britons profess Islam as their religion, the second largest of all categories. This is significant in that many religious communities tend to vote as a bloc, and the Muslim population is more than four times larger than both the Jewish and Sikh ones. A Geo.tv survey found that in 38 parliamentary constituencies the Muslim vote would be significant. This is equivalent to more than 5% of the seats in the House of Commons.
In September 2018 the British Jewish Chronicle published a poll that it had conducting indicating that almost 40% of British Jews would consider moving out of the UK if Corbyn would be elected prime minister. This attitude can be seen to be largely the result of frustration at the rising anti-Jewish incidents including a 34% increase in 2017. How likely is Corbyn to reach the pinnacle of power? It could depend on the following factors:
- The current PM Theresa May suffers from a 29% approval rating and is widely loathed among Britons on both the right and left. Based on her handling of Brexit, many ordinary voters are surprised she has survived this long and her incompetence has helped to fuel Corbyn’s support among disaffected voters of all backgrounds.
- The French Yellow Vest protests are considered to be a bellwether on the state of the European Union, and many far-left activists there like Jean-Luc Mélenchon are attempting to voice support for what is at its root a populist right-wing movement. In the UK both right and left-wing protesters have attempted to harness its momentum.
- Whispers of a breakaway anti-Corbyn party continue including the MPs Luciana Berger, Angela Smith, and Chris Leslie and are likely to continue as the Brexit rift tears Labour apart. The party’s trade union voters are largely pro-Brexit whereas its young members and militant Momentum activists are mostly against leaving the EU.
Unfortunately for Corbyn, he shares the same issue as May in that he cannot escape the internal question over Brexit. Unlike her, he is less likely to be replaced before the next election or the culmination of the UK’s departure from the EU because his popularity within Labour remains far above that of any other party figure.