Booker Prize Winner Howard Jacobson, who spent many years in Australia, discussed the ugly turn of events in UK Labour on the BBC.
Australian Labor is neck and neck with the Coalition for the forthcoming election. At the same time, British Labour is 5-10 points behind the Conservatives, even as the governing are Tories fighting each other over exiting the European Union. UK Labour should be well ahead.
Instead, the UK Labour Party is tearing itself apart in a terrible row, spiralling into an ever-darker debate about anti-Jewish bigotry.
In polite British society, some, a minority complain that accusations of anti-Semitism are made in bad faith to delegitimise criticism of Israel. Yet this is not what is happening in Britain. This debate on Labour’s attitudes towards Jews is so ugly that it may ruin the party’s prospects or at least consume the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.
Things are so bad that my friend, the mild-mannered Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group against Antisemitism, John Mann MP, screamed on camera “you’re a f—ing disgrace” at Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London. Livingstone had claimed that Hitler “was supporting Zionism”. Even for the modern British Labour Party, this went well and truly too far.
Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone (right) told the BBC on April 28 that Adolf Hitler “was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews”
Guardian Columnist Nick Cohen (who is not Jewish), reflected widespread disgust that the debate had descended to a point “where historians had to explain last week that if Montgomery had not defeated Rommel at El Alamein in Egypt, then the German armies would have killed every Jew that they could find in Palestine” (The Guardian, May 1). Actually, SS Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler had organised an Einsatzkommando (the shooting squads that operated on the Eastern Fronts, which murdered 1.5 million Jews) to follow the Afrika Korps into Palestine. (Jeffrey Herf, Fathom Journal)
Guardian Columnist Nick Cohen
Livingstone had been defending MP, Naz Shah, who he was adamant should not have been suspended “just because” she used social media to suggest that Israeli Jews should be “transported” to America, compared Israelis to Hitler, spread public warnings that the “Jews are rallying”, compared Zionism to al-Qaida and expressed concern that the Zionists are “grooming” Jews to “exert political influence at the highest levels of public office.”
Leading British intellectual, Professor Alan Johnson, has distilled the essence of some in UK Labour thus,
“Anti-Semitic anti-Zionism is not “criticism” of the occupation and the settlements. It is so much more. It cruelly distorts the very meaning of Israel and Zionism until both can be forced into the categories, tropes, images and ideas of classical anti-Semitism. In short, that which “the Jew” once was, a collective malevolence, the Jewish state now is.”
Last Wednesday, as Johnson laments, Naz Shah was Labour’s antisemitism crisis of the day. Next day, it was Livingstone. Before Shah, Johnson explained the anti-Jewish row focussed on the new National Union of Students President, Malia Bouattia. She had complained the University of Birmingham was a “a Zionist outpost” because it had the “largest Jewish Society in the country”. Before that there was a front page row over the Oxford University Labour Club, where their former Chairman, who is Jewish, resigned live on the BBC, citing harassment by Corbynistas singing “Rockets over Tel Aviv” and calling and disparaging their fellow Jewish undergraduates “Zios”.
Johnson says, “The old racist ideas about “the Jew” as an evil force, full of blood lust, all-controlling but hidden, and the only obstacle to a better, purer, and more spiritual world, can be thrown at the Jewish state.” He continues, “Anti-Semitic anti-Zionism has a political program: to abolish one state in the world, the little Jewish one formed after the Holocaust.”
UK Labour was captured by the far-left when Jeremy Corbyn was elected in a new system where anyone paying 3 pounds could join the party and have an equal vote for the leader as a Labour Member of Parliament. UK Labour abandoned the previous tripartite arrangement that elected its leaders – one-third Parliamentarians’ vote; one-third affiliated unions and one-third party membership.
The British media is shocked, shocked to find that anti-Semitism is going on in the Labour Party
Corbyn’s capture of Labour will be severely tested by imminent Council elections and the more momentous issue of whether Britain stays in Europe. Meanwhile, British Labour appears paralysed by this internecine, ideological infighting. As for the prospect of purging UK Labour of this bigotry, Nick Cohen laments, “The tasks facing Labour moderates seem impossible. They have to be attempted, however, for moral as much as electoral reasons”
Cohen spoke for all civilised people when he said: “Allow me to state the moral argument as baldly as I can. Not just in Paris, but in Marseille, Copenhagen and Brussels, fascistic reactionaries are murdering Jews – once again. Go to any British synagogue or Jewish school and you will see police officers and volunteers guarding them. I do not want to tempt fate, but if British Jews were murdered, the leader of the Labour party would not be welcome at their memorial. The mourners would point to the exit and ask him to leave.”
What a weird world, where the alternative Government of the mother of democracies in Westminster, the party of Wilson, Gaitskell, Blair and even Kinnock, has descended into such doctrinal depravity. By contrast, Australia is such a fortunate country. Whatever our domestic political differences, as we approach our national test of wills in a Federal Election, we will never sink as low as this sordid debate in UK Labour.
Hugh Gaitskell, Britain’s great post-World War II Labour leader, demanded that “we fight, fight and fight again to save the party we love.” He was right, and thank heavens Australian Labor is nothing like its current British counterpart. Bob Carr and his ilk are certainly not as bad or as much a diversion as Livingstone and co, but Labor in Australia is fighting to remain focussed on mainstream issues that affect all Australians, rather than immobilising itself with ideological splits. Labor in Australia is not reduced to fighting against the tide like the UK’s John Mann, Michael Dugher, John Spellar, Luciana Berger and many others. Under the capable leadership team of Bill Shorten, Tanya Plibersek, Penny Wong, Mark Dreyfus and Stephen Conroy, the ALP’s steadfast opposition to all forms of bigotry, including anti-Semitism, is not in question.
We are contesting the Turnbull Government on all the mainstream issues. Labor approaches an election against a first-term Government with a fighting chance for exactly that reason. There is no Corbyn/Livingstone road for Australian Labor. Our great country deserves better – indeed it needs, and is getting, a strong Labor party that will fight for the betterment of all Australians.
Michael Danby is the Federal Member for Melbourne Ports, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Opposition Leader, and a member of the ‘Inter-parliamentary Coalition for Combating Antisemitism’.