by Rob Marchant
Let us ask ourselves a simple question. When is the last time a major political party was seriously accused of endemic racism?
That is, racism with a link to a segment of the party’s politics; not of a couple of isolated individuals, but of a group of activists in the rank and file, including numerous elected representatives who clearly showed (written) evidence of racist attitudes?
And accused not by a hostile newspaper, or an opposing party, but by a moderate and respected political organisation representing that minority?
All these are things which have come to light in the last few weeks. About Jews.
In Labour, the party of the anti-racists.
It’s difficult to think of when racism was last acceptable in politics but we probably have to go back to the 1980s, at least. In the 1980s, Labour was determinedly anti-racist. The Conservative party, as blogger Adam Bienkov points out, still had close links to the rather unpleasant Monday Club, but was nevertheless largely retreating from the bad old days of Enoch Powell and, as the entrenched party of government throughout the decade, could neither really afford to alienate big sections of the population.
By the late 1990s, though, the Tories were largely free from overt racism (although a significant portion of its membership continued to be homophobic, as evidenced by the persistence of its Section 28 anti-gay legislation). But it was not acceptable to be racist in either party, if it ever had been, and Labour naturally continued to fully endorse a multi-cultural Britain.
Since then, the Tories have taken some pains to encourage ethnic minorities among its members and MPs, although sheer economic demographics means that they are unlikely to catch Labour up for a long time. But racism is not a word we can easily pin on the Tories any more, despite the best efforts of some of our remaining class warriors to do so. And we have lived in recent years in a world of mainstream politics which, however much it may still be found on Britain’s streets, is mercifully light on racism.
But suddenly, it seems there is a modest supply of members on the fringes of the Labour Party who are prepared to endorse a very specific form of racism. No other form is tolerated, just anti-Semitism alone (some examples from Tom Harris here).
And it is important to note this, because its doublethink-justification is a political one: these people kid themselves that it is not racism, but merely criticism of Israel. Zionists, not Jews, you understand.
But the slide is evident from reasonable criticism of Israel – something which pretty much everyone in Labour would sign up to – to hatred of Israel, which they would not. And hatred of Israel is a small step, sadly, from hatred of Jews, the world’s oldest form of racism.
On this insidious subject, the direction of travel is clear: down. But the most terrifying thing is of all that the party’s leadership is stuck: it has shown itself clearly incapable of acting in the manner it needs to to stamp it out. That is, exactly how it acted with Militant in the 1980s. Rooting it out.
And it is not because that leadership itself is racist. It is simple maths.
For Corbyn, known for his dislike of confrontation to start with, has a dilemma: within Labour, there is a very high correlation between members of the hard left and those who are strongly anti-Israel. As the more extreme of these people are expelled, Corbyn is not only expelling some of his own most vocal supporters, but could also cause serious ripples amongst other supporters who might see this as unfair scapegoating, and leave.
Corbyn will not act against the racists because there is too much overlap with the Militant of the 2010s, the Momentum/BDS/PSC crowd. He will not act against the new Militant, so similar in its organisational methods, as Kinnock acted against the old, because they are part of his supporter group. Organisations close to his heart, such as Stop the War, have egged them on.
Furthermore, the anti-Israel cause is very important to Corbyn – ironically, as it is one which has scarcely no resonance among voters – and this critical mass of support could, he knows, help him change party policy and move it mainstream.
The reality is that he is trapped: he cannot risk starting a war with the returning hard left, no matter how ugly a few of them might turn out to be. That would be the end of him and his ideas to change Labour.
But the damage that it will cause to the party in the meantime will be severe. With every new press story revealing evidence of anti-Semitism, Labour will die a little.
That said, there is another reading to be had: it could be that the reaction of the party mainstream to this damage will ultimately do for Corbyn himself. And that is because parties and politicians tend to react when they perceive an existential threat.
This is clearly one.
Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left