After Labour’s strong conference and after Jeremy Corbyn's allies backed down on an obscure rule change, the ‘anti-semitism crisis’ in the U.K. Labour party seems to have calmed down somewhat after raging in the media like almost no other story. Now that the smoke has cleared, it’s perhaps possible to look at the wider politics and origins of the ‘row’ in a sober way.
Understanding the Labour Party’s never-ending row over anti-semitism means understanding the complicated world of its internal factions, but also, to an extent, the changes in political discourse and the way in which the worst aspects of campus identity politics has gone mainstream within liberal elite circles in the U.S. and the U.K., and is being used as a weapon against the left.
For two years Corbyn and the British left have been relentlessly attacked as anti-semitic for their commitment to the Palestine solidarity movement. Almost every day throughout the summer, every single newspaper and broadcaster has led with the smear, and various former politicians of the Blair-era were wheeled out to denounce the ‘racism’ of opposing the Israeli occupation.
So what are the roots of this argument? Why have semantic rows about Israel taken up hours of airtime in a country where a majority probably couldn't define ‘Zionism’, let alone get offended at arguments against it?
On a Thursday afternoon at the end of August, Labour MP Frank Field resigned as Labour Whip, meaning he will sit in the House of Commons as an independent. He declared that the party’s handling of the anti-semitism ‘crisis’ was the reason he left the party, a statement that was reproduced uncritically in the press.
Frank Field had until that point not made any significant intervention on the question of anti-semitism. Digging a little deeper reveals that the context behind his resignation was that he faced being deselected by his local party on account of his support for Theresa May’s vision of Brexit. Though to save face and distract discussion, he cynically feigned concern for anti-semitism. This episode goes to the heart of how the anti-semitism scandal has degenerated almost entirely into a factional row carried out in bad faith by Corbyn’s critics.
The most important context of the current anti-semitism row, and how aggressive it has become, is the extent to which Corbyn and the left have successfully taken over the Labour Party. Just two years ago, the socialist candidate Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the party that was once controlled by centrist elites — the likes of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
After the failure of Britain's 2010 student movement, and the wave of anti-austerity protests and strikes, those forces, together with a younger generation unburdened with the legacy of those defeats, flooded into the Labour Party to vote for Corbyn to the horror of party elites and the mainstream media.
Before long Corbyn’s team had formed a faction within the party known as ‘Momentum.’ The new group mobilized social media to counter the hostile press. Though just as important, it coordinated carefully-planned operations to take control of key institutions within Labour, displacing the various career bureaucrats that had clogged up the party machine and had been poor caricatures of West Wing-obsessed Democratic staffers of the U.S. Within two years, Corbyn supporters had won every internal election, meaning they took control of the national executive committee, the conference arrangements committee, the national policy forum and the vast majority of local party branches.
The old liberal wing of the Labour Party has seen their power evaporate before their eyes. More importantly, they had lost the argument over Blair’s legacy, including privatization of public services through PFI deals, deregulation of the banks, expansion of casualized working conditions. All these issues were now anathema to the party. In short, the neoliberal consensus had been broken. Their attempts to attack Corbyn on this basis failed miserably, and polling shows how nationalization of the utility companies and the railways is backed by over 70 percent of the public.
Labour’s excellent showing at the 2017 election, where they went from 25 percent to 40 percent during the course of the campaign, proved the popular support for an economic program of sweeping nationalizations and public spending. In Colchester, an Essex town with a military base, Labour’s vote share rose from 16 percent to almost 40 percent after Corbyn was elected leader. The never-ending accusations that Corbyn was a terrorist-sympathizing peacenik were also mostly ignored.
It was at that point that the Labour Party’s neoliberal factions calculated that the discussion would need to be shifted onto a terrain that could peel off some of Corbyn’s supporters, or at least confuse them. Anti-semitism provided the perfect smokescreen for attacking the anti-imperialist tradition that Corbyn represented, carried out through moralizing the language of anti-racism.
The second most important origin of the anti-semitism row within Labour starts with deposed neoliberals and the mass media exploiting the most sectarian forms of student identity politics and weaponizing them against the Left. Mostly non-Jewish Labour MPs and bureaucrats — failed figures of the Blair era — began deploying the most destructive aspects of ‘call out’ culture, suddenly speaking the language of campus ‘SJWs’ (Social Justice Warriors). Tweets about the ‘safety of oppressed groups’ or fulminations against ‘privileged’ white leftists were racking up retweets in the thousands defending the idea that anti-Zionism represents a pernicious form of racism.
The way in which Labour MPs mirrored the destructive ultra-left tendencies on campuses across the country is remarkable. The late Mark Fischer laid out in his essay "Exiting the Vampire Castle" just how these moralistic liberal strategies play out. The most important task for this class Fischer says is: “How do you hold immense wealth and power while also appearing as a victim, marginal and oppositional?”. The answer Fischer says, is to individualize political questions, to perform one's ‘wokeness’ often throughout the exercise of class privilege. He said “the victim (often from a working-class background, and not schooled in the passive-aggressive etiquette of the bourgeoisie) can reliably be goaded into losing their temper, further securing their position as pariah/latest to be consumed in feeding frenzy.”.
Whilst that discourse began on college campuses among social justice campaigners, it was very easily weaponized by neoliberal elites claiming to moralize and reducing the meaning of racism to simple discrimination rather than as a by-product of the imperialism they identify with, and of which the state of Israel is a central part.
It was through this mechanism that Palestine campaigners in the Labour Party were told that it is anti-semitic and ‘oppressive’ to class the Nakba and ongoing territorial expulsions of the Palestinians as racist. It’s a strategy that will play out in the U.S. and other countries if the political conjuncture demands it. Or rather, only if the popular left in other countries maintains the same courage as Corbyn in sticking to their principles of anti-colonialism and Palestinian liberation.
If there is one positive to take away from this ‘anti-semitism row,’ it is that two years of media attacks have not damaged Corbyn or the Labour Party in the eyes of the general public. At the time of writing, Labour has over half a million members and is ahead in some polls. This despite every single part of the print media attacking Corbyn daily at a level of aggression more reminiscent of Fox News than anything the British are used to.