(June 14, 2017 / JNS) By Ben Cohen/JNS.org
For me, the main takeaway from the British election June 8 was that Jeremy Corbyn, the far-left leader of the opposition Labour party, didn’t win it.
Most of the ridicule in the wake of the election has been aimed at Conservative party Prime Minister Theresa May, for her political error worthy of an Elizabethan farce—calling an election with the aim of increasing her majority, only to end up needing the votes of a right-wing Unionist party in Northern Ireland in order to form a government.
The scorn heaped on May by most of the British media has been matched with fulsome praise tossed in Corbyn’s direction. Since Labour, under his leadership, had been tipped for electoral annihilation, the fact that he received a respectable portion of the vote was heralded as if he’d actually won the thing.
For Labour, the last decade has mirrored its experience in the 1980s. Back then—at a time when there was no Twitter universe for left-wing activists to counter the invective directed at the party from right-wing tabloid newspapers—Labour, with its myriad far-left factions, became an electoral wreck.
Towards the end of the Margaret Thatcher era, a Labour leader named Neil Kinnock brought the party guardedly back into the mainstream. But Labour didn’t win an election for nearly 20 years until Tony Blair won handsomely in 1997—and that fact, more than any other, continues to nag at Corbyn and his acolytes, who dream of a reinvented party firmly on the socialist left.
Corbyn came out of the 2017 election more than 60 seats short of a working parliamentary majority. To my mind, for him to win an election remains a tall order. If there’s another one soon, he’ll have to mobilize the youth vote all over again—much easier said than done—and he’ll need to pray for another benevolent news cycle in which all the focus is on the errors and slips of his opponent.
If there’s another election much later, he will still need to deal with the ironclad doubts a majority of British voters retain about his suitability to lead their country.
One of the most troubling spectacles of Corbyn’s tenure has, of course, been the numerous anti-Semitism scandals plaguing the party, often involving key Labour figures—like former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, who remains discreetly suspended, rather than expelled, for telling open lies about Adolf Hitler’s alleged “support” for Zionism. There is, therefore, a whiff of schadenfreude in the air when you realize that had Corbyn taken the issue of anti-Semitism seriously, had he not embraced “friends” like Hamas and Hezbollah, he might have been in a position to make Theresa May’s attempts to form a governing coalition nearly impossible.
In four districts in northern London, all with significant Jewish populations, the overall swing to Labour in the city wasn’t enough to overcome to overcome the Conservative candidates. At least two of the defeated Labour candidates said afterwards that the party’s electoral fortunes in these London constituencies had been damaged by the anti-Semitism scandals. But had Labour won these four parliamentary seats—and it came agonizingly close to doing so—May would have been forced to turn to hostile opposition parties to form a government. Had that happened, she would likely have failed.
Yet Labour remains a force in British politics, and I modestly hope British Jews won’t give up on the party. One lesson the party can take from its 2017 experience at the polls is that winning elections is possible—if certain aspects are appropriately tweaked. Whether those Labour figures who still have some influence within the party, and some distance from Corbyn, can persuade the members that a leadership change should be one of those aspects doesn’t strike me as hugely viable.
But British Jews can play a role in ensuring the party isn’t entirely hijacked by the far left, which regards BDS as an article of faith and dismisses any charge of anti-Semitism as a Mossad-directed smear campaign. Jews certainly have Labour allies—both established ones, like John Mann, a parliamentarian who has diligently combated anti-Semitism for more than a decade, and new ones, like London Mayor Sadiq Khan.
This week, Khan told a Jewish gathering in London what they had been waiting to hear from a Labour politician for many months. “The Labour must rebuild trust with you, the Jewish community—it can’t be acceptable that there is any community that feels the Labour party is not on their side,” he said.
There was another remark from Khan that caught my eye: “There is no hierarchy in racism. Racism is racism.” That is an exquisitely bold statement for someone to make in the age of intersectionality—which argues there is, in fact, a hierarchy in racism, and that Jews are very low down on it—and it is also a message Labour needs to absorb.
Khan’s challenge to his party on the anti-Semitism issue is particularly significant during a week when even liberals in America are cooing on their admiration for Corbyn—and this should be borne in mind by those tempted to side with President Donald Trump in his bizarre Twitter campaign against the London mayor. Friends can be found where you least expect them, after all.
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS.org 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.