‘Unnecessarily miserable and painful’: Labour’s summer of discontent

Posted On: 
20th September 2018

As the dust settles from a turbulent few months for Jeremy Corbyn, this year’s conference will be a major test of how far the party has truly come in its efforts to address the problem of anti-Semitism, reports Kevin Schofield

Activists outside a meeting of the Labour National Executive Committee in London
PA Images

When MPs broke up for the summer recess, hopes were high in Labour HQ that the party could use the weeks ahead to lay out a policy platform on which to build a manifesto for the snap election they fervently hoped was just around the corner.

A planning grid was drawn up, detailing announcements to be drip-fed to the media to keep Labour in the headlines in the dog days of August.

In the event, party bosses need not have worried about whether or not Labour would trouble the headline-writers. Sadly, however, they managed to do it for all the wrong reasons.

The seeds of Labour’s summer of discontent were sown before Parliament went into recess at the end of July, when the party refused to fully adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism. Instead, they opted to take issue with some of the 11 illustrative examples published alongside the IHRA guidelines.

Labour general secretary Jennie Formby – who was elected on a pledge to make tackling the party’s anti-Semitism problem her top priority – defended the decision, saying: “Our guidelines address all of the ground covered by the IHRA examples, clarifies those that might be open to different interpretations or be seen as conflicting with other rights, and provides additional examples of anti-Semitic language and behaviour.”

Jewish community leaders, however, saw it rather differently, and demanded that Labour follow the example of countless other organisations – including the Government, police and more than 100 local councils – in adopting the IHRA in full, without equivocation.

As the Labour leadership struggled to provide a coherent response to the row, details began to emerge of Jeremy Corbyn’s past associations which only added further fuel to the flames.

A picture of him apparently laying a wreath at a memorial to those behind the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich surfaced, as did a speech in which he appeared to suggest that some British Zionists “having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, don’t understand English irony”.

Party bosses insisted both incidents had been misinterpreted, but they hardly helped to calm what was already a febrile atmosphere.

Finally, after weeks of bitterness and rancour, Labour’s National Executive Committee finally agreed to adopt the IHRA definition in full. But even then, they could not resist goading the Jewish community by adding a footnote making clear it did not prevent legitimate criticism of Israel.

Just as it seemed that the party was finally putting the issue to bed, it emerged that Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union, president of the TUC and an ally of Mr Corbyn, had claimed that Israel may have been behind the whole controversy as a way of deflecting attention from its actions in Palestine.

Labour MP Wes Streeting, a vocal critic of his party’s attempts to deal with the issue, made clear his despair.

“I think the Labour Party had an unnecessarily miserable and painful summer because of our failure to properly draw a line under the anti-Semitism row before Parliament broke for recess,” he says.

“Had the NEC heeded our advice to adopt the IHRA definition in full, it would have started the process of rebuilding confidence much sooner.

“All of us want to see the Labour Party move forward without being dogged by rows over anti-Semitism, but the spectacularly ill-judged comments of Mark Serwotka and the continued behaviour of people who claim to be Labour supporters online remind us how febrile the atmosphere is around this issue.”

Streeting, who has spoken out against the actions of the Israeli government, says there is a willingness on the part of MPs like him to work with the party to solve the problem – but says the leadership must take the initiative.

“I don’t understand why people keep opening up this deep and painful wound,” he says. “There are some people on the fringes of the Labour party who make absolutely foul and obscene comments about Jewish members of the Labour Party and Jewish people more generally, and the leadership not only has to face them down but has to be seen to face them down, to rebuild confidence that we’re taking anti-Semitism seriously.

“This is going to take time to repair and the commitment to tackling anti-Semitism has to be lived through our actions, not just our words.”

In an article for The Guardian at the start of August, Corbyn made clear it was “Labour’s responsibility to root out anti-Semitism in our party” and pledged to do all he could to achieve that.

Other MPs, however, believe that the Labour leadership is disingenuous at best, and happy to stoke the row at worst.

One, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says: “In February, lots of us took part in the Parliament Square rally against anti-Semitism and said, ‘enough is enough’.

“In the wake of that, you would have thought the party would have gone out of its way to repair relations with the Jewish community. But we’ve actually stepped closer to the abyss.

“At best, you could say they have a blind spot when it comes to anti-Semitism, and at worst you could say they are deliberately goading the Jewish community.”

Twelve months ago in Brighton, the Holocaust was openly questioned at one fringe meeting, while Jeremy Corbyn was notable by his absence at the Labour Friends of Israel reception.

This year’s conference will be a major test of how far the party has truly come in its efforts to address the problem.