We, and by that I mean all of us who contribute to the tenor of politics in this country, have a tendency to exaggerate. Exploiting the differences between parties in favour of policies that are broadly similar requires focusing on the negatives. Ferocious debate about issues that subsequently turn out to not amount to a hill of beans are often the order of the day; just look at our contribution to the military action against Islamic State in Syria, for instance. What was the point of the weeks of arguments last December when the end result has been so negligible?
Bearing this in mind, I honestly cannot recall a week of politics that has been so unrelentingly stupid, self-defeating, obtuse and at the same time as instructive as the past 7 days. Absolutely nothing of any real note has happened, and yet what has been established is we've finally, truly, entered the period where controlling the terms and structure of political discussion has become the be all and end all. That this has been established not by the politically correct left, students or any other of the usual bogeymen of controlled thought and speech ought to be surprising, and yet it isn't, because this is the way it's been going for quite some time.
Labour as a party is antisemitic, it has been decided. The newspapers of record in this country have decreed it to be so. Labour, the party that only a year ago had a Jew as its leader, and who was pretty popular at grassroots level. Said press you might recall had great fun in repeatedly printing those photos of dear old Ed failing to eat a bacon sandwich correctly. Now, while a few people at the time muttered to themselves that this was whiffy and smelled vaguely of antisemitism, I didn't think it was and thought they were being overly sensitive. Fast forward a year, and the same newspapers that on one page carry columns declaring that the Leave campaign should shack up with Marine Le Pen and the far-right in Europe, declare on the other in no uncertain times that Labour from top to bottom is riddled with racists. It's a cancer. Something has to be done. Not an investigation by Shami Chakrabati though, that's not good enough. Jeremy Corbyn should have announced all this yesterday, anyway.
Let's though just for a second digress from the quite believable chutzpah of the never knowingly under hypocritical British media. Instead, let's consider the general level of prejudice in the country in 2016. The picture, as always, could be better. Prejudice still exists. Racists might have to be more coded in the way they go about trying to incite hatred, but they still attempt to spread poison and take any opportunity that comes their way to do so. For the most part though, I'd say taken as a whole the British people have probably never been as tolerant as they are now. I don't mean that in the passive aggressive sense of tolerance, but in the general living alongside each other with a minimum of tension sense. There are hotspots of disquiet and plenty of anxiety, sure, yet no indication that anything is about to go beyond that.
We then have a political party that in the main takes its membership from among the most liberal and open-minded sections of an already broadly tolerant society. You would not expect that most such people would be hostile to one sub-section of that society on racial grounds, especially one that historically has been among the most mistreated and abused. And indeed, all the evidence suggests that is the case. The members and councillors identified so far have almost all been suspended on the basis of questionable tweets or social media posts, some of which have quickly been identified as taken out of all context jokes. Others do seem to be more serious examples of potential prejudice, and need to be properly investigated, but most tread a fine line between being antisemitic and being critical of Israeli government policy. Naz Shah and Livingstone we've hopefully already dealt with.
None of this is to downplay the disquiet a number of Jews have voiced as feeling. Phoebe Ray makes an eloquent case on how Britain as a whole, not split down the middle between left and right, does antisemitism. Both she and Jonathan Freedland voice the opinion that Jews are the only ethnic minority not allowed to define what they feel to be racist attitudes against them are. The obvious problem here, one that requires great amounts of nuance, is that claims of antisemitism have long been used against critics of Israeli governments, a country that polls show a majority of Jews feel a connection to. Not all Jews are Zionists, and not all anti-Zionists are antisemites, you could say. Adding to the problem is that as Ray and others identify, there are a whole series of tropes and "modes of thinking" that creep into debate on Israel, both consciously and unconsciously. We have for instance seen Israeli government figures criticising British cartoonists for using such tropes, whether they truly have or not. When newspapers that are otherwise vehemently pro-Israeli are alleged to be carrying such imagery, it's hardly surprising that your amateur political tweeter, or even student leader, might slip into using the verbal equivalent.
