2016 06 – Corbyn’s Heavy Burden

Editorial: Corbyn’s Heavy Burden

In the eight months since he was elected Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn has been subject to a constant barrage of  biting criticism and negative reporting. He won by a huge majority over his three opponents but this has not been respected by many of his Parliamentary Labour Party colleagues. The build up to last months local elections was coloured by accusations of anti-semitism and extremism against Corbyn and Sadiq Khan, the eventual winner of the London mayoral election. Both Corbyn and Khan stood accused of associating with, indeed supporting, anti-semites and Muslim extremists. Furthermore, Labour MP Naz Shah and Ken Livingstone, the latter a Corbyn supporter, committed the ‘cardinal sin’ of being anti-Israel and anti-Zionist, a term often falsely identified with anti-semitism.

Corbyn’s opponents in the PLP used the elections as a litmus test of Corbyn’s leadership. Given the chaos within the Conservative Party it was said that Labour ought to achieve a notable success. Only that would temporarily appease his opponents. But it was also forecast that Labour could lose heavily, providing further proof that with Corbyn as leader Labour would not form a government at the 2020 general election. A coup was hinted at but nothing came of it. Now, following Labour’s decent showing, it is widely agreed that a challenge to Corbyn’s leadership would be confined to the long grass at least until next year’s County and Metropolitan District elections.

Sadiq Khan’s victory over his Conservative Party opponent Zac Goldsmith was particularly significant. Khan was elected in spite of a deluge of media distortion and misrepresentation fed by Goldsmith and bearing the hallmark of Lynton Crosby, the Conservative’s Campaign Manager for the 2015 general election. Khan was accused of sharing a platform with an alleged Muslim extremist and befriending other Muslim opponents of western governments. The fact that Suliman Gani, the alleged extremist, had also shared a platform with a Conservative backbencher and had vocally supported Kahn’s Conservative opponent at the 2015 general election cut little ice with Goldsmith or with the media. Khan was a Muslim and therefore a supporter of extremism and that was that.

In support of Goldsmith, Prime Minister David Cameron made the preposterous statement that if Khan were elected London mayor the safety of Britain would be put at risk. Much was also made of Khan’s ‘support’ for Corbyn in spite of the distance he placed between himself and Labour’s leader. To facilitate a wider choice, Khan had added his name to Corbyn’s nomination for the Labour leadership election but then voted for Andy Burnham.

Naz Shah, newly elected at the 2015 general election as Labour member for Bradford West, had posted a map on Facebook in 2014 which showed the state of Israel superimposed on a map of the United States. This was more than a year before Corbyn became leader and drew no criticism at the time. So, why now? One can only assume it was used to attack Corbyn. Yet in spite of a fulsome apology to the House of Commons she was suspended from the Labour Party pending an inquiry into anti-semitism within Labour. The same fate of suspension awaited Ken Livingstone. Livingstone had connected Hitler with Zionism in 1933 when he supported the transfer of Germany’s Jews to a settlement in the middle east, ‘until he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews’

Shah and Livingstone are not alone in their ‘crime’ of anti-semitism. They are joined by the ubiquitous Norman Finkelstein, a prominent American Jewish intellectual and critic of Israel who posted the superimposed map on his Facebook on 3 August 2014 which Shah picked up and relayed on her Facebook the following day. Finkelstein said the map was seen as a joke in the USA. It was a joke used as a stick to beat Corbyn with by the British media and his PLP opponents. Both have their own ulterior political motive: to smear Labour and to get rid of Corbyn.

Leading up to the local elections Labour was seen as a hotbed of anti-semitism, although less than two dozen   members were accused of the ‘crime’ out of a total membership of 388,000 plus. But the period since 5 May has been strangely quiet. The hysteria appears to have subsided, which suggests that the brickbats of anti-semitism and extremism were primarily an attack on Corbyn. Corbyn’s record opposing anti-semitism and extremism is beyond reproach, but Cameron continued to label him as an extremist and an apologist for terrorism and accused Labour of having a problem with anti-semitism. Labour’s history as an anti-semitic party is well documented, including active opposition in the 1930s to Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, and more recently the racist National Front and British National Party.

The elections themselves, while not a huge success for Labour were not the catastrophic failure forecast by some. At least in England and Wales. Labour however performed badly in Scotland, losing eleven seats to the SNP and two to the Conservatives. But it had in any case been decimated at the 2015 general election, losing seats across Scotland to the SNP. Scottish Labour is no longer the left of centre party, a label now claimed by the SNP.

Scottish Labour’s  problem is that it is too closely identified with Labour in England, perceived as a Westminster centric party which campaigned strongly against independence in the Scottish referendum. In spite of having just one Westminster seat in Scotland, the Conservative party with 31 seats, including 24 Regional top-up seats, is the second largest party in the Scottish Parliament. Labour, with 24 seats, 21 of them Regional top-ups, trails in third. The SNP’s 63 seats are four short of an overall majority but they can govern with the support of any of the other parties.

In the elections to the Welsh Assembly Labour won 29 seats but were two short of a majority and require the support of Plaid Cymru to govern. Labour lost Rhondda to Plaid Cymru’s leader Leanne Wood, otherwise the general picture remained pretty much the same. The notable exception was UKIP winning seven seats, but these came from the top-up seats in the five regions, not those contested on a constituency basis. The Conservatives held onto their six constituency based seats and won a further five Regional top-ups, but lost three seats overall. The Liberal Democrats came away with a loss of four top-up seats, holding onto Brecon and Radnorshire, their only constituency seat.

It looks very likely therefore that Labour will need to win handsomely in England if it is to be the party of government in 2020. On the evidence of the elections in England there is a long way to go but there are a few healthy signs. There are 353 councils in England. 124 of these were contested in May, with Labour losing just one council to No-Overall-Control and 18 councillors in total. Corbyn said that the party’s performance had exceeded expectations and had “hung on” but his critics claimed that Labour had done badly given the rifts in the Conservative party which Labour failed to exploit. However, this ignored the constant carping by Corbyn’s PLP critics and the consistently bad press he and Labour received in the pre-election weeks.

Corbyn has appealed to his critics in the PLP to stop the infighting and focus their attacks on a divided government. Their behaviour to date suggests this may have little effect. And as party members choose the leader it is difficult to see how they can overturn last years’ victory for Corbyn should they be successful in calling for another election. So what should they do? They could leave Labour and set up another party, but the failure of the SDP thirty years ago would cause them to pause for thought. It merged with the Liberals, but the resultant Liberal-Democrat Party has become pure liberal. It has no significant remnant of the SDP’s attempt to save the values of the traditional Labour right. So it looks as though Corbyn is in for an uncomfortable ride of further criticism for as long as he is Labour leader.