I joined the Labour Party in the spring of 2014, long before the leadership election that catapulted Corbyn to power. In short, before it was cool. Along with many others, I sacrificed too many of my evenings (Oscar Wilde was right) over the next three and a bit years enthusiastically helping to create a monster. I had collaborated in the mainstreaming of antisemitism. As I watched Panorama’s ‘Is Labour Anti-Semitic?’ this all ran through my head again, as it has done numerous times since I left the Labour Party in early 2018.
I might say I was guilty but there’s something terribly self-indulgent about guilt. I continue to feel very angry at my wilful ignorance, naivety, and failure to listen to all the people who told me I was wrong back in 2015. I feel a hefty sense of irony as I now argue with Corbynite die-hards making the same arguments I used to make and as I have my motives questioned (including being called a ‘paid Israeli troll’) as I used to question the ulterior motives of anti-Corbyn critics. It all feels like penance for a sin well-committed. This is a cautionary tale about why you must always listen to the little voice in your head when it warns you that something is not right.
Having previously been (vaguely and, ultimately, insincerely) an anarchist, I joined Labour in 2014. I was won over by the old Bennite argument that the only worthwhile use of socialists’ time in Britain was in working to transform the Labour Party from the inside. Around the same time, this argument was being eloquently re-articulated by Owen Jones.
A few days after Labour lost the 2015 general election, other left-wing Labour members and I formed a local ‘Red Labour’ group where I lived in Sheffield with the hope of coordinating like-minded activists. We were frustrated with the cautionary and apologetic approach of Miliband and, in the face of grinding austerity, wanted something bolder. Then events overtook us.
Following Miliband’s resignation and the beginning of the leadership contest, our Red Labour group was transformed into ‘Sheffield 4 Corbyn’. When I wasn’t studying, I was working to make Jeremy Corbyn leader of the Labour Party, attending and organising rallies, and phone canvassing from the offices of a local trade union.
I was not instantly an enthusiastic Corbynite. What I heard, particularly about Corbyn’s embrace of antisemites and authoritarians, gave me pause. But, at some point, I can’t really remember when, I pushed those doubts deep down and decided to give Corbyn the benefit of the doubt. I took Corbyn at face value, a kindly old left-winger much like the then recently departed Tony Benn. In the face of a very disappointing bunch of candidates, this felt like the only sensible choice. A less than perfect line on foreign policy seemed a worthwhile concession in return for golden promises like the end of austerity and the establishment of a democratic socialist Britain.
Overjoyed at Corbyn’s unexpected victory that summer, we transformed ‘Sheffield 4 Corbyn’ into ‘Momentum Sheffield’ that autumn. I became secretary, running the group’s admin and social media, and helping to organise meetings and campaigning. Before Corbyn’s leadership campaign, I had absolutely no experience of political organising beyond Labour Party canvassing, so to say that I was completely out of my depth would be an understatement.
I was very slow to realise the scale or severity of the problem of antisemitism on the left. I am not Jewish and know very few Jewish people. As a victim of the British secondary school system’s obsession with Nazi Germany and someone who studied/studies the history of the radical right at University, I was also totally unaccustomed to thinking of antisemitism as a left-wing vice.
The first instance of left-wing antisemitism I remember witnessing was on one of the many unofficial pro-Corbyn Facebook groups. Someone had posted a photograph which the caption claimed depicted an Israeli woman striking a Palestinian child with her handbag. The exact phrasing of the caption escapes me but one word used to describe the Israeli woman – “Zio-whore” – stuck out. The brazen misogyny aside, it seemed fairly clear to me that the prefix “Zio-” was a stand-in for another three-letter word. I was shocked but dismissed it as the work of one lone crank. The group where the image was posted, ‘Tony Benn encouraged me’, is still live and alongside antisemitism also featured David Icke and 9/11 ‘truther’ memes.
It became increasingly difficult, however, to write this off as a minority tendency. When Ken Livingstone (a repeat offender, unbeknownst to me at the time) and Jackie Walker started spouting antisemitic canards, many local activists in my Momentum group sprang to their defence. It seemed obvious to me that the correct response to this kind of thing was instant suspension leading, perhaps, to expulsion (Walker was finally expelled this year while Livingstone was allowed quit in 2018). But when I voiced opinions like these I was met with the following response, though not necessarily put in these words: “Shut up, don’t attack your own side. Left-wing antisemitism does not exist.” Some of the nuttier members were even playing fast and loose with history in an attempt to prove Livingstone’s assertion that Hitler was in fact a Zionist and Walker’s claims that Jews were in fact leading slave-traders.
What I could not understand was why this was the hill on which so many Corbynites were prepared to die. The same intractable intransigence I witnessed when Corbynites denied or downplayed antisemitism was an obstacle when it came to other issues too. On Syria, I was told that President Assad was the only defence against dreaded US-backed “regime change”. When Castro died and Venezuela began to tilt towards crises, I was told that abstract “bourgeois” freedoms were worth sacrificing for the rumoured excellence of the public services provided by Latin American dictatorships. As was briefly touched on in the Panorama episode, this abysmal nonsense is partly the result of a warped “anti-imperialism” in which all events must be contorted to make the US and its allies the enemy.