As Ray also says though, "right wing politicians are only interested in addressing anti-Semitism when they see it as a weak point in an opponent’s armour". You can add to that newspapers, and assorted others within Labour who are so determined to bring down the party's leadership they will sink to seemingly any depths, regardless of the wider damage it causes. The last week has not really been about racism; it has been about power. The power within Labour, power within the country, and the power to limit what is politically acceptable as a whole. Jeremy Corbyn has a weak spot on antisemitism, not because he is antisemitic, but because he has made questionable if not condemnable alliances in the past. He has had a long time political friendship with Ken Livingstone. Ken has long been more harm than help, but he was one of the few well-known political figures who would defend Corbyn to the media. He's also still on Labour's national executive committee, and has a role in the party's defence review. Getting rid of him will help the party's moderates in the long term.
Then we have the power in the country. Labour most likely wasn't going to do well in tomorrow's elections anyway: Sadiq Khan will triumph in London regardless, it's a toss-up whether or not Labour will come second or third in the elections to Holyrood, and the seats being fought locally were last up for election in 2012, when Labour did well at the expense of both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. Things look different four years on. Add in a whole week's worth of claims of Labour being racist, of a crisis, of Ken Livingstone making an arse of himself, and there is bound to an impact. The Tories' main approach as made clear by PMQs today is to portray a classically left-wing as opposed to left of centre party as extremist. This has involved focusing on Khan being an extremist purely on the grounds that he is a Muslim, to the outrage of much of the left but to very little from the right-wingers coruscating Labour for its supposed anti-semitism. The newspapers have helped by getting comment from the likes of the Chief Rabbi, who says Zionism is inseparable from Judaism.
Finally, we have the attempt to define just what is and isn't acceptable as a whole. David Cameron wasn't asking Corbyn to denounce Hamas and Hezbollah today. He was asking him to denounce the idea of so much as considering they have a role to play in any eventual peace settlement. This approach is summed up by Danny Finkelstein's piece in the Times today:
What is happening in the Labour party is not (just) the crassness of a few councillors and the odd MP saying some embarrassing things about Jews. It is the abandonment of its identity as an Atlanticist progressive party. And it cannot be stopped until this identity is reasserted.
In other words, this won't stop until Labour snaps out of its malaise and adopts the correct foreign policy. The correct foreign policy according to this confidant of both Cameron and Osborne is the backing to the hilt of the Saudis in Yemen, involving the defence secretary making the feeblest of excuses for our allies to a parliamentary committee. It involves acting as the media wing of the "moderate" Syrian rebels, as the Guardian reveals today, with the government underwriting their propaganda. One of the groups named in the documentation, although the government denies it ever considered it moderate, is Jaish al-Islam, the group the Alloush clan control. Its former leader, Zahran Alloush, called repeatedly for Damascus to be "cleansed" of both Christians and Alawites. It involves putting a stop to even the most limited reaching out to groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, despite both being moderates compared to likes of the al-Nusra Front, which many of the "moderate" Syrian groups we're still encouraging to fight have no problem allying with. It involves smearing a genuine moderate running for London mayor as an extremist while continuing to sell weapons to the biggest sponsors of Islamic extremism the world has ever known.
This was never truly about antisemitism. Sure, it's been the excuse. Instead it's been about reinforcing the boundaries. You can want a foreign policy which is progressive, just not Atlanticist, but you'll pay for it. You can want a party to be a genuine opposition to the status quo, but it'll be denounced as extremist. You can want the MPs of a party to at least respect for a year the leader elected by the membership, but they'll do everything in their power to undermine him, regardless of the consequences in the long term. Sure, it'll put politics itself in the gutter, alienate the public at large when the message they'll take is that the meres wrong word will result in opprobrium, discourage Muslims from entering politics if they have ever so much as sat next to someone with the vaguest of unsavoury views, and give the impressions to Jews they still aren't welcome anywhere, but it'll be worth it in the end.
I often used to agree when it was said we get the politics we deserve. No one deserves this.
Labels: antisemitism, David Cameron, Jeremy Corbyn, Ken Livingstone, Labour, Naz Shah, politics, racism, stupidity, Tories