The roots of the current crisis between British Jews and the leadership of today’s Labour Party, are not new.
They are a consequence of debates that stirred passions over 100 years ago in Europe between socialist factions, following the deaths of Marx and Engels; friction between loyalists and critics of the Kremlin within the Communist party during the 1980s; and a diminishing belief today in the relevance of parliamentary representation, hitherto the bedrock of the UK’s system of government.
When the young Vladimir Jabotinsky arrived in Italy in 1898 to study at the University of Rome, he was plunged into an angry public debate about the future of socialism. In a changed political situation, many Italians argued for a revision of Marxism and to follow the parliamentary road while others wanted to cling to the banner of revolution.
Such debates spawned both social democracy and fascism in Europe – and it gave Jabotinsky food for thought which no doubt subsequently colored his views on Zionism. It also gave rise to revolutionary syndicalism – an ideology which expanded the role of trade unions far beyond its traditional role of defending workers’ rights into becoming a vehicle for greater public democracy – and diminishing the deliberations of distant parliamentarians.
Fast forward one hundred years and this is symptomatic of the deep divisions in the British Labour party today. In 2010, Ed Miliband unexpectedly displaced the favourite, his brother David, from becoming leader of the party. Ed Miliband was only elected through the support of the bigger trade unions and was perceived as the man who would take the party in a direction not defined by Blairism and New Labour. The membership rules were changed and hundreds of thousands joined as affiliate members and supporters – people who could choose the next leader of the party.
Young idealists who were fed up with the men in blue suits that personified New Labour joined, but it also provided a golden opportunity for the entryism of the far Left, which had historically failed to create an electable party. This new arrangement parachuted the peripheral, colorless Jeremy Corbyn into the leader’s chair at a time of discontent and economic austerity. It also marked the promotion of the Palestinian cause, particularly on social media where the dignity of difference of opinion is marginalized. It was accompanied by a deepening anti-Zionism which sometimes tipped over into anti-Semitic stereotypes.
This situation is also related to the odyssey of the British Communist party (CPB). The political strength of the Communists was always rooted in the trade unions rather than in its non-existent parliamentary representation. The party split in the 1980s into questioning Eurocommunists and pro-Kremlin orthodox loyalists. Jeremy Corbyn and his trusted communications director, Seumas Milne, a former op-ed editor on the Guardian, aligned themselves with the views of the old guard Communists. Corbyn writes a regular column for the CPB’s Morning Star while Milne started his political career by working for Straight Left, the pro-Kremlin faction of the Communists.
The Corbynistas are attempting to reconfigure the Labour party from one based on the pre-eminence of parliamentary representatives to one based on the syndicalist model of Jabotinsky’s time. It explains why Corbyn takes no notice of the 172 Labour MPs who have no confidence in him as leader and wish him to resign. Indeed if every single Labour MP was against him and if he lost the next election, it would be of no consequence to the real matter in hand.
The Corbynistas have claimed that the parliamentary opposition of Labour MPs is staging a coup against the wishes of the party membership. In fact the opposite is true – a coup is being staged against Labour’s traditional position when in 1918 it decided to follow the parliamentary road rather than the syndicalist one – following Russia’s October revolution. The ‘new politics’ of Labour will probably lead to less democracy rather than to more and a fear that its future parliamentary representatives will become automatons, obedient to the whim of the masses and even a mere scintilla of individualism will be frowned upon.
Such a prospect is not welcomed by many British Jews. Not because most Jews have moved into the middle-class, not because they do not wish to help the ‘left behinds’, not because they have renounced their belief in social justice, but because the age of ideological certainty brought catastrophe during the last century. Mass movements and political messianism are looked upon with great suspicion.
It is likely that Corbyn will be re-elected as leader in a couple of weeks and this will be followed in due course by a gradual reselection of MPs to ensure that more compliant candidates are in place. A couple of days ago, Corbyn said for the first time that MPs would have to undergo the so-called “trigger ballot mechanism”, which could allow local members to deselect them. For decades, this procedure has barely been used to remove a sitting politician.
A new model Labour party may therefore arise and propagate a new populism – albeit dressed up in left-wing rhetoric – accompanied by a disdain for other views. It will project a nominal support for a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but in practice will adopt a hard-line pro-Palestinian position, with little space for even the most dovish Israeli narrative. Any consideration of Zionism and its history will be fiercely opposed.
A recent survey by City University, The Attitudes of British Jews towards Israel, suggested that Anglo-Jewry is a liberal community which identifies strongly with Israel, but doesn’t shy from disagreement: the majority does not look kindly on Netanyahu’s policies. Even so, according to opinion polls, Jewish voters have been deserting the Labour party in droves and Jewish party members who remain are overwhelmingly supporting Corbyn’s challenger for the party leadership, Owen Smith. Clearly the crisis between British Jews and the party which it regarded historically as its natural home is reaching its apogee.
Ha’aretz 12 September 2016