It shouldn’t be this hard

Virtually every left-winger — from a broad spectrum of centre-left Labour voices to people far further left than I am — was for a change united last Friday in a spirit of full on “oh for fuck’s sake”. The one thing all of Labour, or the bits of Labour that count frankly, could agree on was that Corbyn commenting on a picture of a mural that anyone with a passing familiarity with anti-Semitic tropes could see was at the very least anti-Semitic in intent, was not a very good look. They also agreed that Corbyn’s office’s first statement on the matter, which claimed he was sticking up for the artist’s right to free speech, was horseshit of the sort that Corbyn would never endorse were it about any other minority. “Free speech for racists” is certainly the sort of belief that I personally violently oppose, and this counts for double when the person espousing this belief is the leader of the Labour party.

I have always been quite clear that, despite the hyperventilating that goes on within certain more swivel-eyed members of the Labour movement, I didn’t think Corbyn was an anti-Semite and I don’t think that most left-wingers, or most Corbyn supporters, are anti-Semitic. Anti-Semitism mercifully remains a minority belief, and its appearance in Labour did not happen sui generis as soon as Corbyn took office; it’s something that has been an undercurrent, generally associated with those who take the (all in all defensible) strive for better conditions for Palestinians to an absurd extreme. I still, for what it’s worth, think blaming Corbyn for the actions of his supporters is a reach; while it’s fair to say that if you’re a left-winger and you’re an anti-Semite you probably support Corbyn, I don’t think it’s fair to say that if you’re a left-winger and you support Corbyn (or for that matter you are pro-Palestine) you’re probably an anti-Semite. But this particular issue went to Corbyn directly, and there’s no explanation for Corbyn saying what he said, ignoring what he saw and putting out the statement that he did other than that he saw the obvious anti-Semitism in the obviously anti-Semitic mural, believed what he wrote in the comment directly under the obviously anti-Semitic mural and wanted to defend the free speech of the anti-Semite who painted it. There was no defence that made any sense.

A further statement followed swiftly that was better than the first one, even if it directly contradicted the first in places, but it at least acknowledged that there was an issue that needed responding to. Since then, we’ve had a week of damage control; of Corbyn becoming increasingly outspoken about anti-Semitism, of further statements and emails to party members and letters to prominent Jewish organisations, all of which are laudable and seemingly sincere, but nothing for me takes away from the fact that the first response of the Labour leader’s office to clear evidence of that Labour leader seeing something blatantly anti-Semitic was that he wanted to protect the free speech of the artist. When someone tells you who they are, you should believe them, and Corbyn there was telling us that he valued the free speech of someone who wanted to paint a bunch of anti-Semitic tropes on a wall more than the protection of one of history’s most persecuted minorities from further persecution.

Now we come to today. Christine Shawcroft has resigned from the disputes sub-committee of the Labour NEC, but not from the actual NEC itself, after emails emerged of her defending someone who had been reported to Labour as sharing a Holocaust denial article. This is not good enough. This is in no way good enough. If someone shares an article that posits Holocaust denial, there is no way I’d want that person in Labour; Christine Shawcroft apparently did. Corbyn asked her personally to step down from the disputes committee, but not the NEC itself. She’s still in the upper echelons of the party, still part of its main executive body, despite showing such catastrophically poor judgment. This is repulsive. It’s shameful. Vomit-mamking. There is no justification for this.

At every stage Corbyn’s office has completely failed to do what the most obvious course of action would be for any Labour leader revolted by anti-Semitism, which I’d hope would be every single one of them. Even if we allow Corbyn to idiotically comment on the mural in the first place, for a life-long anti-racist campaigner to trot out “free speech for racists” as his defence is inexcusably stupid; the best reaction would have been to disavow and apologise, admit fault and take further action to show he meant what he said. Instead, we got equivocation and nice sounding statements with no promise of further concrete action. Indeed, Corbyn’s failure to admit any kind of fault has been a major sticking point for me through this entire sorry (and at time of writing, still ongoing) affair. A better and more contrite first statement would have completely obviated the need for a second, and that this wasn’t spotted immediately — especially since the mural comment had been floating around since 2015, so the leader’s office should rightfully be aware it was on their radar — is deeply worrying.

Similarly, with Shawcroft, sacking her from the NEC entirely might have lost Corbyn/the Labour left a petty factional battle, but at the same time it would have maybe won him some respect and credibility, however fleeting, from the people who have been justifiably angry about both his actions and his failure to act. He’d have lost the battle but won the war, and come out of it with some credit for learning from his mistakes and taking concrete action on a matter of genuine concern within the Labour party. He passed that up, for reasons known only to him. If I had to guess what these reasons are, my best guess is that they aren’t very good ones given that all passing it up has done is earned the party some more well-deserved shitkicking from all and sundry.

So we come to the title of this article. Dealing with this is not hard. The steps that would be right to take, both politically and morally, have been obvious all the way. How hard is it to just put out a statement that’s actually contrite and genuinely admits fault first time, and take the lumps as you get them? How hard is it to sack someone who’s defended an anti-Semite from the NEC, in the middle of a huge controversy over anti-Semitism in the Labour party? These things aren’t hard at all. They’re not. Were I in Corbyn’s position (Christ help me) calling up a member of the NEC who’d been found defending a racist and telling her to resign her position by the end of the day would be about the easiest decision I’ve ever made. If I was in his shoes, the Monday after this all came out I’d have sent an email out to members and the press which not only expressed contrition, but made it abundantly clear that anti-Semites are not welcome in Labour. I’d have called out anti-Semitic beliefs like Jews running the world or controlling the media, or shadowy pro-Israel groups which amount to much the same thing, and made clear that anyone believing in any of them is an anti-Semite who should burn their party card, cancel their Direct Debit and get out because I wouldn’t want their support. I’d sound angry, because I actually would be — repulsed at the suggestion that I personally was an anti-Semite, and desperate to make clear that I am much the opposite. I’d posit that this is because I actually give a shit and am as fundamentally revolted by anti-Semitism as any decent person should be.

Of course people on the left have piped up that this is all just a smear, it’s an attempt by moderates/centrists/the media etc to bash him, another stick to beat him with, a spoiler for the local election campaign. I personally couldn’t give a shit. The moderates/centrists/media etc have a point here, and they’re right to raise this and they’re right to raise hell about it, local elections be damned. The man has comprehensively shat in his own nest and he has nobody but himself to blame. He didn’t cause anti-Semitism to exist in the Labour party, not by a long shot, but I’m now left with a question mark over whether he’s actually anti-Semitic whereas before I would have given him the benefit of the doubt. He’s taken every opportunity to not do the obvious, right thing until the point that it’s far, far too late. So he’s either an anti-Semite now running around crying crocodile tears over that fact, or he’s not an anti-Semite and he’s just incredibly dumb. Neither is a good look for a prospective Prime Minister, but at least the latter doesn’t make me sick to my stomach.

I do welcome Corbyn’s most recent statements, but as much as they seem sincere and heartfelt it’s all undermined by that first reaction to the mural story leaking last Friday and the light hand dealt to Shawcroft today. Once again, when someone shows you who they are, you should believe them, and he has shown that he is either an anti-Semite or stupid. I’ve stuck up for him more than I rightfully should have done and made a fool out of myself in the process; I’ve had enough. Labour needs to clean house and he has abundantly proven that he is not the right person to do it. He needs to resign, and make way for someone not tainted by any of this stench so that they can wash it away once and for all.