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Jeremy Corbyn’s failure on anti-Jewish racism will rightly forever tarnish his reputation

Ruth Smeeth (third left) and other Labour party politicians at a demonstration outside the Labour party disciplinary hearing for Marc Wadsworth in London.

5 min read

While our position on Brexit cost the Labour party votes, the unresolved crisis of anti-Semitism nearly cost us our soul.

If a week is a long time in politics, then the 1665 days of Jeremy Corbyn’s time as leader of the Labour party have felt like an eternity. In the shadow of a global pandemic, it would be easy to forget just quite how turbulent the last five years have been.  

Two Conservative leadership contests, two Labour party leadership contests, the EU referendum and all that came after, the murder of Jo Cox, racism engulfing the Labour party, three general elections and three Tory prime ministers, the rise of the SNP, the decline of both the Lib Dems and Ukip, the birth and death of Change UK and, of course, the worse general election result for the Labour party since 1935.  

Not all these issues were caused by or relate to Corbyn, but his leadership was questioned and found wanting in nearly every case.

Personally, it’s been one hell of ride – often feeling like a ride through hell. I had the privilege of representing the best of Britain on the same green benches that my political heroes sat. I saw politics at its best when party politics was put aside, in the interest of those most in need, and Holiday Hunger became a national debate. I also faced politics at its worst, as intransigence and stubborn dogma made every Brexit debate a pseudo-culture war with compromise and pragmatism being seen only through a prism of defeat. 

Representing the third strongest Labour-held leave seat in the country, I witnessed up close and personal the severing of the generations-old link between the Labour party and our industrial heartland. Others will explore Corbyn’s failure to pick a side on the totemic issue of our generation and the damage his lacklustre leadership did to Labour’s reputation with our electorate. But, his equivocation on Brexit was the final straw for too many voters. In places where the Labour vote used to be weighed rather than counted, Corbyn was the face of a Labour party that they simply did not recognise or trust. 

Failing to develop a coherent policy that resonated with both leave and remain voters will be Corbyn’s legacy. But, it’s his failure on anti-Jewish racism which will rightly forever tarnish his reputation – and those around him in both Parliament and the party. While our position on Brexit cost us votes, the unresolved crisis of anti-Semitism nearly cost us our soul.   

I experienced the horror of being a Jewish female Labour MP at a time when it felt that the leadership of my party thought that Jews were fair game - something I still can’t believe I’m writing. 

I sat in meetings with Corbyn as he refused to acknowledge that we had a problem or that he should take any responsibility for how the party dealt with anti-Semites or the actions of his #JC4PM supporters.  

It’s never a good look to deflect from your own racism by pointing out the problems with others

The justification of ‘that’ mural; the ‘Zionists don’t understand irony’ video; his association with known Holocaust deniers; his support for Ken Livingstone, Chris Williamson and those who minimised the scale of the problem, and of course his ‘present but not involved’ laying of a wreath to honour terrorists who murdered Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Each time, I and others fought back. 

For three years, nearly every week, we would see yet another anti-Semitism scandal. Every week I, with others, tried to make Corbyn act to fix it so we could focus our efforts on the Tories and the damage they were doing to our communities. We desperately wanted to challenge the Windrush scandal and the anti-Muslim hate in the Conservative party from a position of moral strength rather than moral equivalence. It’s never a good look to deflect from your own racism by pointing out the problems with others.

But we were ignored and dismissed – occasionally shouted at. One racist incident would have been too many but the hundreds we’ve seen has nearly destroyed the soul of the Labour party. And Corbyn did nothing. His response to every plea; to every heart-breaking testimony of another Jewish activist being hounded was the trite, emotionless and hollow: “I oppose all forms of racism”. 

Working with Luciana Berger, Louise Ellman, Margaret Hodge and the Jewish Labour Movement we kept fighting but it felt that we were shouting into the wind.  When Luciana and Louise left, the response from the leadership was shameful. Those who stayed did so because we couldn’t condemn our party to the clutches of conspiratorial racists. A job that should now be easier as Corbyn’s leadership ends.  

If Corbyn had acted earlier, rather than see everything as a factional attack, then it would never have become a dominant issue. We wouldn’t now have the ignominy of being investigated by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission for institutional racism – something that has only ever happened before to the BNP – and Margaret Hodge wouldn’t be the last woman standing. Choosing to ignore racism because you didn’t like the messenger and because it was politically expedient is truly unforgiveable. 

For all the good that Corbynism did in terms of new members and a focus, for everyone, on why they were members of the Labour party at all, Corbyn’s time as leader nearly destroyed us. 

His leadership has indelibly stained us as a party that tolerated racists. His failure to understand our former industrial heartlands and pit villages means millions of people have a Tory MP for the first time and Boris Johnson has an unassailable majority in Parliament – to do with as he pleases. That is the legacy of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. It isn’t something to celebrate.


Ruth Smeeth is a former Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent North

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