by Rob Marchant
Political historians will one day chronicle last week. In their texts, Thursday will surely turn out to have been a watershed day for Labour. It was the day that the party could no longer ignore the fact that some of its senior people not only tolerate anti-Semites in their ranks, but can even slide into making similarly ignorant statements themselves. That it truly had a problem.
Jeremy Corbyn, though apparently unfazed by associating with Holocaust deniers such as Paul Eisen and extremist preachers such as Raed Salah (check out his “hilarious” swastika joke here), is not thought by most commentators to be remotely anti-Semitic. But his willingness to embrace all-comers in the name of “dialogue” between communities, especially on the question of Palestine, has made him used to mentally blocking out the offensive things that others may say about Jews, to the point where he appears not even to see the problem.
For example, when hosting a talk show on Iran’s notorious propaganda channel Press TV (whose UK broadcasting licence was revoked by the present government): witness here how he pulls up a caller over US involvement in Palestine, but responds merely with the answer “okay” when the caller calls Israel a “disease”. Nice.
But he – or his office, at least – took an enormous step yesterday in suspending one of his party’s most famous figures and one of his own strongest supporters, Ken Livingstone.
While the reasons for Livingstone’s suspension seem fairly straightforward, Corbyn as leader has been extremely slow to act on the issue of anti-Semitism in general. Only the day before, he had been content with Naz Shah’s “fulsome apology”; until later that same day, when the media clamour became too much and she was suspended in a humiliating U-turn.
He must therefore now follow through with Livingstone and uphold the suspension. Not just because that is the right thing to do; but because he has little choice.
If he does not follow through, his leadership will inevitably be destroyed by the backlash. That backlash will come from the media, Her Majesty’s Opposition, the public and particularly his own party, where decent MPs and members will no longer stand for being in the same party as Livingstone. We should not forget that he is only days away from a significant set of elections.
And it may just kill Corbyn anyway. The damage done over recent days to his faltering leadership is now substantial in the eyes of the public, but the real test will be if the party’s power-brokers – the major unions – opt to turn on him.
Even if Corbyn holds his nerve and the suspension is upheld, things will not be easy. Livingstone is a political survivor: when Margaret Thatcher dissolved the Greater London Council in 1986, no-one would have ever predicted that he would be running London again as mayor a mere 14 years later. Since Corbyn’s unexpected win, he has been enjoying an unexpected return to the limelight after his double failure to win back the mayoralty.
So, it cannot be ruled out that a man, whose love of attention has generally been his undoing, will not return to front line politics outside Labour, as his former colleague George Galloway has done. If that were to happen, he could easily look to form a rival power centre on the far left, perhaps aligned with Momentum, which might initially compete with Labour for votes, but which would ultimately both fail, and be likely to draw out the far-left poison of Labour’s recent, radical recruits into itself. In other words, it could ultimately be a positive thing for Labour; a ticket back to the centre.
But that requires him to go. In short, either Livingstone must go, or Corbyn will have to. They cannot both survive within the party.
Even if he does go, a realignment of the left could still do for Corbyn. If members on the hard left drift away to coalesce around Ken or others, Corbyn’s support base within the party could quickly crumble. The only question is, whether this would happen before he has a chance to lose the 2020 election and be gone anyway.
Either way, he or his successor will have to focus relentlessly on stamping out anti-Semitism, if the party is to survive.
Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left