(October 30, 2020 / JNS) During Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure at the helm of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, one of the many anti-Semitism scandals that enveloped the party revolved around a speech he had given while still a backbench member of parliament, in which he ventured that British-born “Zionists … despite having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives … don’t understand English irony.”
Au contraire. There was a sublime example of irony on display in London last week that every Zionist, whether born in Britain or not, could easily appreciate. In his bombastic reaction to an official inquiry concluding that Labour had broken the law in its response to the anti-Semitism in its ranks, Corbyn inadvertently and yet perfectly demonstrated why that inquiry had been so necessary in the first place.
In the hours after the publication of the 130-page report—compiled by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), a body created by the Labour Party when in office—Corbyn rushed to denounce its findings. The problem of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party had been “dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents … as well as by much of the media,” he declared, proving in the space of few words that Labour’s main problem with anti-Semitism lay with Corbyn himself.
This was too much for Corbyn’s successor as Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, who had separately and correctly cast the EHRC’s indictment as a “day of shame” for the party. Just as Starmer was saying that the report’s observations and recommendations were “clear and stark,” and had revealed “serious failings in leadership, processes and culture,” Corbyn was depicting it—to coin a phrase the British are fond of—as a “stitch-up.”
As has been widely reported—and in keeping with Starmer’s additional pledge that those who claimed accusations of anti-Semitism were “exaggerated or a factional attack” were “part of the problem,” and should be “nowhere near Labour”—on Thursday afternoon Corbyn was suspended for the very same party that he led into an electoral catastrophe in December 2019.
Speaking to the BBC on Friday morning, Starmer reiterated the party’s position. “I made it clear the Labour Party I lead will not tolerate anti-Semitism, neither will it tolerate the argument that denies or minimizes anti-Semitism in the Labour Party on the basis that it’s exaggerated or a factional row,” he stated.
Predictably, Corbyn’s supporters inside the party were up in arms over the former leader’s suspension, with one powerful labor leader whose union donates millions of pounds to the Labour Party every year slamming it as a “grave injustice.” Other pro-Corbyn figures pledged to use the Labour Party’s internal structures to “get him back in,” as one of them put it.
However, the possibility that Corbyn has staged a “false flag operation”—in the parlance of the many conspiracy theorists who championed his leadership and his politics—shouldn’t be discounted. In his interview with the BBC, Starmer said explicitly that “from discussions yesterday morning, I’m in no doubt that Jeremy Corbyn and his team knew exactly what I was going to say in my response about not only anti-Semitism but the denial and the arguments about exaggeration, and it’s just a factional fight.”
As a veteran of the Labour Party, Corbyn was indubitably aware that issuing just such a denial could result in disciplinary action against him—and perhaps that is the outcome he wanted. I can think of at least two reasons why that might be. Firstly, turning himself into the victim is Corbyn’s rather shabby attempt to divert attention away from the hundreds of cases of anti-Semitism reported inside the Labour Party (since Starmer became leader in April, more than 200 activists have been expelled as a result of these investigations.)
Secondly, the only political strategy that Corbyn can comfortably relate to is one in which he plays the radical opposition, not the leader. By turning the EHRC report into a wedge issue between himself and Starmer, Corbyn is attempting to galvanize—for the umpteenth time in a political career that goes back to the early 1970s—Labour’s far-left against a centrist leadership. In the minds of those who follow Corbyn’s lead on this, Starmer will crystallize as a demonic figure to rival the Conservative Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, as well as the most tangible obstacle to the far-left’s attempts to win back the party.
All this reveals a much deeper irony. Jeremy Corbyn was the most successful far-left politician inside the modern Labour Party by a mile—more than the late Tony Benn, a former cabinet minister, and more than Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London whom Corbyn now joins in the ranks of those suspended from Labour because of anti-Semitism. But Corbyn was also the most failed far-left politician inside the modern Labour Party by the same measure; he lost two general elections, his personal ratings among the British public were consistently dismal, and he presided over the disgrace when it came to the Jewish community of his party’s open contempt for the country’s laws against racial discrimination and harassment.
Perhaps he will ultimately be remembered as a cautionary tale. For the American left—where Corbyn still has not a few admirers, not least among them Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)—that might be the most prudent way of analyzing his four years leadership of the Labour Party. For if Corbynism, which brought anti-Semitism together with environmentalism, trade unionism, anti-war activism and other progressive causes, failed in its own environment, then it will not succeed in this one.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.
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