Unsure but unwilling to break with the Corbyn movement, I voted for him again in 2016. The only thing worse than Corbyn, I believed at this point, were his challengers Smith and Eagle. I also voted in the vain hope that a man who’s never changed his views might reconsider.
The atmosphere in our local Momentum group became increasingly negative. A significant, vocal and dominant minority in Momentum of older activists, often members of far left sects, were out to settle the unfinished business of the 1980s (some had left under Kinnock, not Blair). I was now embroiled in a faction fight within a faction fight. Burned out and unsure whether I had ever really wanted the same things as these people, I finally left Momentum in early 2017. Shortly afterwards, a group led by members of the Communist Party of Great Britain (Provisional Central Committee) took over. It’s now more or less moribund. Controversially, they recently hosted Chris Williamson at one of their meetings and I have heard that Momentum’s national organisers now regard it as somewhat of a ‘problem’ group. Around a year after I left Momentum, convinced that the party was doomed, I also resigned my Labour membership.
The crisis has become intractable because Corbynites hate internal critics more than they hate racists. The venom I’ve experienced from former “comrades” (including being labelled a Trump supporter) compared with the mild disapproval, bordering on indifference, expressed towards antisemites is appalling. The inability to see enemies on one’s own side extends even to the Corbynites who have not abandoned their critical faculties wholesale. The more enlightened Corbynites, who at least acknowledge the problem, only propose the soft-touch solution of “political education” for antisemites. While wider knowledge of how to spot and avoid antisemitism can only be a good thing, how do you educate someone who refuses to accept any evidence that might ever exist of left-wing antisemitism? The “Flat Earth” Corbynites are only going to disappear when they’re expelled.
As Panorama demonstrated the root of this problem is a leadership that enables antisemites. The question of whether Corbyn himself is an antisemite is irrelevant. Getting rid of Corbyn and his Stalinist entourage is the first step towards eradicating antisemitism from the Labour Party. If you do down swinging with Corbyn, the Labour left is finished. There can be no salvaging ‘Corbynism’ from the wreck of Corbyn’s leadership; we are in this mess not because of Corbyn’s personality or personal qualities but precisely because of his deeply held convictions. The excuse that to attack Corbyn empowers the Labour right was always overblown but is an especially empty threat now that its useless leading lights have moved on to pastures new. Only an internationalist, anti-racist, anti-authoritarian social democratic revival against Corbyn and Corbynism will drive this out. The prospect of such a revival, very remote though it seems at present, almost makes me want to re-join the party.
Listening to the testimonies of ex-Labour staffers on Panorama, I could sympathise with their feelings of depression. Unlike them I was never sick or suicidal, but I understood their utter deflation at having given your time and effort to a monstrous political project. Eventually, it reaches a point where, as heroic whistleblower Louise Withers Green put it, you have to ask whether you’ll look back on your actions with pride or with shame. For all their talk of ‘the right side of history’ and the primacy of ‘principles’, Corbynites yet to come to their senses are actively collaborating in the mainstreaming of racism, authoritarianism and cult psychology.
At a time when (lower-case) liberal democratic norms and values are being trashed on the left and the right, Corbynites should consider where their actions might soon lead us. The hour is too late and the stakes too high to keep banging incessantly on about left/right factionalism. Throughout history, the Jewish community have so often been the canaries in the liberal-democratic coal mine. Repeating Niemoeller’s ‘First they came for…’ has become cliché but the poem’s message is still valid. We are in the midst of a global rise of authoritarianism. To simply retort ‘Socialism or Barbarism’ ignores the fact that history has shown the two to be far from mutually exclusive. I’m not interested in choosing between those who think George Soros secretly controls the world and those who think it’s actually the Rothschilds.
If you’re a Corbyn supporter but find yourself increasingly unhappy with the proliferation of anti-Jewish racism in the party, it’s not too late. But first there some unpleasant facts must be faced; there must be a mea culpa. If you campaigned for Corbyn (especially twice as I did), you must accept responsibility for what you have done. Even if you’re a member of some thoughtful, esoteric Trotskyist sect or consider yourself on the more critical and softer side of the “hard left”, you are culpable. If you campaigned or voted for Corbyn, the present state of affairs is your fault too. We, you and I, empowered a man who has enabled antisemitism, providing it with a host body in the form of the Labour Party.
The whole disillusioning experience has stripped me of any confidence I might once have had in my own political judgement. Though totally unqualified to give any advice, in future I’d ask you always listen attentively to your conscience. More importantly, your duty as a non-Jew fighting antisemitism is to listen to the victims and, more importantly, to amplify their voices.
Below is a short and non-exhaustive list of Twitter accounts doing sterling work documenting and confronting antisemitism in the Labour Party. If you’re still sceptical, please check them out.