- Mon Aug 24, 2020 12:00 pm
Pride, prejudice and a problem that struck at Corbyn’s core
Antisemitism row exposed the Labour leader’s lack of self-scrutiny, write Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire in the second extract from their new book
Questionable rhetoric and overt hatred towards Jews had always found a happy home on the outermost edges of the organised left, where anti-imperialism often meets conspiracy. Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour’s membership had swollen to half a million — and those fringes were subsumed into the party’s official structures. It was often said that Labour’s transformation into a mass movement under Corbyn had transformed its finances and campaigning power. But the consequences of an influx of members whose prejudices for so long went unchecked in little-read pamphlets and poorly attended meetings were just as significant.
Even the leadership’s most unyielding enforcers knew they needed to do more to repair Labour’s relationship with the mainstream of the Jewish community. Upon her appointment as general secretary, Jennie Formby had stressed that dealing with antisemitism was her foremost priority. But Karie Murphy, Corbyn’s chief of staff, knew that the leader’s office would have to take the initiative itself if it were to reclaim an overwhelmingly hostile narrative — and soothe the nerves of a minority community spooked by the prospect of a Corbyn government.
Corbyn needed to show that he understood the difference between questions of foreign policy and the practicalities of life as a Jew in the Britain of 2018. Some of Murphy’s suggestions were mundane: a round-table summit with community organisations, a series of meetings with Jewish Labour activists and MPs, outreach to Jewish communities outside of London, and a new strategy for rebutting stories in the media. Others were more striking. Corbyn would visit Auschwitz. He could meet children at London’s Jewish Free School. Haaretz, Israel’s liberal broadsheet, would get a set-piece interview. Congregants at a progressive synagogue and residents of a Jewish care home would get to mix with Corbyn too. Any one of the proposals would have made for a potentially groundbreaking gesture of reconciliation.
All but one of them came to nothing. The one proposal from Murphy’s paper that was enacted was that Labour’s code of conduct be amended to “comprehensively rule out all forms of prejudice”. The way in which Corbyn interpreted those words would convince much of the Jewish community that he was incapable of grasping another recommendation from the paper: “Ensure members understand what is antisemitism.”
On April 25, 2018, Corbyn had a meeting with the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC). He left with one request ringing louder in his ears than any other. Both organisations wanted Labour to incorporate into its code of conduct the full definition of antisemitism given by the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA), an intergovernmental body of which the UK was a member. By September, “IHRA” would become a shorthand for all that the Jewish community distrusted and disliked in Corbyn.
Labour had already accepted the definition, in May 2016. But the Board of Deputies and the JLC had asked that it adopt the IHRA’s 11 illustrative but non-exhaustive examples of antisemitism too, which provided a framework by which the definition could be applied.
Critics of the definition had always contended that these examples were an attempt to police legitimate criticism of the Israeli state’s conduct in Palestine, if not proscribe it altogether. Corbyn had always seen himself as part of the vanguard of that struggle. Unsurprisingly, those who know him best say he harboured the same aversion to the definition.
Beyond his own convictions, the most significant influences on Corbyn’s thinking were to be found not in the leader’s office but in Islington North. There he frequently canvassed opinion from Jewish leftists, old friends whose steadfast support had a significant impact on his thinking — or rather its inability to change. Other friends from Islington formed a kitchen cabinet to which he would often defer on antisemitism. To them, the communal organisations demanding the adoption of full IHRA — like the Board of Deputies — were firmly of the right, and therefore too unrepresentative to dictate policy in the community’s name.
Perhaps the most profound influence aides discerned was that of Corbyn’s wife, Laura Alvarez. Sources in the leader’s office believe she was horrified by the growing consensus in the media that her husband, whose anti-racism was the very core of his identity, was at best tolerant of racism and at worst a racist himself. According to them, she felt that the leader’s office had not done enough to defend him. To strategic thinkers in his office, Corbyn’s position was absurd. They shared his desire to advance the Palestinian cause but feared his prescriptivism might have the opposite effect. “Not getting a Labour government elected is letting the Palestinian people down,” said one. “This is a fight we didn’t need, shouldn’t have had and couldn’t win.”
The backlash to the new Labour code of conduct from the Jewish community was as swift as it was unambiguous. Both the Board of Deputies and the JLC condemned it. “It is impossible to understand why Labour refuses to align itself with this universal definition,” they said. The Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), the party’s official but overwhelmingly Corbynsceptic Jewish affiliate, threatened Formby with legal action for claiming the code had their endorsement. Their ferocity spooked moderates in the shadow cabinet. Sir Keir Starmer laid down the gauntlet. In an interview with The Andrew Marr Show, the shadow Brexit secretary called on the leadership to adopt the IHRA definition and examples in full.
The parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) also made its views clear. At its weekly meeting the same evening, it overwhelmingly passed a motion, tabled by the Jewish MPs Luciana Berger and Alex Sobel, calling for IHRA to be adopted in full. Corbyn did not attend.
On July 17 the NEC voted unanimously to adopt the new code of conduct but to keep its provisions under review and consult with Jewish community groups on how it might be improved. It had been a tense and, for some in the room, unbearable meeting. Margaret Hodge took the news personally. Though the daughter of Holocaust refugees, the veteran MP for Barking had always worn her Jewish identity lightly.
In the hours after the NEC decided not to adopt IHRA in full, Corbyn returned to parliament for votes on the EU Withdrawal Bill. As Labour MPs filed through the division lobbies, discussion inevitably focused on the afternoon’s events. Hodge found herself in conversation with Ian Austin, who was then the MP for Dudley North, behind the Speaker’s chair. It was then she spotted Corbyn. Hodge snapped, using the sort of language she would never utter in public: “I’m going to tell this guy he’s a f***ing antisemitic racist.” Austin reacted with glee. “Go on Margaret!” he said. “Go and do it!” It was not a decision Hodge took lightly. As a former leader of Islington council, she had known Corbyn for the best part of 40 years. As she approached Corbyn, Hodge made a promise to herself: she would not swear, lest she undermine the potency of her argument. (Unbeknown to her, however, Austin — summoning the skills he had honed as a spin doctor for Gordon Brown — would brief to a journalist the industrial language she had used.) “It’s outrageous, the decision you’ve taken,” she told the Labour leader. Seemingly impassive, Corbyn began to quote the new code of conduct. “You’re making Labour a hostile environment for Jews to belong to,” Hodge shot back, before calling him “an antisemite and a racist”. The Labour leader said little. By the time their conversation had finished, Hodge was shaking.
That was not the end of the matter. Andy McDonald, the shadow transport secretary, had witnessed the argument and submitted a formal complaint. Hodge did not find out until the following morning. “They’re going to suspend you from the party,” Luciana Berger told her. Hodge’s heart sank. Her hope had been that Corbyn might listen. Instead, the leader’s office was on the warpath . . . Hodge received a letter placing her under investigation.
The decision would trigger the most profound breach between Corbyn and his deputy, John McDonnell, that they would ever experience. Some in the leader’s office argue that it was never repaired. At its heart, the dispute was political. Would Labour discipline a septuagenarian Jewish MP who had vented about racism, albeit aggressively, as it would any other member? Or would it compromise by having the issue dealt with off the books.
Corbyn backed the former option. Those who saw the political danger in following the letter of the rulebook rather than conceding in the interests of what they called “the Project” were exasperated. McDonnell was among them. With Formby on holiday in Turkey, he turned to Murphy and urged her to cancel the disciplinary action. Murphy refused.
In the subsequent days, Hodge enlisted the services of the law firm Mishcon de Reya. She was not backing down. To McDonnell, that the hierarchy in the leader’s office would not do so itself was incomprehensible: he did not see the point of jeopardising Labour’s standing for the sake of winning an argument with an elderly Jewish MP on a point of principle that was to most voters beyond arcane.
Aides say McDonnell lobbied Corbyn obsessively over the decision. To them, it appeared to be a classic McDonnell manoeuvre: a short-term tactical compromise for the sake of the Project. But McDonnell’s reaction was motivated by a deep anger as much as it was a cool political pragmatism or a desire for control. A friend of the shadow chancellor said: “They could have drawn a line under it at that point, and John felt passionately that that was the case. The other issue was that Jeremy wasn’t listening to him and was listening to other people, when John felt he had a long bond with Jeremy.”
Corbyn gave the impression of a man unwilling to budge for the sake of his pride. An adviser in his office suggests the feelings ran deeper: “Why did Jeremy dig in? Well, all of his politics have been about supporting the Palestinians. He was affronted by Hodge’s attack on him. That led him to dig in.” Unlike McDonnell, he did not see the row in terms of the Labour left’s quest for power. It struck at the very core of his sense of self.
Things came to a head the next day when the shadow cabinet met. Witnesses describe McDonnell as gripped by an almost biblical temper at the decision to proceed with action against Hodge. As the meeting wound up, Corbyn reached an aide to express his anxiety that his shadow chancellor had lost his temper. Later that day he phoned Murphy and appeared to suggest that it might be time to call off the disciplinary action. She told him in no uncertain terms that it was Formby’s decision alone.
