James Bartholomeusz discusses the Labour Party's action on antisemitism.
The latest round of feuds to engulf Downing Street has been good for Labour in more than one respect. It has provided further public evidence of Boris Johnson’s shambolic leadership at a time of national crisis. It has also delivered a fortunate but undeserved distraction from the reputational disaster of the EHRC report into Labour antisemitism.
Much ink has been spilled in recent weeks over the party’s decision to suspend Jeremy Corbyn after his intervention on the day of the report’s publication, questioning its accuracy and alleging that the level of racism had been significantly exaggerated. It almost doesn’t matter if his suspension was an opportunistic move by centrists at party HQ; it is hard to see how any leadership could reasonably have acted differently. Labour has comprehensively lost the trust of the Jewish community in this country. After two years of shameful equivocation, this was the moment for the Left of the party to accept responsibility and start building bridges. Corbyn manifestly failed at that task.
In this context, Keir Starmer’s tough stance on antisemitism is welcome. The risk is that the issue becomes instrumentalised once again in the struggle between the party’s rival factions, especially given that eyebrows have been legitimately raised over the speed of Corbyn’s readmission. In particular, Labour must resist the temptation to treat intolerance of antisemitism as a bridgehead for a return to neoliberal policies.
This will require an honest reckoning with the results of the Corbyn years, good and bad. Yes, the party’s failure to handle rising antisemitism in its ranks casts a stain on its record as a historically anti-racist force in British society. Yet the substance of the Corbynite policy programme remains enduringly popular with the public and, more importantly, provides many of the answers to the problems of the coming decades. The renationalisation of key infrastructure is common sense when privatisation and outsourcing have so clearly failed to deliver the goods. An expansion of trade union rights and collective bargaining is the best way to tackle endemic low pay and rent-seeking. And a green new deal, creating highly skilled jobs while decarbonising the economy, should be the centrepiece of any government strategy for the mid-21st Century.
One irony of recent political positioning is that it suits all sides to pretend this programme is much more radical than it actually is. For Tories and Labour centrists alike, such proposals represent a throwback to the discredited ‘loony Left’ of yesteryear. For the Left, both within and beyond the Labour Party, they are proof of the long-awaited victory over the evil Blairites. Both forms of spin are profoundly unhelpful. Strip away the rhetoric and Corbyn and John McDonnell’s vision was essentially one of mainstream post-war social democracy, updated to meet the challenges of the 2020s.
The worst thing Starmer could do now is ditch all the progress that has been made in policy development since 2015. Naturally, some of the presentation will have to change: allegations of republicanism and contempt for the armed forces need to be laid to rest. As a former Director of Public Prosecutions, Starmer can quite easily present himself as serious about defending the cultural institutions of the British state, something that seems to matter more and more to the older working-class voters who have abandoned Labour in recent elections. That is not essentially incompatible with the sweeping reform agenda which still, by default, forms the party’s policy offer.
Such choices can be avoided when all the opposition needs to do is point out the manifold failings of the present government. They cannot be avoided forever. As the country emerges from the coronavirus pandemic and approaches the next general election, Starmer will need to decide what positive vision he can offer for the future of Britain. A Labour Party that can both robustly anti-racist and committed to a genuinely progressive policy programme - surely that can’t be too much to ask?
James Bartholomeusz is a Young Fabian. He works for a trade union and writes a range of fiction and non-fiction in his spare time.