Both sides of the Livingstone bust-up should agree on some basic facts
‘These are the times that try men’s souls,’ begins the English radical Thomas Paine’s 18th century pamphlet The Crisis about the American Revolution. Paine had earlier described American independence as ‘the cause of all mankind’, and his stirring prose is a reminder not to use words lightly or degrade their power.
A week on from the start of Labour’s ‘anti-Semitism crisis‘, roughly two conflicting positions have taken hold on the Left, despite their being based on the same pile of evidence. Given a few days reflection, it might be possible to park the melodrama and agree on some basic facts.
Around 15 members of the Labour Party have been suspended for making anti-Semitic remarks, usually on social media, the most prominent being Naz Shah, member of parliament for Bradford West and, until her suspension on Wednesday, a parliamentary private secretary to John McDonnell, Labour’s shadow chancellor.
Things escalated quickly when former London Mayor Ken Livingstone toured TV and radio studios the next day defending Shah, and playing the amateur historian with bizarre remarks about Adolf Hitler, the holocaust, Israel, and how to define anti-Semitism. Livingstone was himself suspended a few hours later, providing him, as Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore has written, more time to spend with his newts.
Roughly speaking, responses on the Left have fallen into two camps. The first has defended Shah and Livingstone, downplayed or denied there being an issue of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, and said the real problem is attempts by ‘Zionists’, Blairites, and the Tory press to damage or oust the party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
The second has denounced Shah and Livingstone, amplified the issue of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, and held it up as a symptom of how Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has turned the party into a nest of racists and pinkoes.
Looking at the evidence, we find both of these positions contain some element of truth, as well as pure bunkum.
For one thing, several of the remarks complained about were made before Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader, and by people who were already Labour party members. Naz Shah’s posts on social media date from 2014, when Ed Miliband was in charge. Vicki Kirby was suspended in March for posts from 2011, 2013 and 2014, after being let off with a warning in 2014.
And Ken Livingstone was reported to a government watchdog for likening a Jewish reporter to a concentration camp guard back in 2005 – when he was Labour’s mayor of London, and the party was led by Tony Blair.
However, some of those suspended did join after Corbyn’s election as leader, such as Gerry Downing, who was granted membership in November after an earlier expulsion, and claims to see a kindred spirit in the MP for Islington North.
And it’s true that Corbyn’s conciliatory approach to Hamas and Hezbollah and his having hosted television programmes for the Iranian government have been a green light (and a red rag) to people who like (or don’t like) this sort of thing.
Nevertheless, the evidence that Jeremy Corbyn is the cause of anti-Semitism among party members – that the fish rots from the head – is fairly weak, and people can at best point to a correlation, made less impressive by the evidence of a longer term trend within the party and beyond.
Those in the second camp – the Corbyn blamers – also have to reckon with the paradox that the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn has suspended and investigated more members for anti-Semitism than his predecessors, despite so many of the remarks pre-dating his election. He has even set up an independent inquiry into the problem, a measure that would have been denounced as McCarthyist by pro-Corbyn types if taken by previous leaders.
Meanwhile, those pointing to a hidden Blairite plot against Corbyn are right to claim that some in the party hope to unseat the leader, and have taken active steps to undermine him, mainly by briefings to the press, (though there have been counter-briefings by Corbyn’s press team, as in the winter reshuffle after the Syria vote).
But people in this camp, who choose to defend Ken Livingstone, ought to notice that if this was all an anti-Corbyn conspiracy, the prime suspect would have to be Ken Livingstone, who voluntarily acted as if he were an agent sent from Tory HQ.
Putting it simply, a conspiracy wide enough to control the mouth of a former mayor of London, as well as many non-Blairite Labour MPs and Momentum founder John Lansman, ought to be more than anyone can sensibly believe in. Instead of over-heating, it might be better to hold the Livingstones to account while recognising that opportunism is not a preserve of any one wing of the Left.
How best to tackle racism and prejudice is a question for another day. For now, there must be some space between saying there is no problem to address except lying Jews, Tories and Blairites, and saying Labour is the second coming of the Third Reich.
Adam Barnett is a staff writer for Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter @AdamBarnett13Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.