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After Brexit, Europe’s far left in turmoil

British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn Credit: Garry Knight via Wikimedia Commons.
British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn Credit: Garry Knight via Wikimedia Commons.

By Ben Cohen/

I’ve lost count of the number of strident adjectives—“historic,” “earth-shaking,” “tectonic,” and the like—inserted into the slew of commentary that has followed the British electorate’s June 23 decision to leave the European Union (EU) after 40 years of membership.

One of the fears regularly aired during the debate about the “Brexit” was that a vote in favor of leaving the EU would spur the rise of extremist politics on the right and the left, both in the United Kingdom and throughout Europe. There were two interrelated considerations behind this: firstly, on the economic front, a shift away from free trade and the free movement of people, and secondly, a return to the politics of nationalism and nativism. Similar concerns have been aired here in America in the context of the Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders presidential bids.

But as the dust settles across the Atlantic, it is becoming increasingly clear that the fortunes of the far left have endured something of a hiding.

In the frame here is, of course, the British Labour Party, which has been so severelybruised by the aftermath of the Brexit vote that it might not even survive. More on that in a moment, though, because we first need to examine what has happened in Spain.

Three days after the Brexit referendum, the Spanish held their second general election since last December’s inconclusive outing to the ballot box. Pundits and pollsters widely predicted a major triumph for the far-left Podemos (“We Can”—sound familiar?) party. Lots of informed observers predicted that the party’s share of the vote would be large enough to place it in a commanding position in the subsequent negotiations to form a governing coalition. As the results of the British referendum rolled in, the conclusion that Brexit would further boost Podemos, on the grounds that Europe was now in revolt against established parties, ideologies, and the aloof EU bureaucracy, was widely shared.

That didn’t happen. Podemos, which is part of a fractious left-wing alliance that includes the Spanish Communist Party, ended up coming third, behind the conservative People’s Party and moderate Socialist Party. Compared with its December 2015 performance, this time the party was down by more than 1 million votes.

To be sure, Podemos hasn’t been reduced to ashes. It remains an influential force on Spain’s political landscape, particularly at the municipal level, where the boycott of Israel has been pushed energetically by Podemos activists. For the time being, though, Podemos is not a party of government. And given the persistent reports about funding for the party from the Iranian regime, as well as from the rapidly crumbling dictatorship in Venezuela, one must hope it never will be.

Like Podemos, Britain’s Labour Party also portrays itself as a beacon of hope in the face of injustice. And like Podemos, Labour, from the grassroots to the leadership, is dominated by individuals whose idea of human rights promotion was laid bare in 2013, when the party’s previous leader, the spectacularly immoral Ed Miliband, derailed Prime Minister David Cameron’s attempt to license a limited British military operation against the barbaric massacres perpetrated by President Bashar-al Assad in Syria.

While Miliband, chillingly unmoved by the sight of children murdered with chemical weapons, helped to provide the Assad regime with a new lease of life, the same cannot be said of his contribution to his own party. Labour’s defeat in the 2015 election resulted in Jeremy Corbyn, a stalwart of the party’s far left, becoming leader. Less than a year after his triumph, Corbyn now faces a massive revolt from the party’s own parliamentarians. The only thing saving his leadership are the grassroots activists who joined the party en masse in 2015 for the sole purpose of electing him as leader.

Corbyn’s woes stem, in the main, from his muddled role in the campaign to keep Britain in the EU. He stands accused of not pulling his weight, because while the party is committed to the EU, Corbyn himself is not. As a result, within days of the Brexit result, more than 20 members of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet had resigned their posts.

Brexit, however, is not the only factor here. Corbyn’s short period at the helm of the Labour Party has been marked by consistent complaints of anti-Semitism within its ranks, a story that the British media has embraced with gusto. And Corbyn—a contributor to Iran’s official propaganda channel Press TV and a supporter of the viciously anti-Zionist Palestine Solidarity Campaign—has himself been accused of enabling it.

That impression was reinforced June 30, when the party released the report of an internal inquiry into racism and anti-Semitism. In a scene that could have been lifted from a political satire, Ruth Smeeth, a Jewish Labour parliamentarian, left the launch event in tears after she faced a torrent of anti-Semitic invective from a Corbyn supporter. “Until today I had made no public comment about Jeremy’s ability to lead our party,” Smeeth said in a later statement, “but the fact that he failed to intervene is final proof for me that he is unfit to lead, and that a Labour Party under his stewardship cannot be a safe space for British Jews.”

As for the report itself, it is a major disappointment, but not a surprise. Its recommendation that abusive terms like “Zio” and analogies of Israeli behavior with that of the Nazis be placed beyond the pale is welcome, but that didn’t stop Corbyn from comparing Israel to Islamic State in making the statement that British Jews should not be held accountable for the actions of the Israeli government, just as British Muslims should not be held responsible for the savages fighting under the Islamic State banner. Clearly implied here is the notion that British Jews should not want to be associated with the only country in the world that, in Corbyn’s warped view, is deserving of the “rogue state” label.

If Corbyn clings to the leaders’ position, that may well be at the price of the Labour Party’s existence. A split seems more and more likely, as Labour’s parliamentarians have realized that Corbyn’s continued tenure spells electoral oblivion.

As heretical as this might sound, a split may not be such a bad thing if it propels the formation of the center-left party that Britain’s venerable democracy so badly needs. More broadly, the setbacks for both Podemos and the Corbynista version of Labour may just herald a small recovery for the prospects of moderate parties across Europe—and that, as they say, would be good for the Jews.

Ben Cohen, senior editor of & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).

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