MPs have quit the Labour party this week to form a new group. What does it tell us about the party’s core dilemma?
In his From Lenin To Stalin, anarchist-turned-Bolshevik Victor Serge wrote of the October Revolution:
“It is often said that ‘the germ of all Stalinism was in Bolshevism at its beginning’. Well, I have no objection. Only, Bolshevism also contained many other germs, a mass of other germs, and those who lived through the enthusiasm of the first years of the first victorious socialist revolution ought not to forget it. To judge the living man by the death germs which the autopsy reveals in the corpse – and which he may have carried in him since his birth – is that very sensible?”
This week, the Labour Party of the United Kingdom coughed up a lung. Seven – and then another – of its sitting members of parliament left to form their own – imaginatively titled – Independent Group, giving the reason that the Labour Party now carries the germinal of anti-semitism. Before bedtime, the phlegm hit the spittoon when the Independent Group’s Angela Smith, fumbling on national television for want of a better phrase, distinguished Jews from those ethnic minorities with a “funny tinge”. In a parallel act of meiosis, three members of the Conservative Party split, citing concerns over their party’s handling of its divorce proceedings with the EU, and joined the new, and newly symbiotic, Group.
I won’t labour the metaphor further. These paroxysms are symptomatic of Labour’s fundamental problem: but before I offer my diagnosis, we might discuss what the country’s largest opposition is not.
Before the Kier Hardie’s founding of the party there was his Independent Labour Party, the flagship magazine of which wrote: “Wherever there is trouble in Europe, wherever rumours of war circulate and men’s minds are distraught with fear of change and calamity, you may be sure that a hooked-nosed Rothschild is at his games somewhere near the region of the disturbances.” Orwell wrote in 1945: “A very eminent figure in the Labour Party – I won’t name him, but he is one of the most respected people in England – said to me quite violently: ‘We never asked these [Jewish refugees] to come to this country. If they choose to come here, let them take the consequences.'” Later, in the aftermath of the Second World War, the Attlee government continued the wartime coalition’s policy of refusing asylum to hundreds of thousands of Jewish European refugees, stricter controls actively imposed on visas for Jews. We owe it ourselves to ask whether “Hurrah for the Blackshirts!” is different from “our friends in Hezbollah”, and to what extent and why.
But antisemitism is common on the Left simply because it is common. In 2017, by way of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, came a study which found that British antisemitism is no more widespread on the Left than it is on the Right. Speaking as the son of a Jewish banker, I cannot honestly say that I wake up in fear of either parliamentary wing. Perhaps this is only because I am not culturally Jewish, and therefore I am harder to identify – after all, the same study found that 30% of Britons express, “at different intensities”, antisemitism. What intensities are these? Distinguished British novelist Kingsley Amis once spoke of his non-violent antisemitism – quietly thinking, when viewing the credits of some arts programme, “there’s another one.”
But antisemitism is common on the Left simply because it is common
It matters, then, how we measure antisemitism and how we measure politicians. Historian John Charmley argues that despite Churchill’s Philo-Semitic odes, he “shared the low-level casual anti-Semitism of his class and kind”. Indeed, following Britain’s invasion of Russia in 1918, Churchill published an article blaming Bolshevism on European Jewry. A generation and a World War later, the order was never given to bomb the railroads leading to Nazi concentration camps, even as the heart of the Third Reich was being incinerated daily. Churchill’s six-volume historiography of that conflict contains no discussion of the Final Solution – an absence which fills the book.
All the same, Churchill’s leadership was an extended hand to a people stuck in the quicksand. As I write, Saudi Arabia buys weaponry from the United Kingdom to the tune of 25% of its imports, and 46% of our exports. Founded in part by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, Saudi Arabia remains one of the region’s chief exports of Wahhabism, arming violent Islamist theocrats in Yemen and having supported and encouraged the formation of the Army of Conquest in Syria in 2015. If you are Jewish ask yourself whether this trade – which Corbyn argues for disbanding – makes you feel safer. If you are not, phrase it in the hypothetical.
So it’s nothing straightforward, it’s nothing specific to Labour, and it’s nothing new. Nor is the notion of a Labour split, which happened in 1930 with Oswald Mosley’s founding of the New Party, in 1981 with the formation of the Social Democratic Party, and in 1991 with the departure of the Militant Tendency. Realistically, Labour divides because it is already many different things. On the first analysis, it is not obvious why anybody should seek to be represented by the Labour Party – Communists have the Communist Party of Britain, socialists have the Socialist Party, social democrats have the Green Party, and centrists and centre-Leftists have the Liberal Democrats. Of course, individuals will have differences with all of those parties, but we invariably have differences with Labour, too. So the question at the heart of Labour’s permanent existential conflict is this: what exactly is it there for?
The intuitive answer might be “to resist the Conservative Party”. Nobody on the Left denies that there needs to be a politically viable opposition to the Conservative Party, and no democratically-minded person on the Right will deny it either, and that is the logic that draws people of varying political hue to the Labour party. But if that’s the case, we should call it what it is: a coalition. It is like an old man who goes on living, long after doctors have replaced every part of his body, just to spite the curmudgeon next door who keeps arguing over whose land the tree is on. This lumbering, ailing wonder at times like this appears to scream “kill me“. But – to return to Victor Serge – he has carried his many different germs within him since birth. This bizarre and fascinating microbial arms race, between fevers of red and blue and green and yellow, is its political ecosystem, and the admixture leaves, well, a funny tinge on the canvas of modern British politics.