A question that preoccupied aides was whether McDonnell and Corbyn were comrades or personal friends first. For a period that summer it was painfully clear that they were neither. After McDonnell’s explosion over Hodge, one senior aide said: “They never spoke for months. Never spoke the whole summer.” The leader refused to contact the man to whom he had once been a lone friend in politics, or to broker a peace. By the end of the summer, neither was answering the other’s calls. “It was absolutely true that they weren’t talking,” said another staffer. “They were walking past each other in the corridor and blanking each other, it was that level of not talking.”
For the situation to continue into the looming parliamentary term, with a vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal and a potential split in the PLP a live prospect, would be not only unsustainable but politically suicidal. So it was that Andrew Fisher, senior policy adviser to Corbyn and protégé of McDonnell, was dispatched to Norfolk, where the shadow chancellor spent his summers boating on the Broads with his grandchildren, to negotiate a settlement. After a conference call from the boat with Corbyn and his aides, McDonnell agreed to bury the hatchet.
The leader’s office had come to realise that huge sections of the Jewish community did not merely dislike Corbyn, but saw him as an existential threat. Seumas Milne, Corbyn’s director of strategy and communications, had been particularly affected by a television vox pop with an Orthodox Jewish family who said they were scared of the Labour Party. Dispelling those deeply held fears would require Corbyn to show the quality that defined his activism on behalf of other oppressed peoples: empathy. Words were one thing. Being seen to believe them was quite another.
A question that troubled some was whether Corbyn categorised antisemitism as the kind of racism he had always set himself against. Andrew Murray, the trade unionist, said: “He is very empathetic, Jeremy, but he’s empathetic with the poor, the disadvantaged, the migrant, the marginalised . . . Happily, that is not the Jewish community in Britain today. He would have had massive empathy with the Jewish community in Britain in the 1930s and he would have been there at Cable Street, there’s no question. But, of course, the Jewish community today is relatively prosperous.”
For Murray, the fact that antisemitism and economic exploitation were not necessarily entwined posed a difficult question for many on the left: “Racism in British society since the Second World War — what does it mean? It means discrimination at work, discrimination in housing, hounding by the police on the streets, discrimination and disadvantage in education, demonisation and mischaracterisation in the mass media. That is what has happened to Afro-Caribbean and Asian immigrants and their descendants. It is not, mainly, what has happened to Jewish people. The fascists I knew in the 1970s didn’t go out Jew-hunting, they went out Paki-bashing. For a whole generation — that’s now quite an influential cohort in the Labour Party and around Jeremy personally — that is what racism is. They would say, ‘Of course, Jewish migrants to Britain in the first half of the 20th century — they lived in appalling conditions. They had it rough, they were attacked by the fascists. But, you know, that was then. The Jewish community’s moved on. It’s developed, it’s integrated and . . .’ This is where the failure to understand comes in — that, actually, antisemitism has different aspects to other forms of racism.” Many wondered, therefore, not whether Corbyn would empathise, but whether he could.
© Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire 2020. Extracted from Left Out: the Inside Story of Labour Under Corbyn, to be published by Bodley Head on September 3 at £18.99
A lifelong Unite official chosen by Mr Corbyn’s aides to replace Iain McNicol as Labour’s general secretary, Ms Formby took the reins of the party’s administration in March 2018.
She led efforts to repair relations with the Jewish community and stamp out antisemitism at the grassroots level but allies allege that she was obstructed by hostile officials.
The trade unionist was hired to enforce the Labour leader’s will as chief of staff in 2016.
A friend of Len McCluskey, leader of Unite, Ms Murphy was credited with professionalising Mr Corbyn’s operation. Yet Labour MPs blamed her for the leadership’s muted opposition to Brexit. Her management style caused discontent and she was ousted before the 2019 general election.
He advised both the Labour leadership and Unite on strategy. A former reporter for the Soviet news agency Novosti and the communist Morning Star, Mr Murray was on the fringes of the left before emerging as an eloquent advocate for compromise among Corbynites. He urged Mr Corbyn to broker a deal with Theresa May on Brexit after the 2017 election and suggested that Mr Corbyn’s stance on antisemitism cost Labour power.
The intellectual architect of Corbynism who cut his teeth as an aide to John McDonnell. The 2017 election manifesto, of which he was the author, had the status of holy writ among Mr Corbyn’s followers but Mr Fisher did not enjoy commensurate respect as the leader’s head of policy.
Mr Corbyn had no friend as reliable as Mr McDonnell, the leader of the party’s left who twice failed to win the top job himself. As shadow chancellor he emerged as the
Corbyn project’s pragmatist-in-chief, urging compromise on Brexit and antisemitism. Disagreements on the latter issue put his relationship with Mr Corbyn under strain.
"The opportunity to serve our country. That is all we ask." John Smith, Leader of the Labour Party, 10 May 1994.