As Jeremy Corbyn is accused of not taking the anti-Semitism accusations against the Labour Party seriously enough, he has now been expelled from the party. However, the anti-Semitism debate is only the catalyst for an open conflict within the Labour Party, which has been simmering and paralysing the party for years.
Jeremy Corbyn was a member of the British Labour Party for 55 years. Yesterday, a journalist told him of his party expulsion when he left a London community centre. It marks the end of a long and intense relationship between Socialist Corbyn and Labour. In the end, anti-Semitism and wing fighting were to be his undoing.
Both accompanied Corbyn throughout his entire term as party leader of the British Social Democrats – and even before. In 2014, he is said to have laid a wreath in honour of PLO fighters who allegedly also had links to the terrorist attacks in Munich in 1972. Corbyn confirmed that he attended a ceremony for those killed in an Israeli air force bombing raid, but that he did not lay a wreath for any PLO fighters. His closeness to Hezbollah and Hamas prompted him to apologise in Parliament in 2016 for once calling both groups “friends”.
Corbyn is not an isolated case
But Corbyn is not the only Labour politician who has faced accusations of anti-Semitism. Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone voluntarily resigned from the party in 2018 after several party members and a committee advised him to do so. In April 2016 Livingstone said that Hitler wanted to move Jews to Israel after his election victory in 1932. According to him, Hitler had been a supporter of the Zionists before going mad and eventually killing six million Jews. Livingstone alluded to the Ha’avara Agreement, which the Nazis and the Zionist Union for Germany agreed on 25 August 1933. It was intended to facilitate the departure of German Jews to Palestine. Historians criticised Livingstone’s simplification of the historical events.
When it became public shortly afterwards that Labour MP Naz Shah shared an anti-Semitic cartoon on Facebook in 2014, Livingstone said it was “insulting and exaggerated” but not anti-Semitic. After the former mayor refused to revise his claim on Hitler, criticism within the party grew louder and louder. Livingstone suspected it was a “well planned campaign by the Israeli lobby to slander as anti-Semitic anyone who criticises Israeli politics.”
These incidents all took place during the term of office of Jeremy Corbyn, who took over as party leader in 2015. In the run-up to his election, the right wing of the Labour Party tried to discredit him because of his leftist positions. Jewish associations saw him as a man they could not trust. The accusations of anti-Semitism seemed to confirm their fears.
Corbyn himself, as head of the party, emphasised that he always pursued a zero tolerance policy towards racism. His supporters saw the many media reports about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party as a deliberate smear campaign against Corbyn. And in the end, a similar attitude broke his neck: in May 2019, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) began investigating complaints of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party. The EHRC summed up that there is a lot of catching up to do. Corbyn described this result as “excessive”. He made it clear that every anti-Semite is one too many. However, much was done during his term of office to deal with the complaints.
His successor Sir Keir Starmer was disappointed with Corbyn’s response. “I made it clear in my speech: The Labour Party will not tolerate anti-Semitism.” He also announced that the proposed improvements to the EHRC would be implemented as early as next year.
As a consequence of his response, Corbyn was expelled from the party. Corbyn asks the party to reconsider its decision: “I have only made it clear that this terrible problem of anti-Semitism exists, […] but it is not 30 per cent of the party that is anti-Semitic, as the media would have you believe, but 0.3 per cent”.
No will to fight anti-Semitism
However, the EHRC investigation report paints a different picture. During Corbyn’s term of office, the will to fight anti-Semitism had been lacking. According to the report, there was political interference when, for example, a complaint against Corbyn was lodged in person. He was accused of supporting an anti-Semitic mural. This complaint was rejected. Furthermore, the staff in the complaint centres lacked training and education. Of the 70 complaints dealt with, only eight were complete.
A total of twenty borderline cases were found to constitute unlawful harassment through the use of anti-Semitic tropics. Among others, the statements of Ken Livingstone are also listed here. The report said the party needed to create a culture “that encourages members to question inappropriate behaviour and report complaints of anti-Semitism.”
The findings of the report prompted discussions in advance. In spring, a report was leaked, which was intended as an annex to the EHRC report. This document showed that the party’s right wing would have hampered the efforts of the party leadership. Indeed, the report stated that no evidence was found that anti-Semitic complaints were being treated differently from other complaints.
However, this contrasted with the statements of some Labour whistleblowers who told the BBC that they had been undermined by the party leadership in trying to combat anti-Semitism. Also, some Jewish Labour members had already left the party. This episode shows how divided the Labour Party was, at the latest after last year’s crushing election defeat, following which Corbyn resigned from office.
Does the split threaten?
The fights within the party could go into the next and final round with Corbyn’s expulsion: The left wing of the party has demanded that Corbyn be reinstated in the party. According to a report in The Guardian, an unspecified source threatened that a split could occur very quickly if the Labour Party remained on its course.
Meanwhile, the right wing, as well as organisations and unions close to the party, are trying to invoke unity. Corbyn himself announced that he would take action against his party’s expulsion. “I urge all members to remain calm and focused – as long as this problem is resolved amicably”.