"The anti-semitism debate is another strike on the shaky foundations that Scottish Labour needs to build for its successful revival."
Just beyond the Glasgow School of Art, tucked on a quiet hill, lies Giffnock Synagogue. The building’s fine Victorian architecture suggests a community woven deeply into Glasgow’s fabric. But inside, beneath the portraits of grandees and smiling wedding photos, one might glimpse a newspaper that suggests all is not right for the British Jewish community. Reports of open anti-semitism, boycotts of Israel, and the looming figure of Jeremy Corbyn. What started as a mild mistrust reached fever pitch when Dame Margaret Hodge called her own leader a ‘racist and anti-semite’.
While Westminster rumbled, Bute House saw an opportunity. Nicola Sturgeon, in what was - depending on your view of the SNP - either cynical politicking or moral imperative, invited Jewish representatives to a meeting. Sturgeon declared that anti-semitism had no place in Scotland and was praised for her ‘level of engagement and knowledge.’ The SNP could again lay claim to represent a majority of the Scottish population seeking a positive tolerant vision for their country. While the SNP has had a few of its own members drawn into anti-semitic conspiracy theories, including an MSP, the leadership moves in lockstep in choosing popular positions to promote future independence and constitutional devolution.
Whereas Labour sits at a low ebb. In England, the party has consolidated left-wing voters, capturing the zeitgeist of austerity fatigue driven by a system that strips young people of opportunity, and rising anger over capitalism’s failures. Labour is re-building in Scotland, after 2015’s nadir, new MP’s and MSP’s have risen from the ashes. But in a post-referendum world Labour finds itself the third party in Scotland. The Conservatives under Ruth Davidson poach swing-voting unionists. The SNP home of independence voters. While a stronger Liberal Democrat and Green presence stretches Labour further.
There remains a glimmer of hope. Exhaustion at Brexit could hamper Scottish Conservatives. After a decade in power at Holyrood, the SNP could lose more MP’s at Westminster. A red surge across the UK could bolster the number of Scottish Labour MP’s and make Labour the second party at Holyrood. Sensing this, Labour figures are keen to move the conversation on. Neil Findlay MSP notes, ‘some people have said some very stupid and offensive things and should be dealt with, but secondly, others have used the issue as the next stick with which to beat the people leading the party.’ This is the John McDonnell school of thought. The economy and redistribution are Labour’s raisons d’etre, while the tonal debates on party culture are unwelcome distractions. Labour must win voters back who have given up their former affiliation. If these voters feel Labour is too tied to scandal, anti-Semitism, and political purity, they may see no reason to return.
As Sturgeon and Davidson grab headlines promoting different versions of the same tolerant open Scotland, Labour will remain a spent force. There is little to assuage doubts of members of the Jewish community. Ephraim Goldstein, Director of the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities, retorts that Findlay’s ‘admission that the Labour anti-semitism crisis was handled very badly and that the perpetrators need to be dealt with is welcome, but it is regrettable that he wants to declare the matter closed and change the subject …what the Jewish Community wants to hear is what [Findlay] and his colleagues are going to do to rescue Labour from the anti-semites who now seem to find it so welcoming.’
The anti-semitism debate is another strike on the shaky foundations that Scottish Labour needs to build for its successful revival. The party of Gordon Brown, Macdonald and Hardie must lead from the front in bridging the gap between all of Scotland’s communities and not let Westminster squabbles define it or lead it.
Benjamin Donlan is a Young Fabians member. Follow him on Twitter at @bendonlan